Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Leigh's Thesis: Chapter 3 (9)


Founding Fathers (cont'd)

Former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin wrote about early America. “[A reading culture] was diffuse. Its center was everywhere because it was nowhere. Every man was close to what printed matter talked about.”(1)

Amazingly, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 100,000 copies within ninety days and up to 400,000 beyond March. According to Neil Postman, “The only communication event that could produce such a collective attention [in 1985] in today’s America is the Super Bowl.”(2) It would be like selling over twenty-four million copies today.

John Gatto points out that “20 percent of the purchasers were slaves and fifty percent were indentured servants.”(3) The average 12-year-old could and did read the following opening paragraphs of Common Sense:
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.(4)
Even today’s adult who enjoys reading would have a hard time with this style of writing and level of intellectualism. So when studying literacy rates, it’s important to acknowledge the proficiency level of the literate. Our most literate modern citizens are far less proficient than the average literate person of 250 years ago.

This literary feast did not end with the American Revolution. “[Harriet Beecher Stowe’s] Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 350,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of 4 million in today’s America.”(5) Remember, the cost of paper and transportation made books much more expensive than they are today. Between 1836 and 1890, 107 million copies of McGuffey Reader were distributed to schools. And Tocqueville and other European commentators were flabbergasted by the quantity of newspapers American purchased.

Parents acknowledged their responsibility when, according to John Gatto, “…the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod would not surrender its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.”(6) Today’s parents can’t wait to march their children to an institution.

“Yet it appears to me,” Gatto goes on, “as a school teacher [twice NY Teacher of the Year] that schools are already a major cause of weak families and weak communities. They separate parents and children from vital interaction with each other and from true curiosity about each other’s lives. Schools stifle family originality by appropriating the critical time needed for any idea of family to develop – then they blame the family for its failure to be a family.”(7)

I give these numbers and examples to dispel the myth that Americans are better educated than our early pioneers. It’s just not true. Universal literacy was normal in the United States before the 1950s. Christian leaders should expect believers to become proficient readers again.

(1) Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 315.
(2) Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 35.
(3) John Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Public Schooling (Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 1992), 13.
(4) Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776 (accessed 4 June 2008).
(5) Gatto, Dumbing Us Down, 13.
(6) Gatto, Dumbing Us Down, 74.
(7) Gatto, Dumbing Us Down, 74.

Copyright © 2009 by Leigh A. Bortins. All Rights Reserved.

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