Southern Illiteracy: Its Cause And Cure -- By: W. E. C. Wright

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 044:175 (Jul 1887)
Article: Southern Illiteracy: Its Cause And Cure
Author: W. E. C. Wright


Southern Illiteracy: Its Cause And Cure

Rev. W. E. C. Wright

The illiteracy of the Southern States is not the accidental result of the war, though the disorganization of the war somewhat increased it. Nor is this illiteracy simply a circumstance of slavery. Its causes lie deeper and are intertwined with the causes of the war and of slavery, in the aristocratic constitution of Southern society.

From the start the Southern colonies inclined toward the classification of society. What attention the South gave to education was for the higher education of the few rather than the common education of the many. It is noticeable that although considerable funds for a college in Virginia were collected before any settlement had been made in Massachusetts, the death of a single man, Mr. George Thorpe, put off the project till fifty years after the founding of Harvard College.

The history of the two regions was still more divergent in the matter of common schools. The Massachusetts settlers took early steps to secure schooling for all children in the colony. A law of 1642—twelve years after the settlement— fined any citizen who neglected to teach his children and apprentices to read. Nine years later, system was introduced into public education by requiring every town of fifty inhabitants to maintain a common school, and every town of a hundred inhabitants, a grammar school, with a master able to fit youth for the university. Thus common school education for all the population grew up in Massachusetts with higher education for the few who could attend college. In Virginia

there was early talk of popular education, but Governor Berkeley’s famous remark in 1670 shows that nothing had been done up to that time. “I thank God,” said he, “there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years.”

The hope was substantially fulfilled. There were not wanting prominent men in Virginia who urged popular education. Patrick Henry, Washington, and Jefferson had many earnest allies in urging a system of general instruction, as essential to public security. During the Revolutionary war Jefferson agitated the matter, and in 1796 secured the adoption of a plan. As it did not require the maintenance of schools, but left each county to set them in motion, nothing came of it.

A new plan was tried in 1810, which succeeded only a little better, and the census of 1840 startled thoughtful Virginians by reporting nearly nineteen per cent, of her adult whites as unable to read. Vigorous efforts were made to improve the public schools. But the census of 1850 showed twenty per cent, of the white adults illiterate, and 1860 still recor...

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