Some 44 million American adults cannot read well enough to read a simple story to a child—and nearly half of adults in the United States are functionally illiterate, unable even to read a drug label.

By the 1980s, the ongoing decline of education in America prompted the infamous report by an investigative commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Published in 1983, its ominous opening line was “We are a nation at risk.” Even more baleful was its conclusion: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

Excerpts from "Heroes and Villains in American Education", The Objective Standard, Fall 2018

This dire warning, although well publicized, did no good. The Educational Testing Service reported in 1994 that 50 percent of college graduates in the United States could not read a bus schedule and “that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article.”

Why have we allowed this to happen to ourselves? Rather, why have we done this to ourselves? How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind?7 What caused this degradation?

Toward answering such questions, it is important to understand that American schools have not always been so bad. Indeed, at one time American education was superb.

Children who grew to be such brilliant scientists, writers, and statesmen as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were educated at home or in private schools.

Literacy levels of Revolutionary America were remarkably high. In 1731, Franklin helped start America’s first subscription library, and similar libraries spread throughout the colonies during his life. He later reflected, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, [and] made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.”

The Federalist essays, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in support of a constitution for the nascent republic, were published in newspapers—written for and read by the common man.

Sales of books and educational materials in the early- and mid-19th century likewise indicate a high national literacy level.

The fourth-grade reader included selections from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the fifth-grade text, readings from William Shakespeare. “These were not the textbooks of the elite but of the masses,” explains Thomas Sowell. “From 1836 to 1920, McGuffey’s Readers were so widely used that they sold 122 million copies.”

Given the high quality of education in early America, it is no surprise that two renowned Frenchmen who visited the United States reported on the phenomenon. In an 1800 book commissioned by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and titled National Education in the United States of America, Pierre Dupont de Nemours reported that Americans received an education far superior to that of other peoples. “Most young Americans,” he wrote, “can read, write, and cipher [i.e., do basic arithmetic]. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly.” Several decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were the most educated people in history.

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