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. …

We have been inundated with bad news regarding the American education system for decades. For example, in 1988, a mere 5 percent of seventeen-year-old high school students could read sufficiently to comprehend information disseminated in historical documents, college textbooks, or literary essays. …

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? 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.


In the Mid-Atlantic colonies during the pre-Revolutionary period, professional educators established numerous schools to satisfy widespread demand for education. Philadelphia, for instance, boasted schools for virtually every subject and interest.

Between 1740 and 1776, 125 private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers—this in a city whose population was miniscule relative to today. Professional educators provided mentoring services for English, contemporary foreign languages, science, and a wide variety of other topics.

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.”

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, written in plain style but enunciating sophisticated political principles, sold 120,000 copies during the colonial period to a (free) population of 2.4 million (akin to selling ten million copies today).

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.

Between 1818 and 1823, when the population of the United States was less than twenty million, Walter Scott’s novels sold five million copies (the equivalent of selling sixty million copies today). Early in the 19th century, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper likewise sold millions of copies.

The McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836, routinely used such terms as “heath” and “benighted” in third-grade texts. They asked such questions as “What is this species of composition called?” and gave such assignments as “Relate the facts of this dialogue.”