Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Industrial Revolution and Literacy - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
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The Industrial Revolution and Literacy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Industrial Revolution and Literacy
“Literacy and the Industrial Revolution.” The Economic History Review (August 1978): 369–383.
This article examines the extent and timing of literacy changes in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and their relationship to economic growth.
Some British historians contend: (1) that literacy deteriorated during the Industrial Revolution; (2) that growth produces literacy rather than that literacy is a prerequisite of growth (Bowman and Anderson, “Concerning the Role of Education in Development,” in Geertz, ed., Old Societies and New States, New York, 1963, conclude that a literacy rate of 30–40 per cent was a necessary condition for a country to make a significant breakthrough in per capita income); and (3) that the provision of education by private interests was inadequate.
West begins by showing that the relatively high rates of illiteracy recorded in Lancashire were exceptional and were the result of the very high rate of immigration, especially from Ireland, into that county. He also shows, however, that even Lancashire lay within the 30–40 per cent range.
He then goes on to argue that the male literacy rate was stable from about 1740 to 1790 when it began to rise significantly. Thus, despite unprecedented population increase from 1760 on, the male literacy rate in England was maintained and before half the “revolution” was over it began to increase. The date of upturn, 1790, marked the beginning also of the large-scale factory system and the widespread commercial use of steam power.
The fact that literacy started to increase as early as 1790 indicates that the means of increasing it had begun to grow too. That implies in turn that private schooling was becoming increasingly available to all classes of the population.
Turning to schooling, as distinct from literacy, West rejects the view that the schools which taught only literacy skills were not well patronized and argues that parents invested “widely and voluntarily” in a type of education which had a literary rather than a practical orientation.
He then proceeds to deal with the contention that the working class was precluded from education in the private schools and had to wait until the authorities provided “free” education. He argues that the evidence suggests that a very high proportion of all children were attending school long before schooling became free and compulsory.
The Forster Education Act was passed in 1870 but it was several years before it had any significant effect on the actual provision of schools and schooling because it took a good deal of time to establish school boards, build schools, etc. Hence its effects could not begin to be felt until well into the 1870s. Yet the evidence strongly suggests that before 1879 something of the order of 90 per cent of the population was literate.