Literacy Then and Now

A Study of Modern and Contemporary Literacy Practices

by Alice S. Horning (Author)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 218 Pages


This book argues that the psycholinguistic nature of literacy is universal and seeks to recouperate late nineteenth and early twentieth century techniques for addressing it. After defining the key terms of this study, the book goes onto survey various types of literacy education in the United States. First, it examples various religious organization and their methods for supporting literacy, focusing on the main religious groups in the United States in the Modern period: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The book then discusses contributions made by NGOs, demonstrating the importance and limitations of reading groups, literary societies, settlement houses, unions, and corporations. Finally, the book examines government managed educational programs in K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities.Ultimately, this book argues, the psycholinguistic character of reading remains consistent over time, place and delivery syste. While sponsors play a key role, self-motivation is a driving force in literacy development. Although literacy education is in an on-going state of transition, the need for critical literacy continues to be an urgent, widespread and essential goal.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Literacy Then and Now
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Religious Organizations’ Support for Literacy
  • Chapter 3: Non-Governmental Organizations and Literacy
  • Chapter 4: Governmental Organizations and Literacy
  • Chapter 5: Literacy in K–12 Schools
  • Chapter 6: College and University Literacy
  • Chapter 7: Literacy Then and Now: Convergence
  • Appendix: Selected Dates of Key Events in US History 1880–1930
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


Figure 2.1:Chautauqua Recognition Ceremony
Figure 3.1:Women’s Press Cover Page
Figure 4.1:Library of Congress Reading Room 1901
Figure 5.1:The High School of Commerce, New York City, 1903
Figure 6.1:Harvard University Entry Gate, 1902

← ix | x →

← x | xi →


Like any project of this kind, this book has benefitted from the incredible generosity of a number of people interested in literacy history and development. I have been struck over and over when I have contacted scholars, librarians and others by their willingness to talk with me, to share resources and to provide guidance in my research. My thanks go to all of the following people who have helped in various ways as the book has developed from idea to final draft.

For help with the proposal and what became Chapter 1, Professor Elizabeth Allan, Oakland University; Professor Anne Ruggles Gere, University of Michigan.

For help with Chapter 2: Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, Congregation Shir Tikvah; Professor Sally Howell, University of Michigan Dearborn; Dr. Marc Loustau, College of the Holy Cross; Dr. Eric Lorey, Cranbrook Schools; Professor Carol Mattingly, University of Louisville; Imam Achmat Salie, University of Detroit/Mercy; Mr. Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua Institution Archivist; Dr. Mary Lee Talbot, historian for the Chautauqua Alumni Association, and a historian of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles.

For help with Chapter 3: Ms. Cara Setsu Bertram, archivist at the American Library Association; Professor Dan Clark, Oakland University; Professor William Fitzgerald, Rutgers University; Ms. Amy Hague, Smith College. ← xi | xii →

For help with Chapter 4: Dr. Ellen Cushman, Northeastern University; Ms. Amy Horning, Medford, MA Public Library; Dr. Carl Kaestle, Brown University; Mr. Doug Koschik, Baldwin Public Library, Birmingham, Michigan; Professor Paula Watson, University of Illinois.

For help with Chapter 5: Dr. Deborah-Lee Gollnitz, Birmingham, Michigan Public Schools; Ms. Whitney Rauenhorst, University of Chicago Press; Professor Stephen Tchudi, University of Nevada, Reno.

For comments on the whole manuscript: Professor Ellen Carillo, University of Connecticut; Professor Norbert Elliot, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Professor Martha Townsend, University of Missouri; Professor Edward White, University of Arizona. And of course thanks to the folks at Peter Lang: Mr. Michael Doub, Ms. Kathryn Harrison, and Ms. Jackie Pavlovic.

Surely my biggest debt goes to my editor, Professor Len Podis, professor emeritus at Oberlin College. Everything I have ever written has benefitted from good editing, and that is no less true of this book. Like some other editors I have been lucky to work with, Professor Podis has been an especially helpful “guide on the side,” offering many, many suggestions on both content and phrasing as well as on condensing my somewhat pudgy first draft to meet contract guidelines. His advice has been careful, thoughtful and most constructive and I am 100% certain this book is much better because of his expertise. Errors, omissions, and other flaws are, of course, mine alone.

← xii | 1 →



At the entryway of the Tate Modern art museum in London, a display on the walls presents the names of key cultural figures (artists and others) by decade, in the period covered by the museum, from 1900 to 2000, including photographers like Stieglitz and Steichen, painters like Klee and Matisse, and muralists like Rivera. If the display started in 1880, it would surely list all of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (Monet, Renoir) and many others. If the display were to include others in various areas of cultural and intellectual activity, there would not be enough room on the walls for all of the brilliance of the period from 1880 to 1920 or 1930. Whether in the sciences, the social sciences or the humanities, 1880–1930 is a period of enormous intellectual activity and achievement. When I visited the Tate Modern a few years ago, I was reminded that for my entire career, I have been fascinated by this period of time. My goal in this project is to explore the contribution and relationship of the rise of literacy in the population at large to the stunning and wide-ranging achievements of this period in the US. My research demonstrates that the growth of widespread literacy in the Modern period provided fertile ground on which the great intellectual accomplishments were built. The book will consider what insights and lessons arise from the earlier time that might address the key challenges to literacy in what Wired magazine founding editor Kevin ← 1 | 2 → Kelly has called the “attention economy” of contemporary society, discussed in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016). While there have been claims of a literacy “crisis” at various points in the recent past, I intend to argue that there is not a “crisis” now but a literacy transition going on; this transition has important implications for both education and democratic society. It may well be akin to the concept of a “paradigm shift” following the ideas of Thomas Kuhn in his highly regarded study of scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1970).

My study will show that the more intensive reading and writing practices of the Modern period, supported by sponsors (Brandt, 2001) set the stage for the array of achievements across varied intellectual fields. Some of these practices continue in the present day, but some have been lost for a variety of reasons. There are useful lessons to be learned from exploring the Modern period to see the gains and losses from this intellectually rich time. The array of literacy developments and supports of the Modern period provide important insights that can help us understand the literacy transition happening now. Before looking at the specific developments of these intellectually vibrant years in the US and Europe to some extent, it is essential to set up some clear boundaries in terms of definitions of Modernism, literacy, and transition, in terms of the issues of measurement and methodology as used here and by literacy supporters over time, and in terms of the controversies and issues focused on literacy that developed in the Modern period and that affect Contemporary thinking.

Key Issues: Defining Modernism, Literacy, and Transition

This book has two focal points: Modernism and literacy. The meaning of the term transition to capture the present situation is also essential to this discussion. Both Modernism and literacy have multiple denotations and connotations, so their assorted definitions provide the base for this discussion. It will be useful to have clear definitions of these terms as the launch point. Definitions of both words do not exist in a vacuum, but arise from the context in which they are offered. Distinguished Yale psychologist and historian Peter Gay wrote extensively about Modernism in his 2008 book and various other publications. In this work, he suggests that Modernism is easier to demonstrate by examples than it is to define. But he also says that as a movement ← 2 | 3 → or period, “It produced a fresh way of seeing society and the artist’s role in it, a fresh way of valuing words of culture and their makers. In short, what I am calling the Modernist style was a climate of thought, feeling, and opinion” (p. 3). Gay goes on to say that there are two “defining attributes” (p. 3) of Modernists—they were generally heretics, abandoning conventional trends of various kinds, and they engaged in deep and serious self-scrutiny (pp. 3–4). The new and unconventional were typical of various artists, thinkers, architects, and the like. Gay writes: “Each Modernist instance, whether from 1880 or 1920, confronted, fascinated, or repelled contemporaries—whether experienced as urbane or primitive, authentic or fraudulent, magnificent or quite simply incomprehensible” (p. 9). Assorted explanations help to account for why these features appear in the 1880–1930 period: World War I certainly played a role, as did various technological developments such as radio, telephone, and film. Scholars may quibble about the dates for both the start and end of Modernism, and the dates I’ve used are somewhat arbitrary. However, this fifty year period does comprise a time of intense, high-level intellectual activity in many realms.

University of Wisconsin education historian and literacy scholar Carl Kaestle points out that by 1880, the starting point of this study, the country was past most of the work of post-Civil War Reconstruction and basically stable. He further says “We begin in 1880, when the population was broadly if not highly literate, and the nation was on the verge of a rapid expansion of popular printed material and a slower but steady expansion of secondary education” (1991, pp. xiv–xv). Similar trends were unfolding across Europe according to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (2011), writing about his proposed Humanitarian Revolution to which reading contributed in important ways. Pinker shows a rise of literacy rates and an increase in book publication rates, both of which he says contribute to the decline in violence as readers develop a stronger sense of empathy with others. Though his claims are somewhat controversial (see, for example, a critical review by psychologist Robert Epstein (2011) and some contrary claims pointing to increases in violence tied to climate change by Hsiang et al. (2011)), the data on the increase in literacy rates and book publication appear to be accurate. In describing the United States, Kaestle goes on to say

We are impressed by the importance of reading in giving individuals a sense of political agency, in connecting them to cultural traditions, and in enhancing their opportunity to succeed in the job market. High levels of literacy are also crucial to our collective political and economic fate. (1991, p. xix) ← 3 | 4 →

Kaestle’s collection explores the role of increasing literacy in various aspects of American society in this period of time.


XIV, 218
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 218 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Alice S. Horning (Author)

Alice S. Horning is Professor Emerita of Writing and Rhetoric/Linguistics at Oakland University. Her Ph.D. is from Michigan State University where she started her career focusing on the intersection of reading and writing. Her work has appeared in the major professional journals and in books.


Title: Literacy Then and Now
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