Interesting Literacy Statistics

Posted on January 15, 2014


I’ve been reading through John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of Education in America which was published in 2000. It has some interesting statistics on literacy rates in the US and other countries:

  • During WWII (1939-1945) the military reported a 96% literacy rate among those applying for service
  • During the Korean War (1950-1953) the military reported an 81% literacy rate
  • During the Vietnam War (1956-1975) the military reported an 73% literacy rate
  • The Connecticut Census in 1840 showed a literacy rate of 99.9%
  • Literacy rates for all states was at 96% for whites, 80% for blacks in 1940
  • National Adult Literacy Survey in 2000 shows a literacy rate of 83% for whites and 60% for blacks
  • In 2000 literacy rate in Jamaica (largely black) was 98.5%
  • In 2000 literacy rates among incarcerated violent criminals was 20%

I did my best to pull out all of the stats I could find, as the book presents them in various formats throughout a chapter.

The book provides some insights in to why the literacy rates have dropped, primarily focusing on what was considered “appropriate” reading early in the 19th century compared to today (people were reading much more complicated material back then), and the potentially humiliating effect of schooling on those who may struggle to read early on, potentially causing them to give up.



I’m finding some conflicting reports on this. Here are some other sources:

It seems the definition of literacy and the means by which the reporting was done (self-reported vs. some other mechanism) is at the heart of the inconsistency. It’s a bit hard to know what’s more accurate. I’d take it all with a grain of salt…