"Literacy in the United States" by Carl F.              Kaestle

Literacy in the United States Readers and Reading Since 1880 Carl F. Kaestle, Helen Damon-Moore, Lawrence C. Stedman, Katherine Tinsley

Publication date:
27 Jan 1993
Yale University Press
361 pages: 235 x 156mm


The United States is at a crucial moment in the history of literacy, a time when how well Americans read is the subject of newspaper headlines. In this insightful book, Carl F. Kaestle and his colleagues shed new light on this issue, providing a social history of literacy in America that broadens the definition of literacy and considers who was reading what, under what circumstances, and for what purposes.


The book explores diverse sources—from tests of reading ability, government surveys, and polls to nineteenth-century autobiographies and family budget studies—in order to assess trends in Americans’ reading abilities and reading habits. It investigates such topics as the relation of literacy to gender, race, ethnicity, and income; the magnitude, causes, and policy implications of the decline in test scores in the early 1970s; the reasons women’s magazines have been more successful than magazines for men; and whether print technology has fostered cultural diversity or consolidation. It concludes that there has been an immense expansion of literacy in America over the past century, against which the modest skill declines of the 1970s pale by comparison. There has also been tremendous growth in the availability, purchase, and use of printed materials. In recent decades, however, literacy has leveled and even declined in some areas of reading, as shown in the downward trends in purchases of newspapers and magazines. Since Americans are now being lured away from the print media by electronic media, say the authors, current worries about Americans’ literacy levels may well be justified.

Winner of the 1992-1993 Oustanding Book Award given by the History of Education Society

"Carl Kaestle and his coauthors bring clarity and sanity to the shrill and confused debate over the alleged decline of literacy in America. With scrupulous care, they assess existing claims about trends in literacy over time and the various theories and methods with which it is studied. They assemble the best available historical evidence about the uses of literacy, patterns of reading, and their relation to class, race, and gender. Less alarmist than many critics, although far from complacent, they mount a powerful argument for the promotion of a literacy both diverse and inclusive as a prerequisite for the preservation and extension of democracy."?Michael Katz, Stanley I. Sheer Professor of History and Director, Urban Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania

"[A] comprehensive study. . . . Kaestle . . . together with his research assistants, has investigated the history of literacy in the United States. Their efforts fill a gap in academic historical studies; until now, relatively little was known about trends in the reading habits and capabilities of Americans over the past century. . . . Fact-filled, with charts and tables of statistics, the book is an excellent reference. . . . This is a resource for now and future scholars."?Lisa Schiffman, San Francisco Review of Books

"In this comprehensive exploration of the history of literacy in America, Kaestle and his colleagues investigate numerous and varied sources, providing a clear picture of the affects of reading and literacy on a democratic society. . . . Their straightforward narrative gives necessary information without irrelevant details, and is complemented by a definitive bibliography. Recommended for historians, informed laypersons, and specialists in the field as well as those interested in the role of literacy in American society."?Library Journal

"[An] extremely significant work that librarians should read and understand. Kaestle, one of the premier scholars in the field, has assembled a series of ten essays, several of which he has coauthored with other scholars, dealing with historians and literacy, Americans' reading abilities, Americans' reading activities, and literacy and diversity in American history. His introduction essay recaps in succinct terms the enormous body of literature that now exists on the history of literacy. It does an outstanding job of summarizing the major interpretive questions that constitute the fundamental issues that scholars are now pursuing."?Norman Stevens, Wilson Library Bulletin

"[An] excellent collection of historical and research evidence about literacy."?Ralph C. Staiger, History of Reading News

"One of [education's] eminent historian/scholars has coauthored another ground-breaking text that both documents trends in literacy in the U. S. between the years 1880 through 1989 and helps the reader gain perspective on these trends. . . . Must reading for policymakers, academics, and students?upper-division undergraduate and graduate."?Choice

"Has a nicely articulated sense of the contradictory uses and meanings of literacy in the economic, political, and cultural arenas. . . . One of the book's major strengths is that it deflates the conservative view of a rapid downward spiral. . . . A significant accomplishment. . . . [It is] a book that will provide important material for nearly all future work on literacy. It should also be essential reading for all people concerned with educational policy and the current debates over literacy."?Michael W. Apple, Contemporary Sociology

"The most important book on reading achievement and reading patterns in modern America, or for that matter, anywhere in the developed world."?Harvey J. Graff, Journal of Social History

"Immensely informative and stimulating. . . . A splendid review of theoretical perspectives and models relevant to the analysis of reading. . . . There is much here that will be new to anyone with interests in literacy. . . . The achievement is immense."?John E. Craig, American Journal of Sociology

"This lively and informative work presents a fresh assessment of the literacy crisis in U.S. society. . . . A painstakingly researched and carefully documented book that educational and social historians should find particularly rewarding"?Victor D. Brooks, The Historian

"Well researched and especially lucid. . . . This book shows the signal value of historical perspective in understanding a major public policy issue."?William J. Gilmore-Lehne, Journal of American History

"Kaestle and his colleagues have written the most important book on reading achievement and reading patterns in modern America, or for that matter, anywhere in the developed world."?Harvey J. Graff, Journal of Social History

"This fascinating book brings together research on the history of literacy, particularly from 1880 to the present. . . . Should be read not only by historians but by all those concerned with the psychology and pedagogy of reading, by those responsible for policy decisions in education, and by those who are setting literacy standards for the nation."?Jeanne Chall, New England Quarterly

"Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is its subtle analysis of educational testing in the 20th century. Better than any other work, Literacy in the United States places into historical perspective the standardized testing of reading. Anyone concerned about the purported decline in reading skills in the 1970s should read this book."?David Paul Nord, American Journalism

"Kaestle's book breaks ground by crafting a view of reading in the United States in the past century. It is unparalleled in its attempt to bring together rich and imaginative sources of information about and methods for exploring the reading habits and achievements of Americans as well as in its attention to American literacy since 1880. . . . This monumental effort will stand as a benchmark in the interdisciplinary study of American reading in the past 100 years."?Deborah Keller-Cohen, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Literacy in the United States is a watershed book. Sophisticated and lucid in their use of theory, judicious in sifting new evidence, persuasive and eloquent in their analysis of policy, Carl Kaestle and his colleagues illuminate the history of readers and reading and in the process refocus the terms of contemporary debate."?David Tyack, Stanford University