3.4.2: 1725 - 1830 - Education and literacy

Who was able to read in the period between 1725 and 1830 or, in other words, who were the potential readers?

For a long time, the criterion for reading and writing proficiency was the signature criterion. The data in the Amsterdam register of intended marriages, signed from 1578 onwards by those brides and bridegrooms who were able to do so, shows that the increase in literacy in the seventeenth century continued into the eighteenth century. In 1729/1730, 24% of bridegrooms and 49% of brides were unable to sign the register. Half a century later, in 1780, these percentages had dropped to 15% and 36% respectively. On the basis of this criterion, the Netherlands should have had a substantial potential reading public around the year 1800.

These percentages are in accordance with the national level of education in 1811. In that year two-thirds of the children in the appropriate age category attended primary school in the Netherlands. Secondary education, the French and grammar schools, was attended by no more than 1 in 20 children.

Statistics on the ability to write and school attendance do not say much, however, about the level of reading proficiency reached by children at the primary school. The French period may have brought with it an improvement in reading proficiency. In 1795, education and upbringing were made into a national task. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, education had primarily been the responsibility of the local authorities. In the old school, doctrinal religious education was the focal point and learning to read formed part of the religious upbringing. Writing and arithmetic literally came in second and third place; pupils learnt to read first and only afterwards to write and do arithmetic. In the new school, learning to read became part of one's upbringing to become a good citizen and patriot. The Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen (Society for public welfare) played a pivotal role in education reforms. The Society based its reforms on a child-oriented educational theory, emphasised the importance of comprehensive learning in a child-friendly environment and was of the opinion that education and upbringing of young people was a responsibility of the state. The Society's views resulted in a series of reforms, laid down in the Schools Acts of 1801, 1803 and 1806. For instance, class teaching was introduced as the new learning method, teachers were from then on required to have the necessary qualifications, school buildings were improved, a more humane system of punishment and rewards was introduced and the education inspection was established.

Improvement of the reading proficiency played a central role in the education reforms; the spelling method was replaced by the sound method. The changes in education also involved the introduction of a whole new generation of learning resources and schoolbooks, laid down in the official national list of titles from which school were required to choose.

Both primary and secondary education was dominated by non-vocational education. A trade was to be learnt after school, on the job. From the end of the eighteenth century, various forms of professional education were introduced, at the same time as the professionalisation of a series of trades. Vocational education was now also provided for the teachers themselves, at the teacher training college established in 1816 in Haarlem.

author: J. Brouwer

Education and literacy