Why you should care
Because reading is a right that not everyone gets to enjoy, and you should know that.
In 1862, during the early years of the American Civil War, an enslaved African American harbor pilot aboard the Confederate steamship the CSS Planter decided to take a gamble on freedom. On May 13, Robert Smalls waited for the white crew to go ashore before slipping on a captain’s coat and hat and sailing the vessel — as well as several enslaved crew and their families — to free waters in Charleston Harbor.
Smalls didn’t simply want to liberate his physical being, he wanted to liberate his mind. Among other things, he wanted the freedom to read and write — acts that were denied many slaves in the South, where several state statutes made it illegal to teach African Americans to read or write, claiming the act would “excite dissatisfaction in their minds” and “produce insurrection and rebellion.”
“You’re fed and nourished with education, but you’re born with intelligence. And Robert Smalls knew he wanted to be free,” recalls Michael B. Moore, Smalls’ great-great-grandson and CEO of Charleston’s forthcoming International African-American Museum. Smalls received a reward for delivering the CSS Planter to the Union Army.
“One of the first things he did with that money was not just hire one tutor, but two tutors. He met with one at 5 o’clock in the morning and the other in the evening to learn the things he’d been prevented from learning,” says Moore. Smalls later went on to become a politician in South Carolina and ushered in legislation for the first free, statewide school system in the nation.
Barring access to literacy, notes Moore, is about keeping subjugated groups “focused on only the things society wants you to focus on.” It’s a common tactic that’s been employed by certain ruling parties for centuries.
In 19th-century England, fears over women reading hit hysterical highs. Doctors — male and female — worried novels’ sensational plots could make ladies insane, infertile or prematurely “developed” (there were no such worries about men, whose constitutions were believed to be stronger). In reality, the fear may have been more that women would form ideas that exceeded their station.
“There were a lot of anxieties around fiction, in particular that it would lead women to be dissatisfied with their lives,” explains Kate Flint, provost professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of The Woman Reader. “The more interesting female leads were rebellious and pushed back against convention. There was concern over the kind of expectation women might derive from what they read.”
Rather than deter women, however, this gendered anti-literacy campaign just raised awareness that it was an activity they could pursue, and soon Victorian women were forming “reading circles,” which accomplished exactly what it was feared they would.
Banning reading was one small part of an overwhelming policy of preventing independent thought.
Philip Short, former BBC correspondent
“These circles allowed women to fashion their own identities and collective community, and a sense of their world apart from men,” says Catherine Golden, author of several books on Victorian and feminist literature and professor of English at Skidmore College. In 1850, the Public Libraries Act made reading free and accessible — helping pave the way for the feminist movement. In the 1860s, highly literate activists like Emily Davies, who helped found women’s discussion group the Kensington Society, started campaigning for admission to higher education and the right to vote.
An Education Denied
Modern history, sadly, is no less rife with anecdotes of oppressed groups violently denied their right to an education. In one of the most extreme cases, the Khmer Rouge — the brutal political party that ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 — banned almost the entire population from reading (propaganda journals were permitted to party officials). The regime wasn’t just worried about its population sharing ideas; it was worried about them having them.
“Knowledge was deemed unnecessary,” says Philip Short, a former BBC correspondent who wrote the biography Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. “Banning reading was one small part of an overwhelming policy of preventing independent thought. You weren’t allowed to think, let alone say.” The government’s ideology hinged on destroying the individual — friendship, family ties and your own identity were all forbidden.
Today, one of the most nefarious adversaries to female education is the Taliban in Pakistan, which in 2012 shot (and nearly killed) schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai. The Taliban in Afghanistan has also carried out attacks on girls’ schools, poisoning water supplies and spraying classrooms with toxic material. It is a tactic that has proved counterproductive, says Anders Fänge, the country director for NGO the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA). In the 1990s, Taliban leaders let Fänge secretly run girls’ schools in rural provinces.
“They said they didn’t want their women to go to male doctors. So you asked them, ‘Where do you think female doctors will come from if women can’t go to school?’ And of course they had no answers,” he recalls.
Bill Teale, president of the board at the International Literacy Association, notes that, while literacy “gives you the social emotional power to understand and express yourself, it also gives you political power.” And if the actions of oppressive regimes are anything to go by, it’s a very potent power indeed.