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The development of a literate society: A case study: Western Australia 1850-1910

Reeves, Noelene (1993) The development of a literate society: A case study: Western Australia 1850-1910. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Literacy, the ability to read and write, is now considered an essential social skill and the right of individuals. Yet, this was not always so. A ‘literate society’, where the expectation that essential day-to-day communications between its members can be conducted solely through print, belongs to the twentieth century. It is a very different environment from a society where literacy is significant yet it is socially acceptable, indeed socially demanded, for elements of the society to remain illiterate. Such was the historical experience when to be literate meant to possess power and high social status. A contemporary society which has become print-dependent expects its members to be literate and makes literacy acquisition by children compulsory. Negative social judgements are made about those who are not functional in literacy. More importantly, social disadvantage accrues to those who cannot adequately participate in activity requiring literacy. So how, when and why did such a fundamental change in attitudes and experience occur?

The thesis explores the experience of one small, isolated English-speaking colonial settlement mapping the intrusion of literacy into all levels of that society and the responses of people traditionally non-literate. It seeks to explain why reading and writing tuition was given to the ‘lower orders’ and why literacy was ultimately accepted universally by Western Australians. It seeks to understand what value was placed on literacy by the illiterate and less literate, how well these people could read and write and the degree of their participation in literacy exchanges. It hypothesises that social acceptance and participation depended on the recipients of instruction recognising that a personal need could be met, not the perceptions or stated reasons of the providers who endeavoured to instruct through a range of institutions throughout the period. It concludes that, in Western Australia, those needs were not religious, not political or judicial, not educational as may have been the case elsewhere, but primarily commercial and functional. When shopping in expanded and flourishing communities stimulated by the discovery of gold, adults needed to respond to the print (and associated graphics) identifying essential and desirable commodities and services. Adult awareness and skill development led to wider commercial usage and encouraged parents to ensure children attended school regularly and stayed longer, thus providing the context for greater social usage as reflected in advertising and the environment. Western Australia became a literate society between 1895 and 1905 when the social barriers erected on both sides that had prevented earlier participation finally gave way. The thesis recognises, however, that in a literate society literacy and its uses are still social markers that lead to inequality and disadvantage.

A detailed examination of data uses accepted literacy measures, such as statistical registers, education reports and signatures, explores the less frequently utilised measure of environmental print and draws on the researcher’s experience as a reading educator and researcher to make assessments about nineteenth century literacy and literacy education.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Social Sciences
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Layman, Lenore
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