Access and Assessment: A Cross-over View on

Access and Assessment: A cross-over view on literacy and knowledge
Literacy is the focal point in a broad range of debates. Cultural historians address literacy from the
perspective of education and cultural capital; economic historians see it as a proxy for human capital;
social historians as a sign of social mobility; and historians of communication and science connect it
to transformations in knowledge formation and epistemology. What most of these approaches have
in common, is that literacy, however defined, is mostly seen as something useful and precious. While
literacy was long equated by social and cultural historians with success and prosperity, a range of
economic historians now consider it a source of economic modernization and innovation. Historians
of science and knowledge have even related it to the emergence of abstract thinking and rationality.
Although such teleological and Eurocentric tendencies have often been criticized, especially in the
history of science and knowledge, residues of modernity narratives still influence our views.
Drawing on both socio-economic history and the history of science and knowledge, my paper will
qualify such views from two related perspectives. First, long term transformations related to access
to sources of knowledge will be reviewed. It will be shown that the apparent proliferation of books
and other sources of knowledge during the early modern context did not necessarily increase the
publicness of knowledge or result in a ‘democratization’ of knowledge. Secondly, a long term view on
the assessment of knowledge will show that transformations in the nature and embodiment of
knowledge has profound, and ambivalent, societal consequences. On one hand, it has had an impact
on the perception of hands-on skills and craftsmanship not to be defined in terms of success and
social mobility. On the other, literacy and the proliferation of books and other ‘modern’ media have
gravely impacted on sciences itself, including the humanities. From the latter point of view, qualifying
the triumphant accounts eventually implies a reflexive attitude, which is the ultimate aim of my