Aristotle and Alexander from BL Royal 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail), c. 1420, unknown, British Library, Public Domain Mark

The invention of the printing press played a vital part in the rise of general literacy. Educationalists were often religious people who wanted children to be able to read the Bible, so they demanded that schools be established as early as the 16th century. Because most of the schools were controlled by the Church, religious ideas strongly influenced the rise of literacy. The number of literate individuals grew remarkably over the next few centuries across Europe, and the spread of religious texts and of knowledge in general became unimaginable without the use of printed media.

Published requests for the establishment of schools demonstrate how new ideas of general education led to social changes. Proposal for civilizing the Highlands by erecting schools, which was published circa 1695, recognised the value of education to make people in the Highlands (the northwest region of Scotland) understand their duty as good subjects of the newly crowned Protestant King. It proposed that the Catholic, Gaelic-speaking Highlanders be taught by Protestant teachers in free schools, and that Gaelic-speaking teachers be maintained at colleges and divinity schools.

While initially, the motivation was religious, from the Enlightenment onward, calls for education tied in with social ideas of education for all and with the notion that knowledge had to be shared. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous treatise Émile, ou De l’éducation (1762) was founded on the philosopher's deep conviction that human beings are innately good at birth and are corrupted by society. This corresponded to British ideas elaborated by John Locke and John Lancaster among others, who stressed the role of education in creating enlightened human beings.

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1791 - 1795, Pierre Michel Alix, after Jean François Garnerey, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain Mark
Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1791 - 1795, Pierre Michel Alix, after Jean François Garnerey, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain Mark

When religious concerns and Enlightenment ideas merged, new paths were opened to the understanding that knowledge should be shared and education made available for all, including not only children, but adults as well. Pamphlets and calls for education not only moulded public opinion, but also had an impact on legislatures. For instance, the pamphlet Sabbath Schools considered (1827) promoted schools for adults—they were meant to not only combat ignorance, but also to teach some understanding of their responsibilities as parents towards their children.

Sabbath Schools, 1827, Rev. George Tod, National Library of Scotland, Public Domain Mark
Sabbath Schools, 1827, Rev. George Tod, National Library of Scotland, Public Domain Mark