When Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press during the Renaissance, it was a game-changer. Like the internet five centuries later, the printing press's influence altered the way people learned, shared knowledge, spread opinions and amused themselves. Its effects include the impact of the printing press on education, for example vastly increasing the number of people who learned to read.

The History of Literacy

Writing and reading go together. Without written material, there's no use to literacy; without readers, there's no use to writing anything. Both reading and writing depend on cultural developments such as a common set of symbols, like the modern alphabet.

Documents written in numbers go back as far as 8000 BC. The symbols ancient cultures used for numbers eventually became symbols for words as well, which led to the development of written text. Humans were reading and writing words by 3200 BC, but it was a rare skill, limited mostly to scribes, scholars and priests.

Ancient cultures employed a variety of systems and symbols in writing. They also used a variety of surfaces such as papyrus, clay, stone, paper and sheepskin. Without printing, everything had to be handwritten and, if duplicates were needed, hand-copied.

The Printing Press Pre-Renaissance

Gutenberg wasn't the first person to see the advantages of the printing press over copies made by hand. China developed woodblock printing probably by 600 AD. In this method, the printer etched an entire page into a block of wood, which could be inked and used to create multiple copies.

The block-printing press's influence was limited because creating one block per page took lots of time. It still made it easier to share information by producing copies of books on agriculture, medicine or religion. However, education and literacy remained the province of the upper classes, who believed peasants and workers had no need for such knowledge.

In the 11th century, the printer Bi Sheng invented the superior movable-type method, where multiple smaller blocks printed one character each. The advantages of a printing press of this sort was that by rearranging a set of blocks, they could print multiple different pages. As written, Chinese contains thousands of characters, so this didn't speed printing up as much as Gutenberg's movable type would later.

The Printing Press's Renaissance Beginning

The impact of the printing press on education became clear right away. While Gutenberg's printed Bible is his most famous creation, one of his first creations may have been a textbook. The Ars Minor was a fourth-century Latin work widely used in teaching Latin, the language of science and learning in Gutenberg's time.

Several printed copies of Ars Minor exist from the 14th century. It's possible, but not certain, that Gutenberg printed a run of the book before starting on his Bible. There was a guaranteed market for Ars Minor in schools, which would have helped Gutenberg raise money before investing in the bigger, ambitious Bible project.

However, it's also possible the printed Ars Minor from that era were run off after Gutenberg's Bible. After 550 years, it's hard to say for sure.

Gutenberg's Game-Changer

Gutenberg's printing press brought him immortal fame, but no money. One of his backers sued Gutenberg and won, taking possession of everything the printer owned. Gutenberg died in poverty in 1468. By that time, the printing press had caught on and presses were operating across Europe.

The impact of the printing press on society was due to the advantages of the printing press over hand-copying.

  • A printing press could create many more copies at a faster rate than even the best scribes. 

  • Printed copies are more accurate. With manuscripts copied by hand, errors creep in as copyists misread the original, or put down the wrong words, letters or figures. 

  • Printing could reach more people, over a wider area, than having one person instruct or teach others.  

  • Knowledge passed on orally, or from scribe to scribe, had grown increasingly fragmentary and corrupted over time. The printing press made it possible to collect and organize knowledge and pass it on intact. 

Historians still debate whether the printing press's influence was felt immediately, or gradually over the next couple of centuries.

Literacy and Printing

Handwritten books were slow and expensive to make. Only the wealthy could afford them, so there was no incentive for most people to learn to read. Printing made it possible to mass-produce books the public could afford; by 1500 there were 15-20 million copies of 30,000-35,000 publications.

Part of the impact of the printing press on education was that it gave people a reason to become literate. Protestant Christianity, which taught that everyone should and could read the Bible themselves, gave European Christians an added incentive to learn. Protestant churches promoted education and started Sunday schools for children who worked during the week.

While textbooks were originally printed in Latin, most people spoke in their country's native tongue. This led to printers translating Latin texts into English, French and other languages. Literacy spread as more people were able to read in their own tongue.

Educational Advantages of Printing Press

Before the printing press, knowledge spread orally or through expensive handwritten books. The printing press made it possible to educate people faster than ever before. New ideas and knowledge could be shared with more people than even the best teacher could hope to reach in their lifetime.

The printing press also changed the teaching process itself, particularly in technical subjects. Printed textbooks could reproduce complex diagrams in engineering, mathematical or architectural works much more accurately and efficiently than a copyist. Students could learn from studying their textbooks, even without a teacher present.

A well-written book could gather together more knowledge than the teacher possessed. Updated editions of mathematical texts made it possible for students to surpass not only their teachers but the wisdom of the ancients. Students across Europe could discuss the ideas they read, confident they were drawing on identical copies of the books.

Printing Problems

In the 21st century, anyone doing research on the internet has to be wary of false or inaccurate websites. It's possible that the printing press' influence sometimes worked against education the same way.

Mass-producing books doesn't improve knowledge if the information in the books is wrong. Printed books could popularize long-held, inaccurate beliefs, support prejudices and make errors seem like authoritative facts. Some historians believe that at times, printing supported resistance to new ideas and theories rather than encouraging change.

While printing went a long way towards standardizing texts, it wasn't perfect. Different updated editions of various texts changed as publishers and authors decided what to keep or what to leave out. Even a single print run might change, as printers spotted errors and changed the book to correct them.

Forbidden Knowledge

From the viewpoint of people in power, the impact of the printing press on society had other drawbacks. Along with books, printers turned out magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and flyers. Many of them expressed views that churches and governments took issue with, and increased literacy made it possible to spread their heresies across the continent.

Prior to the French Revolution, for instance, customs inspectors went over shipments of books arriving in France from other countries. Books the monarchy or the Catholic Church considered objectionable or subversive were either destroyed, returned to sender or sold discreetly, without advertising. The efforts at suppression, however, did not stop the Revolution from coming.