Baltic States Have the Highest Literacy Rates in the World

Perched high atop the list of countries with the most literate people in the world are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania... and North Korea. While the first three have some solid proof behind the statistics, the fourth makes the list based on more dubious claims.

Students meeting in library
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania consistently top the list of the countries with the highest literacy rates in the world. Photo: iStock.com / Franckreporter

The list of countries with the most significant number of educated people is quite crowded. It is also quite diverse: according to some sources or claims, including tiny European countries, such as Andorra and Liechtenstein, as well as, perhaps to some surprise, North Korea and Kazakhstan. However, what’s consistent on the World Bank and Unesco lists is the constant presence of the Baltic countries, which have a literacy rate as high as 99.9%. (*North Korea remains unmatched at 100%).

Baltic States literacy: a tradition, if you will

You can call it a tradition. Even in the 19th century, the Baltic region – then part of the Russian Empire – was at the forefront of education. According to one survey from 1897 that covered the entirety of the Russian Empire, only 28 percent of people above the age of 10 had attained the ability to read. Even taking a look exclusively at the European side of Russia, the results were not much better, with only one in three people being literate.

However, in the Baltic region, home to modern-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the literacy level reached a whopping 92-95%, depending on the province. This was especially true in the region where the current country of Estonia sits, which was known as the seat of science.

Tartu University was founded there three times by rulers of three different countries, and it was there where Friedrich Struve first determined the length of the meridian arc. It was also the university of choice for the person who discovered ovaries

First in the Union

In the second half of the 20th century, the statistics get even better. Even though the three Baltic states differ in educational policies, all of them rank very highly in many aspects of the educational system. According to some studies, 90% of Estonian adults have at least a secondary education, and the average number of books per household is 174 – both higher than the average European country. By comparison: the OECD average is 75%, and the G20 average – 60%.

Perestroika, a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the late 1980s, gave all three countries the spark to ignite educational reforms. Though led in different ways – they all shared the same spirit of giving incentives to people to educate themselves. These efforts have paid off, with the Baltic countries serving as success stories in developing the literacy of the people.

But do they actually share this success with North Korea? Well, there’s some doubt to it. Most of the factbooks don’t lead the surveys themselves but rather include information from country declarations. And, at least according to one claim, to call yourself literate in North Korea, one has only to be able to write Kim Jung Un’s name: 김정은.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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