Knowledge, skills and attitudes embodied in man figure prominently in most definitions of human capital. And yet, there is a split among scholars from different fields � historians, economists, psychologists, etc � � regarding the actual meaning, measurement and effects of two parallel and related phenomena: the rise of universal literacy and the birth and expansion of the school system as we know it today. This paper considers that literacy is a �general skill� needed to gain access to the increasing body of knowledge relevant to the way man relates to his environment in his quest for survival, rather than a �specific� skill only applicable to particular situations, and that both becoming literate and accessing larger sets of knowledge may alter attitudes at the individual and social level. It is argued that literacy is a multipurpose skill and its usefulness depends upon the size of available knowledge. Unless there is such a substantial body of useful knowledge, on the one hand, and the economic, social and political incentives allowing free-for-all access to it are in place, acquiring literacy � whether in or out of the school � may have limited uses, meaning or effects. Not surprisingly, the final drive towards universal mass literacy and the expansion of the modern school system are intimately related with the modern era ushered in by the Scientific, Industrial and Political Revolutions which, from the seventeenth century on, have expanded our knowledge base and have set the economic, social and political institutions favorable to its further expansion.