Back in the early years of the last century, a young Kentucky elected official, Cora Wilson Stewart, met a young man who sang a moving ballad. She asked the young man for a copy of the song, only to be told that he could not produce one because he could neither read nor write.
Incidents such as that spurred Wilson Stewart, the Superintendent of Public Schools for Rowan County, to take action.
Advocates of Adult Literacy and Adult Education will find Cora Wilson Stewart: Crusader Against Illiteracy by Willie Nelms, M.A., M.S.L.S., to be an interesting and, at times, thought-provoking read. The book is a reminder that, despite all that has changed in the century since Ms. Wilson Stewart started her literacy crusade what has not changed is the toll that illiteracy takes on people, regardless of whether they live in mountainous Appalachia or inner-city DC or Baltimore.
Illiteracy among the US population in 1910 was estimated to be at 7.7% by the US Census Bureau. Back then, the Census Bureau considered a person to be illiterate if he or she could not write their name in any language. "This rudimentary definition meant that the actual number of people who did not have literacy skills adequate to function in society was much higher," insists Nelms.
Appalachia was a laggard in development, but there were those public officials, such as Wilson Stewart, superintendent of schools for the eastern Kentucky county of Rowan, who realized that the world was changing and Appalachia would need to change to keep pace. Nelms writes,"[F]amily disputes often escalated into feuds that placed entire areas under the threat of violence. Because of the isolation of the area, civil leaders came to reflect family rivalries and local politics mirrored these disputes." Kentucky historian Robert Ireland even compared the feuding to medieval times, citing the similar lack of respect for civil authority and reliance on assassinations.
but a call of the different classes; the appeal of illiterate
mothers, separated from their absent children father than sea
or land or any other condition than death had the power to
divide them; the call of the middle-aged men, shut out from
the world of books and unable to read the Bible or the news-
paper or to cast their votes in secrecy and security; the call
of illiterate youths and maidens who possessed rare talents,
which, if developed, might add treasures to the world of art,
science, literature and invention."
Wilson Stewart was inspired to start the famous Moonlight Schools to begin teaching Rowan County adults with below basic literacy skills how to read and write. From that, she became a recognized crusader for Adult Literacy and Adult Education in her state, then the nation, and ultimately, internationally. Ironically, Wilson Stewart, smart and ambitious as she was, eventually saw her views conflict with those of Adult Educators who had more formal educational credentials.
At LVA, we harness the best of both. The energy and altruistic commitment that volunteers offer to help our adult learners to master basic skills in individual tutoring sessions as well as the professionals who are credentialed, possess classroom experience in teaching, and share that energy and concern.
It bears noting that most adult learners in DC lead relatively conventional lives, caring for their families, involved in the community and church, often holding jobs or retired from long years of work. Right now, tens of thousands of DC residents lack strong basic literacy skills, hindering their ability to effectively care for their families and to succeed in life. Sometimes lurking behind the violence that has afflicted inner-city neighborhoods is illiteracy and thwarted potential to advance one’s position in life.
Nelms book is a reminder that there is still a great deal of work to be done to erase the literacy inequality gap that afflicts our city and many others. It also is a reminder that illiteracy does not just impact cities but also rural areas. The Appalachian Poverty Project in discussing poverty in Pike County, in an undated blog entry, paints a picture that should sound familiar to DC advocates for Adult Education and Adult Literacy:
high school diplomas and less than 10% have college
degrees. This number is skewed by the fact that the
county has a prosperous town with a hospital, doctors,
lawyers and merchants. The difference between the
haves and have nots is extreme."
If there is a lesson about the work of Stewart Wilson, it is that Americans should feel a sense of urgency in combating this national problem which hinders the potential of so many Americans to succeed. That sense of urgency needs to be balanced by patience and perseverance because many adult learners must struggle to master lessons that can be daunting and challenging. Yet, people do succeed and it is with pride that LVA can point to many examples of how we have helped DC residents to more fully enjoy the promise of American life.
Literacy Advocates who would like to read this book can obtain it through the DC Public Library.
A recently released report
from the US Department of Education's Office of Career, Technical, and Adult
Education demonstrates why the work that LVA and LVA volunteers do is so
"Making Skills Everyone's Business" details the need for "upskilling" America's workforce.
At LVA, many DC adults come to us to improve their basic reading and writing skills in the hope that it will help to provide them with a better foothold in the job market. The "foundation skills" of literacy, numeracy, and basic workplace protocols is extremely important. Unfortunately, too many DC -- and US -- adults are lacking in such skills and the result is not only poor employment prospects for those adults but even basic living skills.
Many Americans would be surprised to learn that, according to the 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey, 17.5% of Americans ages 16-65 have low literacy. Even in DC, often heralded as one of the nation's most literate cities, the most widely cited data from the last decade found a similar percentage of DC adults with low literacy skills.
What's the cost?
The report notes the intergenerational problem of low skills. Low skilled adults are likely to have parents with similar low skills. Even though many have completed high school they are often working for low wages.
"Making Skills Everyone's
U.S. adults with low levels of education who have parents with low levels of education are 10 times more likely to have low skills than are those who have higher-educated parents. This intergenerational link is much stronger in the United States than in other countries and suggests that skill gaps in childhood persist into adulthood.
Many low skill adults are in poorer health and do not believe that they have a say in their government.
Helping to improve the skills of those adults with low skills can not only improve their lives, it can help to set their children on a better path. The report states:
Several studies have found that when mothers with low education levels complete additional education, their children appear to have improved language and reading skills. These quasi-experimental studies have found these effects of increased maternal education only for mothers with a high school education or less who have participated in a variety of education and training services, including high school credential completion, occupational training, and college.
Given the concern expressed by many in DC about income inequality and lack of social mobility, more DC residents need to speak out about the need to ensure that adult literacy and adult education organizations are well-funded and serving the many people who desire to improve their basic skills.
That is why LVA works in partnership with other adult literacy and adult education organizations to ensure more DC adults can receive the education they need to improve their basic skills and improve their lives.