An Advocate for Adult Literacy: Cora Wilson Stewart : Literacy News

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An Advocate for Adult Literacy: Cora Wilson Stewart

by Literacy Volunteers and Advocates on 05/14/15

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.

 The memory lingered of the feuding when Wilson Stewart, aware that a more advanced, demanding, and commercialized world was making its presence felt, even in Appalachia, realized that action must be taken to help the region and its inhabitants to catch up. Wilson Stewart saw illiteracy and its impact in more personal terms too, recalling people such as the man who could create songs but not write the lyrics. As Wilson Stewart later wrote about such incidents:

                               "I interpreted them to be not merely the calls of individuals,

                              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:

                               "Less than 62% of adults in Pike County, Kentucky have

                              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

LVA is thrilled to announce that two of its learners have 
been featured on NPR (88.5 WAMU) as part of a five-part 
series on Adult Education called Yesterday's Dropouts. The interview can be found by clicking the WAMU link below. We are so proud of our learners and their dedication to literacy.