The Newberry County Literacy Council recently wrapped up its fall session of FAST (Families and Schools Together) with a graduation ceremony at Newberry Elementary School. We hope these children will prosper, find meaning in the job world and in their personal lives, and become engaged citizens in their community.
During a presidential election year, being a citizen takes on added meaning. We select a person to be the leader of our nation and commander-in-chief of our armed forces. This is a crucial decision and an essential component of democracy. What the president does matters.
Only if “we the people” play our role will democracy work. It is “we the people” who determine whether we have a democracy or not, nurture and sustain it, or allow it to veer off course. Part of any effort to promote literacy — in our schools, our homes, or programs like the Literacy Council — is to strengthen our democracy by linking literacy with civic engagement.
One component of the Literacy Council’s efforts is the People’s College which I have written about extensively. We meet on Monday nights and read and discuss the world of great ideas and great authors. This fall our eight-week term is focusing on the great documents of our history.
We have read the Declaration of Independence, several of the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation. We have also read a remarkable document from 1848 called “The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.”
This document, written by activist women such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is a call for women’s independence from male domination, written in the style of the Declaration of Independence. In 1848 women could not vote, were barred from most schools and occupations, and were legally at the mercy of their husbands.
It was another 72 years before women won the right to vote, in the 19th amendment in 1920. All of these documents we are reading are reminders that democracy takes work. To gain rights and keep them is work never completed.
As I mentioned last month, our People’s College reading this term also includes a biography of Lincoln. We have just read about his successful run for the presidency in 1860. Before he assumed office in March of 1861, South Carolina and six other states announced secession.
The union was imploding before he arrived in Washington. His duty, he knew, was to preserve the union and his presidency was dedicated to that task. Perhaps no other president has faced such a challenge. And because he did face this challenge successfully and restore the union, he is considered one of our greatest presidents.
Reading about Lincoln’s presidency and reading his prose about slavery and the sanctity of our union has reminded us of the moral calling that can be, though most often is not, part of our political culture. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, in part, as a political and military act. As he said, he did it “for the salvation of the union.”
But it was also an act in the name of freedom and humanity that would be the beginning of the end of slavery and bring us closer to the message of equality championed in the Declaration of Independence. He knew, too, that for the country to heal, after a bloody, bitter war, there would have to be reunion and healing.
He said to northerners and southerners alike, in words poetic and prophetic, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Difficult times can bring out the best or worst of us. In Lincoln, we had a president fit for the moment, who could command a war but speak of a greater good and higher values, and of the hopes that might inspire us to overcome tragic times. He was a moral voice for his times, a voice we do not hear often enough today.
As we run our FAST Program and the People’s College, we remain cognizant of the importance of reading speeches such as Lincolns and documents such as the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions to remind us of the ideals that inspired our independence and the hope that is embedded in our democracy.
Literacy is more than reading text messages and a Facebook page. It is an entrance into a world of ideas that can elevate us to greater heights. In an election year that has dragged us down, we need this elevation. We need to read voices, and speak in voices, that appeal, as Lincoln said, to the “better angels of our nature.”
Joseph McDonald is a retired sociology professor from Newberry College and has worked with the Newberry County Literacy Council for more than 20 years as a tutor and board member. The Literacy Council is located at 1121 Caldwell St. Visit newberryread.com, call 803-276-8086 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.