December is a busy month at the Newberry County Literacy Council: a gala celebration dinner for learners, donors, volunteers and staff; an appearance in the Christmas parade; and an ending to the fall sessions of the People’s College and the Weekly Readers Book Club.
The People’s College is finishing a biography of Jane Addams, 20th century activist, founder of the Hull House in Chicago, and, in her day, one of the most admired women in the world. That opinion of her changed when she opposed U.S. involvement in WWI. She had particular reasons for opposing that war, but was a serious critic of war in general. War, she said, and the militarism involved in keeping a nation ready for war and then fighting it, makes social progress toward a better society all but unattainable. And the restrictions on speech and behavior imposed formally and informally in time of war infringe on our cherished first amendment rights. She recognized that conflicts between countries need to be settled, but called for a cultural change that would make mediation and negotiation of differences achievable. She and other women traveled the world in the beginning year of WWI (1914) speaking with leaders of the combatant and neutral nations and found them, including Woodrow Wilson, receptive to their ideas. Ultimately, Wilson proved ambivalent about the mediation idea and, in 1917, he led the U.S. into the war. When Addams continued to speak out against the war, she was criticized severely in the press and even among some of her supporters. Now that we are in the war, she was told, we must all support it.
We faced this same situation during the Vietnam War. Addams also decried the government surveillance of legitimate organizations and the scrutiny of speeches and essays that had a chilling effect on our rights as citizens to speak up. Recognizing these consequences of war, Addams became a pacifist, convinced that war is an enemy of social progress and human values and that we can eliminate it.
We may not agree with her views on war or the restrictions imposed during wartime but one of the tenets of the People’s College is to engage with a wide spectrum of ideas and issues and to discuss them in a civil manner. What does militarism mean? Do we live today in a society that is militarized? Can alternatives to war be created? What restrictions on speech and behavior are legitimate during wartime? These are questions sure to create lively debate. As citizens in a democracy we should welcome opportunities for such debate. The Literacy Council promotes literacy for all, for a variety of reasons; it can lead to a better job, it can help us through the activities of day-to-day life, and it can bring the pleasure of reading to us. But literacy can also help us gain entry into the world of important ideas. And that is the part of literacy that the People’s College addresses.
When the People’s College reconvenes for winter term in January we will continue to tackle the issue of war and its impact on society by discussing the Vietnam War and its impact on the 1960s. Most agree that this war still haunts us and we have yet to come to terms with it. Soldiers, protesters, journalists, novelists and observers have staked out positions often at odds with one another, making meaningful dialogue about this war difficult. PBS recently presented the Ken Burns documentary about Vietnam, once again drawing our attention to how and why we became involved, how the war was fought, the impact on the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the turmoil the war unleashed at home.
If you are interested in joining us for a civil discussion of this contentious, emotional issue, contact the Literacy Council at 276-8086. The People’s College meets Mondays at 5:30 p.m. The Weekly Readers will also reconvene in January. We have not selected our next book, but we always have meaningful discussions and good fellowship. We meet Tuesdays at 11:00 a.m. Give it a try! Until next time, happy reading.
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.