Greetings from the Newberry County Literacy Council. We are adjusting to our new, and temporary, location at 1204 Main Street while renovation continues at our 1208 location. We will return in a few weeks. Meanwhile, our FAST program for school children and their parents is winding down while the tax preparation program continues. Our book club, the Weekly Readers, has finished “Raney” about a young woman from a working class family in rural North Carolina who marries a young man from a professional family in Atlanta and lives with him in her hometown. A clash of cultures ensues. There are many funny moments, some serious ones, some poignant ones. We thoroughly enjoyed it. We are moving next to “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward, a hard-hitting look at how Hurricane Katrina affected a poor family on the gulf coast.
The People’s College continues to study the Vietnam War. We have just read about the TET Offensive, an attack by North Vietnamese troops and their southern allies, the Viet Cong, on cities across South Vietnam in January of 1968. The attacks surprised the U.S and led to increased questions from the press and war critics about the veracity of the optimistic estimates that had been emanating from the White House and the Pentagon about how the war was going. General Westmoreland, leader of the U. S. forces in Vietnam, had recently told us that “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” News anchor Walter Cronkite, dean of the TV news anchors, reacted to the TET Offensive by asking, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.” The fighting would go on for another five years.
Our discussions have been wide-ranging. Why did we get involved? What strategies did we use? Who were the chief decision makers? Should we have pursued negotiations earlier? We are also asking more general questions about war. When is it proper to send American troops into battle? What should we know first before we do that? Is it appropriate to protest war once we have entered a conflict (we never ‘declared’ war in Vietnam)? We raised the same question last term when we read about Jane Addams and her anti-war activities after we entered World War I. These questions lead us back to questions we have asked in other terms, when we have read about democracy. What is the essence of democracy? Is it voting, is it holding elected officials accountable by closely following current events, is it supporting the president regardless of what he does because he is the elected president, is it reading and studying the constitution and other documents to protect the integrity of these documents, is it the freedom to do all these things? If we assume that democracy is clear and easy, we probably do not really understand it.
Part of our effort at the Literacy Council is to provide instruction in reading so that we all can be engaged and effective citizens, able to take part in conversations about the questions above. What we need in addition to such opportunities for adults is lessons in citizenship and democracy for school children and in our colleges. Many think we are falling short. Some are wary of education for democracy and citizenship because, on the left and right, they fear that it is either indoctrination for conservative acceptance of the status quo or propaganda for liberal views. Actually, the point of reading the constitution and other documents and asking questions about their meaning is to equip people to make up their own minds without someone from Fox news or MSNBC telling them what to think. At most colleges, it is possible to graduate without any serious discussions about these issues because of the way the college curriculum has evolved. Students choose from a menu of courses in a way that precludes any common set of readings that all students must complete. In a few schools, all students will read Plato and Locke and Mill and Montesquieu and have to wrestle with the ideas that found their way into our constitution which they also have to read. But with students now defined as customers and parents and politicians interested mainly in preparing students for jobs, these colleges are in the minority. I have been part of unsuccessful efforts in my educational career to create a more unified curriculum based in part on the idea of reading the great works and great authors and studying the eternal questions that continue to be debated. With a common set of core readings, all students would be able to participate in conversations about them and professors could build on these readings knowing that students who enroll in their classes will have read them. I hope that there will be continued efforts to make education for democracy an integral part of schooling at all levels. We will continue to do this in the People’s College and other programs the Literacy Council runs.
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 1208 Main Street. Visit newberryread.com, call 803-276-8086 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.