A theme of some of my past columns written on behalf of the Newberry County Literacy Council has been the link between literacy and democracy.
Part of the meaning and practice of democracy is discussion and debate about the important issues of the day. Literacy is one important portal to this world of discussion and debate, enabling us to read contrasting points of view as we work to reach our own viewpoints. Those who cannot read can still participate by listening to others and joining in conversations.
Of course, being able to read about issues or to join in discussions of them does not mean that we will do so. For discussion to happen, there must be widely available opportunities for them and willingness on the part of citizens to engage in them.
To put this in other words, democracy at the local and national level requires establishing and sustaining communities of discourse, meaning opportunities to come together and read, discuss, debate differences, work out solutions, all in an atmosphere where participants are not threatened, verbally or physically, but feel free to speak their minds.
Then, once opportunities exist, people have to want to do it. Parker Palmer has called the qualities that citizens need to become engaged in communities of discourse “habits of the heart” (a phrase he takes from the French philosopher Tocqueville). These habits involve the skills needed to form one’s opinion, listen to others who may oppose you, and then the courage to raise your voice even if you know others will disagree. Importantly, these habits require a willingness to follow rules of civility and respect.
Congress, which should be a national example of this kind of community of discourse, has disappointed us all in the amount of rancor, incivility, personal attacks, and unwillingness, or inability, to listen to others with whom they disagree. Much of what we see and hear on television and radio also fails to represent this ideal of a community of discourse and these habits of the heart.
Many colleges attempt to prepare students for discourse and the development of “habits of the heart” by confronting them with diverse viewpoints, arranging debates about issues, emphasizing the need for finding facts and for stating positions clearly, and promoting respect for others. This is tough work. Many issues are complex, the facts may be not be clear, and paradoxes may abound.
If we fail to provide communities of discourse we face events such as happened in Charleston with a feeling of powerlessness. Where do we channel our incomprehension, our questions, our emotional burden? Talking issues out does not in itself resolve the kinds of questions raised by the Charleston killings but it is part of the democratic process and of communities of discourse.
Without such communities we individualize our reactions and build anger and resentment that may be released in hate and violence. We divide our world into “us” versus “them.” Only by meeting with people of different opinions and different backgrounds can we avoid the kind of insulation that divides us and prevents us from working toward some common ground.
Those with underdeveloped literacy skills may feel reluctant to join in such discourse. They should not. Organizations such as the Literacy Council exist so that these people can become more engaged participants in the world of literacy.
As we celebrate our national independence and freedom, let us celebrate the right of everyone to learn to read and be participants in the democratic process of engaging with the pressing issues of the day. The horrible events in Charleston remind us of the need to face all the issues that have swirled up and around us in its aftermath, even if these issues are uncomfortable for us to talk about and deal with.
I hope that we seize the moment and talk about what is on our minds.
The Literacy Council operates on a reduced schedule during the summer but we still offer tutoring and our Weekly Reader Book Club which meets each Tuesday morning at 11. We are just starting Lilies of the Field by William Barrett. You may remember it as a movie starring Sidney Poitier. Our two-week summer kids camp was a wonderful success, thanks to the hard work of Barbara, Lare and others. Please consider joining us as a volunteer or participant.
Till next time, happy reading.