Cora Wilson Stewart was an early champion and advocate in the fight against adult illiteracy. Her tireless campaign to eradicate it earned her recognition as the founder of the adult literacy movement in the United States.
As the first female superintendent of schools in Rowen County, Kentucky Stewart was determined to use education to raise the standard of living of poor people. During 1911, she decided to open the classrooms in her school district to adults who could not read or write. In doing so, she founded the Moonlight Schools Movement, named because classes were held at night when there was enough moonlight for students to travel to and from class. The immense success of the program spread to several other states and became the model for adult literacy education.
The elimination of illiteracy was definitely her life’s mission. Fueled by the success of helping thousands of adults learn basic literacy skills, Stewart became relentless in her crusade to raise awareness of the plight of adult illiterates, speaking at hundreds of conventions and convincing the governor of Kentucky in 1914 to appoint the first illiteracy commission in the U.S.
An estimated 40,000 Kentucky adults learned to read and write between 1914 and 1915. But providing classes was not enough in Stewart’s mind, so she began writing the Rowen County Messenger, a newspaper with short sentences and lots of word repetition. This led her to write a series of textbooks called County Life Readers. She not only created the concept of night classes, she wrote the materials for the teachers and students to use. From these 50 schools on that night in 1911, millions of adults have had their lives impacted. One estimate alone is that within the first 20 years of the program, 700,000 Kentuckians attended the adult literacy schools.
From 1916 to 1926, Stewart chaired the NEA Committee on Illiteracy and in 1926 became director of the National Illiteracy Crusade. Stewart also was chair of President Herbert Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy, persuading the government to offer literacy training to Native Americans and prison officials to provide literacy training to inmates.
She did more than be just an advocate for literacy; she developed theories and methods of practice as well as designing materials suitable for use in teaching adult literacy. She brought teachers together to share best practices and develop curriculum and used all facets of the social and political arenas in her quest to use education to eliminate poverty and improve the economic conditions of poor and marginalized people.
Stewart impacted the world of education generally and adult literacy education specifically at a time when women were not even allowed to vote. She focused on native-born illiterate adults at a time when the majority of adult education activities were directed towards citizenship education. She left a legacy of advocacy, educational reform, a pioneering spirit, and a message of hope for all marginalized groups.
The method Stewart used to teach adults to write was subsequently used by civil rights leaders to help African Americans qualify to vote. This helped influence the balance of political power and civil rights actions that transformed the political and social setting of the U.S. She placed education in a political context and, in doing so, used it as a lever to secure funding and resources.
Stewart believed educating parents of school-age children would raise the importance of education and lead to an elimination of illiteracy in one generation. She adapted the crusade and her message to events in American society, from citizenship efforts, WWI and the post-war attitudes, woman’s suffrage, and the communist “scare.” She used education, professional associations, and politics to achieve her goals. Few people in U.S. history have had a chance to make this major impact on education and society in their lifetime as Stewart did.
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