The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY

 

Friday, April 23, 1993


 

BYRON CRAWFORD


 'MOONLIGHT SCHOOLS'; A TEACHER'S CRUSADE HELPED ILLITERATE ADULTS

 

      MOREHEAD, Ky. -- There is a tiny one-room schoolhouse on the Morehead State University campus in which adults once gathered at night to learn to read and write.


      It was called a "moonlight school" because classes were held on nights when the moon cast enough light for students to see the footpaths and wagon trails that they often followed for miles to reach the school.


         In the early 1900s many moonlight schools were opened in Kentucky, and later around the nation, due primarily to the selfless crusade of a Rowan County teacher named Cora Wilson Stewart.


      A native of Farmers, in Rowan County, Stewart began teaching in 1895 at age 20, and at age 26 she was elected superintendent of Rowan County schools. Ten years later she became the first woman to be elected president of the Kentucky Education Association.


      Stewart admired the strength and resourcefulness of mountain people and was troubled that so many of them were illiterate.


      She was moved by young men and women she met who sang beautifully but who could not read; by parents who asked her to read them letters they had received from children who had moved away.


      Something had to be done.


      Stewart devised a simple textbook series -- "The Country Life Readers" -- and enlisted teacher volunteers to work at night, for no additional pay. Schoolchildren were encouraged to spread the word of the moonlight schools to family members, neighbors and others who

could not read and write. In 1911, Rowan County enrolled 1,200 adults for night classes; 1,600 enrolled the next year.


      Soon the program expanded to other Kentucky counties. In 1914-15, it was estimated that 40,000 Kentucky adults had learned to read and write in moonlight schools. Then Alabama and Mississippi adopted Stewart's idea, and by 1916, adults in 18 states had been enrolled.


      "She asked people to send her letters when they learned to write, and there are literally hundreds of letters that she got, some of them very touching. That's what gave her so much strength," said Willie Nelms, director of the public library system in Pitt County, N. C., who has studied Stewart's life extensively.


      A Carrollton, Ky., woman wrote Stewart in 1914: "I wish to thank you for the Moonlight Schools. I have been going six nights and have learned to read and write. I am forty-three years old and have written my first letter to my mother, the next to you . . . Yours, Amanda McKinney."


      Had the avenues of medicine or law been open to her, Nelms believes Stewart would have risen as capably to the top of those professions. She was executive director of President Herbert

Hoover's national advisory commission on illiteracy.


      In the 1930s her adult-literacy teaching methods were gradually bypassed as educators relegated her once-popular "Country Life Readers" to the back shelves in favor of more modern programs.


      Stewart spent her last years in a home for the elderly in Tryon, N. C., alone, with only enough resources to live. She had been married three times -- twice to the same man. Her only child

had died in infancy. Glaucoma had left her blind.


      She died in December 1958 at age 83. Her grave in Tryon was unmarked until a few years ago. And though she has been virtually forgotten, her memory lives yet at the old moonlight school that has been resurrected on the grounds of Morehead State University, and her spirit is still warm in the pages of her "Country Life Readers," which turn up occasionally in stacks of antique books.


      "Dear Friends," she wrote on the last page of the first reader. "This little book was written especially for the dear boys and girls of the moonlight schools, not the youngest, perhaps, but the finest school children on earth . . . The preparation of this book has been truly a labor of love. If you have received any benefit from it, the author is fully repaid. "Yours sincerely, Cora

Wilson Stewart"

 

Celebrating the Life of Cora Wilson Stewart and the Founding of the Adult Education and Literacy System of the United States

 

 

 

Research Note January 10, 2002 - Tom Sticht

 

Born some 127 years ago, on January 17, 1875 in Kentucky, Cora Wilson Stewart serves as an exemplar of what one person can do to advance a cause. Stewart's cause was the eradication of adult illiteracy and she began to work for it in her home state of Kentucky. In 1911, while she was superintendent of public schools in Rowan County, she started a program to eliminate adult illiteracy. This program, according to historian Wanda Dauksza Cook "might well be classified as the official beginning of literacy education in the United States".

 

The schools operated only on moonlit nights so people could find their way to and from school safely, hence the name Moonlight Schools. The schools were staffed by volunteer teachers from the day schools for children. Stewart was convinced that adults should not use the same materials as children to learn to read, so she developed for adult students The Rowan County Messenger, a newspaper with short sentences and lots of word repetition. In teaching writing, she concentrated first on teaching adults to write their own names, believing that this was a vital way of developing what we would today call self-esteem. In 1915 she published the Country Life Reader: First Book and the next year she published the Country Life Reader: Second Book. Both books featured functional materials from adult's daily lives.

 

During the decade from 1916 to 1926 Stewart carried out numerous activities on behalf of the education of adult illiterates. During World War I she was concerned with Selective Service findings that some 700,000 men were totally illiterate, so she developed The Soldier's First Book to teach military recruits to read. The Soldier's First Book explained why we were at war with such prosaic passages as:

 

Why are we at war?
To keep our country free.
To keep other people free.
To make the world safe to live in.
To stop the rule of kings.
To put an end to war.

 

Adults in the Moonlight Schools were instructed about how to write to their relatives and other loved ones who were away at war, and men waiting for the draft received literacy education to prepare them for military service.

Later, in 1926, Stewart formed the National Illiteracy Crusade, but by the time of World War II, national interest in the cause had faded, and she turned her attention away from adult illiteracy issues to the activities of the Oxford Group, a religious organization of the Christian faith.

 

Cora Wilson Stewart, the woman some would consider the Founder of Adult Literacy Education in the United States, died in 1958 at the age of eighty-three.

 

On January 17 we celebrate Cora Wilson Stewart's life, the pioneering work she initiated and her tireless efforts as a national and international advocate and champion for adult literacy education. Today, in large part as a legacy of her early work, the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) of the United States exists and provides literacy education each year for millions of adults in thousands of programs in all 50 states and territories of the United States.

 

This unique educational system for adults serves as a national monument to Cora Wilson Stewart, one of the great education leaders of the twentieth century.


[Source : Tom Sticht, tsticht@aznet.net]

 

More on Cora Wilson Stewart, Click here.

 

 

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