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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Writing and Reading for Nationalism:: Military Literacy Campaigns in WWI

Wendy B. Sharer.

As we consider what literacy education means today, I ask us to consider what literacy meant a century ago in a political climate in which—similar to today—international tensions and ethnic hostility portended global warfare. In the first and second decades of the twentieth century, Cora Wilson Stewart organized an extensive adult literacy campaign in the Appalachian Mountain region of the US. While much of Stewart’s work may have originated in a genuine desire to improve the lives of people in the impoverished region, her work was greatly informed by cultural discourses of racism, militarism, and hyper-nationalism. In her 1922 autobiography, Stewart justifies her literacy work in ultra-patriotic terms: “In a day when racial groups weld themselves together in America and seek to advance the welfare of the country from which they came rather than the welfare of the nation which has received them into its bosom, it is comforting to remember that in these mountains of the southern states America has a reservoir of strength and patriotism in the millions of pure Anglo-Saxon Americans” (5). Stewart’s literacy campaign clearly embraced nationalism and militarism when she agreed in 1918 to write textbooks for non-English speaking military recruits. Within Soldier’s First Book, Stewart combined lessons in reading, spelling, and handwriting with lessons in national loyalty and military discipline. The third lesson, for instance, asked students to copy this poem:
See the flag!
It is our flag.
Our flag never knew defeat.
Our flag has always stood for right. (6)
After exploring Stewart’s literacy pedagogy, my presentation will ask conference participants to consider how nationalism informs literacy education today and how literacy education might be changed so that, unlike Stewart’s curriculum, it associates learning to read and writing with international invitation rather than with nationalistic might.


Wendy B. Sharer  (United States)
Assistant Professor of English
Department of English
East Carolina University

  • literacy education
  • Adult education
  • militarism
  • nationalism
  • World War One
Person as Subject
  • Stewart, Cora Wilson

(30 min Conference Paper, English)