Within the field of rhetoric and composition, scholars and writers from Thomas K. Dean to Wayne Campbell Peck, Linda Flower, and Lorraine Higgins have recently been calling for a "pedagogy of place" (Dean) and "community literacy" programs (Peck et al.). In suggesting that teachers attend more closely to the local context in which they and their students are situated, these scholars are seeking to counter the ways in which our current macroeconomy, globalization, and cultural homogeneity requires a de-valuation of roots, home, and local ties. More particularly, they are critical of the ways in which educational institutions often operate in isolation from local communities and fail to respond to the needs of their most immediate neighbors. Instead, these researchers suggest educators might productively emphasize "interdependence, interconnection, cooperation, and responsible companionship in the context of one's local place" (Dean 53). As we work to construct new histories of writing instruction, we might productively turn to Cora Wilson Stewart and the Moonlight Schools she founded in 1911. As a significant historical antecedent to these present-day efforts, Stewart developed educational programs that were sensitive to local needs and that fostered students' sense of connection to their home community.
Despite their romantic name, the Moonlight Schools were not, as Stewart often found herself explaining, sites where "children studied, and played, and scampered on the green like fairies in the moonlight . . . where lovers strolled arm in arm, quot[ing] poetry. . . or where moonshiners . . . were instructed in the most scientific methods of extracting the juice of the corn" (Address before Kansas State Teachers Association, 1915). Instead, the Moonlight Schools offered opportunities for basic education to illiterate and semi-literate adults who typically worked their own small farms in eastern Kentucky. Stewart herself had grown up in Rowan County, Kentucky. She earned her teaching certificate at Morehead Normal School; taught in remote communities in the Kentucky mountains such as Corey Chapel, Seas Branch, and Elliottsville (Nelms 12); and served several terms as school superintendent for Rowan County.
Though rooted in the traditions and values of rural Kentucky, Stewart also realized that agriculture was being drawn into the orbit of modern business, machine technology, and scientific management in the early decades of the twentieth century. Most farmable land in the continental United States had come under cultivation, necessitating a shift from extensive to intensive agriculture. Moreover, mechanization, which first impacted farming prior to the Civil War, was beginning to affect agriculture on a larger scale and at an accelerated rate. The rising cost of land and expanded use of machines increased farmers' need for capital, and they became more dependent on funds they raised by selling their produce and livestock in distant marketplaces. Though farm families were making more money and had a higher standard of living than ever before, rural life was being affected by industrialization and urban practices and institutions (Bowers 7-14).
While affirming the value of a traditional agrarian lifestyle, Stewart's program of literacy instruction and her series of Country Life Readers, which served as textbooks in the Moonlight Schools, were designed to help Kentucky's mountaineers adjust to the professionalization of agriculture and changes in country living that would demand higher levels of literacy from them. Like other educators, scientists, and social reformers associated with the widespread but loosely organized "country life movement," Stewart was concerned about the decline of the rural population and the migration of farm families to the city. She was firmly committed to the yeoman myth and believed that farmers' physical strength, moral uprightness, and disciplined work ethic earned for them a special place in America's history and in contemporary culture. Through educational programs adapted to meet the particular needs of farm families, Stewart hoped to regenerate rural society and to ameliorate some of the problems that made city life seem an attractive alternative to country living.
In celebrating the agrarian lifestyle, Stewart's
pedagogical efforts served as an important counterdiscourse to the mapping
of eastern Kentucky as a primitive region of cultural inferiority that
was taking place at the turn of the century. As Peter Mortensen has
documented, popular writers, including James Lane Allen and John Fox,
Jr., were fond of juxtaposing the refined sensibilities of the inhabitants
of Kentucky's progressive Bluegrass region with the supposed crudeness,
ignorance, and lawlessness of the eastern mountaineers. For Mortensen,
the works of Allen, Fox, and other educators and scientists who wrote
about eastern Kentucky at the turn of the century reinforced the all
too common and simplistic links between literacy and middle-class preoccupations
with taste, manners, intellect, and economic success. Though Stewart
was committed to the belief that advanced literacy skills could improve
economic and civic life in rural communities, she deliberately severed
the relationships between illiteracy, cultural deprivation, and moral
laxness in her pedagogical materials. Instead, she used her Country
Life Readers to establish her ardent support for the farmers of
eastern Kentucky and their traditional agrarian lifestyle.
In this paper, I will describe Stewart's program
of literacy instruction and the textbooks she wrote. More specifically,
I will focus on how she used epideictic rhetorical strategies that evoked
a nostalgic, sentimental vision of agrarian life while simultaneously
promoting new technologies and behaviors that would help transform the
rural landscape and elevate the economic status of farm families. For
contemporary scholars and teachers interested in place-based literacy
instruction, Stewart's Janus-like abilities to look backward toward
an idyllic agrarian past as well as forward to an evolving agricultural
marketplace, a site which would demand new literacy skills from Kentucky's
mountaineers, serve a useful illustration of methods that can preserve
local, traditional identities within newly emerging constellations of
cultural, economic, and political relationships.
Historians in the field of rhetoric and composition and most classroom teachers have, though, long realized that official curricular materials provide only a partial portrait of the processes of teaching and learning. With this in mind, I will conclude by examining the letters Stewart received from Moonlight School students and their teachers. These letters serve as a useful vantage point from which it is possible to discern the capacities of students both to sustain and to challenge the ways in which even place-based programs of literacy delimit the use of the printed word.
The Local Landscape and a Local Pedagogy
Over 1200 students ventured out on that first moonlit
evening. Classes were scheduled to run for eight weeks from 6:00 to
8:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The first fifteen minutes of each
evening session were devoted to the singing of a familiar community
song, short scriptural reading, and prayer. Students then studied reading,
writing, and arithmetic, working in each area for 25 minutes. The final
half hour of each evening was devoted to drills on topics such as horticulture,
civics, health, and/or good roads, depending on students' interests
and local needs. Using a call and response method, the teachers would
snap out questions, and students would respond in unison with memorized
To learn to write, students used grooved tablets
from which they could trace the letters of the alphabet. Stewart described
the importance of the physical details of the tablet:
Once students mastered the alphabet, they left
the grooved tablets behind and began copying short sentences from the
Country Life Readers and composing brief letters to send to
family and friends based on samples of correspondence in Stewart's textbooks.
Stewart insisted that students write and post their own letters by the
third week of classes.
For reading instruction, Stewart initially arranged
for the publication of a brief weekly newspaper designed specifically
for the Moonlight Schools. These newspapers quickly evolved into Stewart's
series of three textbooks, The Country Life Readers, published
by the B.F. Johnson Publishing Company in 1915, 1916, and 1917. With
their vocabulary lists, spelling lessons, sentences to be copied, and
reading passages, The Country Life Readers were ostensibly
designed to provide basic instruction in writing and reading. But Stewart's
textbooks addressed rural citizens with a strange blend of admonition
and admiration. The Country Life Readers introduced new technologies
and behaviors, including an expanded use of print materials, that could
radically alter the economic and civic texture of life in rural communities
while at the same time praising the characteristics traditionally attributed
to farm families: independence, a strong work ethic, and moral firmness.
In signaling her commitment to the values that she believed bound rural
families and their communities together, Stewart strategically assumed
the stance of an epideictic rhetor.
In The New Rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca
point out that epideictic rhetoric has too often been misconceived as
merely an opportunity for a rhetor to display his or her eloquence.
For Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, though, the purpose of an epideictic
speech is "to increase the intensity of adherence to values held in
common by the audience and the speaker" (52), and the genre thus plays
a crucial role in argumentation by strengthening the disposition of
the rhetor's audience toward the actions being advocated. Moreover,
they suggest that the epideictic speaker is most appropriately perceived
as an educator, one in whom the community invests a large degree of
confidence and who can disseminate the community's shared values (55-56).
Lawrence Rosenfield similarly notes that epideictic rhetoric transcends
the agonistic paradigm of deliberative and judicial rhetoric and instead
invites speaker and audience to join in a public celebration of "thinking,
thanking, and remembering" (147), and in her analysis of recent debates
over evolution and creationism in Wilmington, North Carolina, Elizabeth
Ervin has pointed out that epideictic rhetoric has the ability to foster
more flexible thinking and problem-solving "by presenting new, controversial
ideas as coextensive with established values" (464).
Most pertinent, though, to my reading of Stewart's
pedagogical materials is the work of S. Michael Halloran on nineteenth-century
picturesque writing in the United States. Halloran positions picturesque
writing within the epideictic tradition, noting that in representing
the natural landscape as a harmonious pastoral scene capable of exciting
a moral response in the viewer, writers like Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson,
and Longfellow were attempting to construct a uniquely American identity
and a conception of civic virtue based not on collective reasoning but
on an individual's unique perceptions. In similar fashion, Stewart's
three Country Life Readers dwell upon the beauties of nature,
reading the rural landscape as a physical manifestation of the distinctive
moral status of those individuals engaged in agricultural work. Her
textbooks suggested a strong link between aesthetic harmony in nature
and the spiritual harmony of those people who work most closely with
the land. As an epideictic rhetor drawing upon picturesque illustrations
and writings, Stewart thus affirms the centrality of agrarian values
within the fabric of American life and begins to unhinge the problematic
linkage between illiteracy, lawlessness, and cultural deprivation.
Recognizing the limited vocabulary and minimal
reading skills of students as they entered the Moonlight Schools, Stewart
relied heavily on illustrations to carry out her epideictic agenda in
the first Country Life Reader. Along with their literacy lessons,
students were taken on a visual tour of cathedral like forests, fruit-laden
orchards, and well-kept farmhouses as they move through the pages of
their textbook. While allowing Stewart to establish her appreciation
for the local landscape, the inclusion of images of pastoral splendor
in her textbook also served to undermine the status of traditional school
knowledge. Through their direct contact with the natural beauty depicted
in the illustrations, rural students could acquire knowledge more valuable
than the classical training of a formal liberal arts education, or so
Stewart seemed to suggest. She thus alleviated any anxieties students
might be feeling about their minimal educational accomplishments and
the lack of educational opportunities in rural settings. Her liberal
use of illustrations in the first Country Life Reader stood
as Stewart's invitation to Moonlight School students to join in an appreciation
of the beauty of the countryside and also to recognize their own innate
wisdom in choosing to serve as stewards of the earth's natural resources.
As Moonlight School students became more adept
as readers and writers and progressed into the second and third level
Country Life Readers, Stewart no longer needed to rely so heavily
on illustrations. Instead, she allowed the explicit topics and themes
of poems and prose passages to advance her epideictic agenda. The second
reader opened with Norman Gale's poem, "Life in the Country," which,
after describing the beauty of green grass and rising corn, concludes
"God comes down in the rain / And the crop grows tall--- / This is the
country faith, / And the best of all!" (9). Amplifying the tone established
by Gale's poem, the second Country Life Reader also included
Lucy Larcom's "A-Berrying," Dinah Muloch Craik's "Green Growing Things,"
Samuel Rogers' "A Wish," and Liberty Hyde Bailey's "I Teach, " all of
which exalt pastoral themes and emphasize the rewards of country living.
Prose selections in the second Country Life Reader included
short passages (100-150 words) on how a poor garden "is an insult to
God and nature, as well as a disgrace to man" (11); on the thrift and
wisdom of a farmer who plants a cover crop in the fall (48); and on
the notion that "A woman that can make good biscuits is a treasure"
(75). Embedded within the second reader's celebration of the agrarian
lifestyle were more polysyllabic vocabulary words and a wider range
of complexly structured sentences. The students were instructed to draw
up spelling and vocabulary lists from the reading passages and to continue
copying out sentences as practice in writing.
Unlike the first and second Country Life Readers,
the third and final textbook contained no explicit pedagogical apparatus,
such as spelling and vocabulary lists or sentences to be copied. Instead,
the third Country Life Reader was, as Stewart explains in her
preface, "the flower of the series," and here she was most explicit
about her epideictic agenda. As Stewart noted, the book offered further
practice in reading, but it also seeks to
From several hundred to a few thousand words, the selections in the third Country Life Reader included Gene Stratton-Porter's "The Talking Trees," Henry W. Longfellow's "The Farmers' Friends," John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Pumpkin," Washington Irving's "A Dutch Farm," and Louisa May Alcott's "A Song from the Suds." These reading passages all share in common the project of glorifying the natural world and establishing the value of manual labor in farming households. Along with the illustrations in the first Country Life Reader, the prose passages and poems featured in the second and third Country Life Readers reflect Stewart's profound love of the countryside and stand as her summons to rural students to appreciate the merit of their own lives and their daily work.
More, though, than a naive, agrarian sentimentalist,
Stewart realized that the rural landscape was being reshaped by urban
influences and machine technology, and she urged Moonlight School students
to take advantage of innovations in the fields of agriculture and domestic
science. For example, an early lesson in the first Country Life
Reader inculcated a message about the importance of seed testing:
"I must have seed from corn that made a good yield. I will get seed
from corn that had two ears to the stalk. Then I will test my seed corn.
I will test three grains from each ear. If these do not come up, I will
not plant corn from that ear" (34). A lesson in the second Country
Life Reader then offered more explicit instructions in preparing
a seed testing box. Another lesson in the first Country Life Reader
advocates keeping money in a bank: "This is a bank. It is a place to
keep money. I keep my hens in a coop. I keep my horses in the barn.
I keep my pigs in the pen. I keep all my things in place. A bank is
the place to keep money. I will keep my money in the bank" (16). Lessons
in Stewart's textbooks also introduced Moonlight School students to
the importance of rotating crops, the proper use of a toothbrush, and
the diverse ways in which corn can be prepared as a nutritious meal.
Students were instructed to copy out this last
sentence ten times: "What a farmer reads shows in his farm." In a lesson
directed toward women entitled "When Foods Are Scarce," Stewart encouraged
the use of printed recipes and cookbooks as a way to ensure proper nutrition.
The following dialogue unfolded between two women in the kitchen of
The sample letters in the Country Life Readers which students were encouraged to use as models for their own epistolary efforts also emphasized the role of print on the successful farm. Stewart made clear that written correspondence was a necessary component of agricultural commerce and the modern business relationship. In one sample letter in the second Country Life Reader, a farmer replied to a potential purchaser of his seed corn, informing the buyer of prices and quantities available for sale. The purpose of another letter was to request a catalogue of "household conveniences," including "the latest improved washer, wringer, and churn" (99) from a mail-order merchandiser. Such model letters allowed Stewart to impress upon students that print literacy makes it possible for farm families to take advantage of existing economic opportunities and to create new ones.
Even more interestingly, several letters explicitly positioned Moonlight School students as consumers in the marketplace of print: one sample letter featured a student writing to a local newspaper and enclosed payment for a year-long subscription; in another sample letter, a student corresponded with the editor of Progressive Farmer about obtaining a subscription to the journal; yet another letter features a student's query to a publisher about purchasing books "suitable for a district or home library . . . that deal with country life and its problems, such as rural schools, agriculture, etc." (66). While overtly emphasizing that one can obtain useful information from print sources such as newspapers, agricultural journals, and books, these model letters productively unmasked the commercial dimensions (e.g., subscription rates, book prices) of the act of reading. They explicitly guided students through the task of acquiring new reading materials and expanding the range of print materials available in their homes and communities.
In sum, the new technologies and behaviors that Stewart was introducing to Moonlight School students had the potential to disrupt the fabric of life in the Kentucky mountains. However, by astutely praising the rural lifestyle, she avoided creating unnecessary tensions in farming communities and attempted to reassure farm families that their responsible stewardship of natural resources was a more valuable marker of moral sensibility and personal refinement than literacy skills. Activities like crop rotation, toothbrushing, seed testing, and most importantly, literacy, could be seen as part of rural life, not as a threat to it. She highlighted the ways in which advanced literacy skills could be used to improve the lives of farm families. Print resources, such as cookbooks, catalogues, and books on innovators in the field of agriculture, could provide rural citizens with practical information, and through written correspondence, people living in the country could obtain subscriptions to periodicals, sell their surplus crops, and purchase the latest home conveniences. Through the epideictic rhetoric of her textbooks, Stewart invited Moonlight School students to share in a public celebration of their rural lifestyles, but she also encouraged them to engage in new behaviors and to experiment with new technologies, including the use of more advanced literacy skills, that could improve economic and civic life in rural communities. Current teachers and scholars might similarly consider the roles epideictic rhetoric might play in reaching out to local constituencies and in developing curricular materials and pedagogical programs that are sensitive to the particularities of place. As we seek to address local needs, we can invite students and other stakeholders in the academy's work to join with us in honoring regional resources and our communities' best traditions. Such commemorative efforts may be a useful first step in recuperating, rather than eradicating, local and traditional identities in the face of endlessly forming and re-forming networks of economic, cultural, and political relationships.
"My Dear Friend, Mrs. Stewart": Students'
Responses to the Moonlight Schools
Given that Stewart's pedagogical methods quite literally required students to get into the "groove" as they learned to write and that she hoped to produce a "fine psychological effect" by having students repeatedly copy commissive statements (e.g., "I will work for good roads," "I will take a newspaper and read it," "I will cook meat many ways."), it is not surprising that many letters sustain the ways in which the Moonlight School curriculum delimited the use of the printed word (Moonlight Schools 72). More specifically, many letters indicate that students used their literacy skills to advance their own economic interests and to participate more fully in civic affairs.
The important work of researchers like Harvey Graff and J. Elspeth Stuckey has called attention to the always intimate but by no means simple relationship between economic success and the ability to read and write. It is important to remember that literacy not always been particularly consequential in the employment prospects of working-class laborers (Graff 217) and that the ability to use the printed word for financial gain may signal one's willingness to conform to the social and economic agenda of the dominant social class (Stuckey 19), but many Moonlight School students wrote simply and directly about how their developing facility with print improved their financial situation. For example, Sol Williams, an 18-year old from Mossy Bottom, Kentucky wrote "I work in the mines and I can now count what I make each half by the ton or by the hourr [sic]." In another letter Stewart received in 1920, Herbert Armstrong of Benton, Kentucky noted that he hoped to turn a profit on his farm after he "secured three or four bulletins treating on agriculture from our county agent" while attending a Moonlight School with his 52-year old mother.
As a source of news about agricultural prices and conditions in the marketplace, newspapers provided farmers with vital economic information, and several Moonlight School students announced in their letters to Stewart that they had become regular newspaper readers. Mr. E.B. Jones of Colmar, Kentucky informed Stewart that he could "read the news in the papers quite a bit" after attending the Moonlight School for 15 nights. John Mutz was more explicit about the economic benefits of newspaper reading in his November 23, 1915 letter to Stewart: "I am cattle man as well as a farmer and I am able to read the stock papers and keep up with the market. I am glad that I have had a chance to attend the Moonlight School." Letters from teachers also attest to students' interest in the information available to them through newspapers. Though she only worked with four students in Bell County, teacher C.F. McGee wrote that "three of them subscribed to newspapers and are interested in the news of the day." Letters such as those of Williams, Armstrong, Jones, Mutz, and McGee suggest that Moonlight School students did begin to use print information as they pursued their own financial goals within the contexts of their rural communities.
In addition to providing students with skills they could use to impact positively their economic situation, the Moonlight Schools also made it possible for students to participate more fully in civic arenas, or so the archive of letters indicates. Several letters described how Moonlight School students became involved in the electoral process. Mrs. Gussie Taylor, a teacher in Butler County, wrote that "on election day . . . Three sturdy farmers said, 'I voted my own ballot this time,' and the glow of triumph spread over their honest faces." Robert Garrison, a teacher in Warren County, reported that one of his oldest students who had learned to read and write "was permitted to vote in the school election under the law, although questioned she told them she learned to read at the moonlight school."
Other letters spoke of more informal types of civic
involvement. Several teachers reported that Moonlight School students
organized community celebrations and banquets. E.V. Osborn, a teacher
in Knox County, wrote to Stewart describing a newly instituted
R.D. Grant and Lavinia Littleton, teachers at a segregated Moonlight School for African Americans, also reported plans for a celebration and exhibition as classes concluded. They noted that "the community will give the pupils and teachers a grand banquet," and they invited Stewart to attend. Through such public festivities, rural citizens could cement their communal bonds and counter the sense of social isolation that was drawing many farm families to the expanding cities.
While Stewart effectively encouraged rural citizens
to see literacy as a means of managing their economic destiny and maintaining
political control of their local communities, other letters suggest,that
Stewart was perhaps not entirely successful in her effort to unhinge
the common link between illiteracy, cultural deprivation, and moral
turpitude. Despite Stewart's best epideictic efforts to establish that
"dwellers in the country have the best opportunity to enjoy a life of
beauty and happiness" based solely on their close association with the
natural world (Country Life Reader: Third Book 1), many of
the available letters offer eloquent testimony to the fact that acquiring
the ability to read and write can dramatically impact an individual's
self-esteem. For example, a Mrs. A.A. Eudy wrote to Stewart in 1932:
Another student wrote "I used to feel ashamed because I could not read or write but I dont have to be ashamed now. It make me feel more like a man." Still another student expressed his sense of accomplishment: "I want you to know what the night school has done for me. At Christmas this year I could not read or write. Now I can read and write too. I can write a letter. I am so proud and I want to thank you for starting the night school." Perhaps, though, one of D.G. Rose's Fulton County students says it best: "I just feel so grand and biggety sitting down and reading and writing by myself."
It was perhaps a new-found sense of "biggety"-ness that inspired at least a few students to try their hands at forms of discourse, such as poetry, that are typically associated with a higher degree of cultural refinement. One student mailed the following verses to Stewart along with Easter greetings: "It is good to be alive today / With Easter skies above / With friendly flowers to nod and sway / and kindly folks to love." Another student enclosed the following verses in a letter to Stewart:
Night school will shine to night
The authors of such poems evince a willingness to play with language in creative, imaginative ways that far outstrip the fairly simple sentences and formulaic models of correspondence that students copied from the Country Life Readers. With a growing sense of skill in managing the written word, these rural citizens asserted a print-based claim to cultural refinement that seems to run counter to Stewart's insistence that the agrarian lifestyle is marker enough of one's status as a morally upright and wise citizen. Though Stewart's curriculum and textbooks encouraged students to use their developing literacy skills for public, transactional purposes in economic and civic arenas, at least some students subtly insisted on their right to articulate alternative benefits (a sense of personal uplift, an entitlement to more culturally privileged forms of discourse) resulting from their acquisition of more advanced literacy skills.
In conclusion, collections of letters such as those available in the archive of materials related to the Moonlight Schools remind current educators that even as we construct curricular materials and develop pedagogical strategies that are more closely grounded in the local landscape, our students will creatively dismember and re-assemble the lessons we've prepared. They will find varied pleasures (and pains) in what we offer them, and they will use their developing literacy skills for their own complex purposes. Though students will quite rightly never fully adhere to our best educational efforts, an epideictic rhetorical stance can serve as an initial affirmation of our ardent desires as teachers to work as partners in improving our communities. We might then find ourselves to be recipients of interesting and challenging letters like those addressed to "My Dear Friend, Mrs. Stewart."
Bowers, William L. The Country Life Movement
in America, 1900-1920. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1974.