History Publications and Other Works

A Failed Dream: Literacy Education in the Global South

Allison Haley Gose


Although not often recognized as an integral actor in the Civil Rights Movement, the Highlander Folk School initiated a literacy program in the South Carolina Sea Islands, ultimately aiding thousands of African Americans to become literate and enfranchised. Highlander’s work, however, cannot be considered as occurring in a vacuum. From its very beginning, the school and its founder Myles Horton recognized the value of international ideas and connections. The institution's pedagogy paralleled other literacy movements around the world, namely those led by Paulo Freire in Latin America. Nicaragua’s Literacy Crusade 1980 provided a testing ground for these ideas about experiential learning and illustrated the difficulties of truly implementing these plans on a large scale. Throughout the 1980s, Highlander, along with other North American education leaders, collaborated with Latin American educators in several international conferences to support Nicaragua and strived to solve what they considered the universal obstacles faced by the world’s oppressed. Highlander’s work with the Citizenship Schools in the 1950s allowed the institution and the American South to participate in this wider dialogue. This research adds to the growing historiography of the Global South by illuminating the role of the American South as an often unacknowledged member of the Third World. This transnational perspective provides a way to compare and test the success of this pedagogy by examining the similarities and differences in the programs developed in these regions and the historical circumstances in which they arose.