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Literacy and Democracy

The election season is upon us and with it arrived the usual exchange of ideas, beliefs, and opinions. With candidates firing ideas at will, and citizens sharing what they hear with equal zeal, it is difficult for all of us to sort out the truth from fiction. In reading the many letters to the editor of local, regional and national papers, it is clear that politics are dear to the hearts of our citizenry.

Aside from the ideas being reworked, recycled, and shared, the negative campaigning of both parties reflects poorly on the candidates and their respective party and organization. In addition, the media on either side of an issue work hard to promote their view. One need only to turn the dial of the television to hear the messages. Most of the conversation is typical of the election season, but some of it is negative and hateful, based upon the perceived fears of the citizens of our country. I consider it to be shameful and counterproductive.

As a school superintendent, my politics are clearly focused upon the children of our district, state, and country. The public expects me and I expect myself to keep my “politics” personal and exercise my rights in the voting booth. Consequently, this column is not about who to support or why. There are many people out there willing to tell you the answer to that question. You need only ask.

However, this column is about the most important part of the electoral process. It is what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “informed discretion.” By that, he described a populace that would be capable of making decisions based upon facts and individual reflection. It would be a nation of literate decision makers using reason and fact to elect candidates to govern our country.

There is no skill more important in developing “informed discretion” than the ability to read.

It is what allows us as citizens to see through the hyperbole of elections, the subtle use of language that allows candidates to vacillate on issues, and our ability to infer from what is spoken  or read. During the electoral season, these skills are invaluable.

As a community of learners I constantly talk about our work regarding literacy. I sometimes hear from parents who tell me we spend too much time teaching children to read; that they are tired of homework and that students need more “down time.” I sincerely understand that feeling; however, unless our children are reading on grade level by third grade, their opportunities for a successful school career and work opportunity can be drastically reduced. None of us want this to happen. Our children deserve better. More importantly, students and citizens who cannot read well depend upon others to shape their opinions through advertisements, innuendo, word of mouth, or statements that have no basis in fact.

The literate individual has the ability to research issues independently and arrive at a conclusion based upon facts. There is no greater personal attribute in a democracy. It allows a person to determine if global warming is real or imagined science; if our nation and environment can withstand energy alternatives; if foreign policy should be viewed through multiple lenses or be a consistent pattern; or if a stronger nation is one that closes its borders to others. These and many other issues are being debated on a national stage with many generalizations, divisive language, and statements that can create fear. The exchange of ideas is important. The threats, fear-based statements, and twisting of facts is divisive. As a nation, we can and should demand more from our leaders. However, it is difficult to do so when so few research issues on their own to learn about both sides of an issue.

This fall, when you hear your child’s teacher talk about the importance of reading, please remember that we do want our students to perform well on the ISAT. Please remember that we want them to grow up and enter a workforce as a competent and educated employee. However, more importantly, please remember that a literate individual will strengthen the foundation of our democratic ideals. There is no more important work that parents and schools can perform. We are proud to be your partner in this effort.

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Author info

Dick Cvitanich Dick Cvitanich is the Superintendent of Schools for the Lake Pend Oreille School District. He has been an educator for 33 years, and became superintendent for LPOSD in 2006. He was educated at the University of Washington where he earned a BA in History and a Superintendent's Credential. He has been married to Diane for 32 years and they have raised three sons who "taught us as much as we taught them." "I have a passion for public education and the role it plays in our democracy. In my free time I read, ski ... come to think of it, I don't have that much free time."

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