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- Community Civics and Rural Life - 47/88 -

One of the most interesting chapters in history is that relating to the development of means of communication. Language itself is the most important of these means. It is not altogether clear what the first steps were in the development of spoken language; but we know that among uncivilized peoples conversation is aided, and often largely carried on, by signs made with the hands. Written language certainly developed from the use of pictures, which were gradually curtailed into HIEROGLYPHICS, such as were used by the ancient Egyptians, and finally developed into the ALPHABET, each letter of which was originally a picture.

A story is told of a group of American Indians who some years ago visited an eastern city. They could not make themselves understood, nor could they understand others, and became very lonely. They were taken to visit a deaf-and-dumb institution, where they were quite delighted to find that they could converse freely by the use of a natural sign language.

Uncivilized peoples are in the habit of conveying ideas in the most astonishing ways. For example, among a certain African tribe the gift of a tooth brush carries a message of affection. These Africans take great pride in their white teeth, and the tooth brush carries the message, "As I think of my teeth morning, noon, and night, so I think often of you."

To illustrate the development of the alphabet from pictures, our letter M represents the ears of an owl, which in Egypt was called MU, and the picture of which, later reduced to the ears, came to represent the sound of M..


The fascinating story of the development of language cannot be told here. It is referred to because we are likely to forget what an important factor it is in making community life possible. Inability to use a common language prevents intercourse and team work. Large numbers of men drafted in the American Army were unable to understand the English language. Between 30,000 and 40,000 illiterates were taken in the first draft and it is said that there were nearly 700,000 men of draft age in the United States who could neither read nor write. They could not sign their names, nor read orders or instructions. They had to be separated and taught, thus greatly delaying the complete organization of our available fighting forces. Inability to use a common language is equally an obstacle in industrial life, for non-English speaking workmen are unable to understand instructions, or to read signs and warnings. Many accidents are due to this cause. It is said that approximately 5 1/2 million of our population above ten years of age cannot read or write in any language, and that 5 million of our foreign population cannot use English. An active campaign is now being conducted to teach English to foreigners and to eradicate illiteracy. A bill has recently been introduced in Congress to provide Federal aid for this purpose.

If the productive labor value of an illiterate is less by only 50 cents a day than that of an educated man or woman, the country is losing $825,000,000 a year through illiteracy ... The Federal Government and the States spend millions of dollars in trying to give information to the people in rural districts about farming and home making. Yet 3,700,000, or 10 per cent, of our country folk can not read or write a word. They can not read a bulletin on agriculture, a farm paper, a food-pledge card, a liberty-loan appeal, a newspaper, the Constitution of the United States, or their Bibles, nor can they keep personal or business accounts. An uninformed democracy is not a democracy. A people who cannot have means of access to the mediums of public opinion and to the messages of the President and the acts of Congress can hardly be expected to understand the full meaning of this war, to which they all must contribute in life or property or labor.--SECRETARY LANE, Annual Report, 1918, p. 30. From letter to the President.

Ask at home: What is "illiteracy"? What is the difference between an "illiterate" and a non-English speaking person?

Debate (or discuss):

RESOLVED, That ALL persons of sound mind in the United States should be required by law to attend school until they are able to speak, read, and write English fluently.

RESOLVED, That the elimination of illiteracy and the teaching of English to foreigners should be left wholly to the states without interference or aid from the national government.

Why are foreigners required to read sections from the Constitution of the United States before they receive their "naturalization" papers?

What does "knowing how to read" mean?


RESOLVED, That no native-born American should be permitted to vote who cannot read intelligently.

What is being done in your community and in your state to eradicate illiteracy and to teach English to foreigners?


Next to language itself, the most important invention for the communication of ideas is the art of printing. It made possible the book, the magazine, the newspaper. The writer of this book is enabled to communicate with boys and girls whom he will never see by means of the printed page and the pictures which the book contains. By the same means the ideas of people who lived long ago have been handed down to us, and the ideas of to-day will be passed on to later generations. Most wonderful is the modern newspaper, which daily carries into almost every home of the land the important happenings in the world during the preceding twenty- four hours. In cities several editions are printed during the day. The newspaper enables the merchant to communicate, through advertisements, with possible buyers, and the farmer and business man to keep posted regarding crop conditions and market prices. Most newspapers have special departments for different classes of readers--a woman's page, a children's column, a page devoted to sports, another to market conditions. Most of them also have a department in which individuals may ask questions or express their own opinions regarding questions of the day. The "local newspaper," with a circulation that seldom extends far beyond the county in which it is published, is of the greatest value in stimulating a community spirit.


The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...

The right of free speech and of a free press is a very sacred one, and its maintenance is one of the chief safeguards of democracy. It is the means by which PUBLIC OPINION is formed and made known; and public opinion is one of the chief means of control in a democracy. It controls the conduct of individuals, and it controls the actions of government. The representatives and leaders of the people in the government seek constantly to know what public opinion is, and the public press is one of the chief channels through which they may find out. On the other hand, leaders and parties seek to FORM public opinion, to lead the people to think in certain ways and to support certain ideas. The press affords an effective means for doing this.


It is easy to see that both good leaders and bad leaders may thus create public opinion, that both good and bad ideas may be spread through the press. During the war we heard much about German PROPAGANDA. This means that ideas were systematically spread to create a public opinion favorable to the German cause. It was done largely by rumors, springing from no one knows where, and spreading by word of mouth. But it was also accomplished through the newspapers, by news items and stories that appeared to be true and that were published innocently enough in most cases, but that afterward were found to be false.


It is not to be supposed that all propaganda is harmful or dangerous. There is propaganda in good causes, or on both sides of a disputed question. By this means public opinion is educated. When the peace conference at Paris proposed a plan for a League of Nations, it was at once taken up for discussion through the newspapers and magazines. People who believed in the idea organized a campaign of PUBLICITY to support the plan and to create a public opinion for it, while those opposed to it were equally active in their attempt to create a public opinion against it. In this way the people became informed regarding the question, provided they read both sides of the discussion and not one only. Leaders in the community may conduct propaganda through the newspapers in behalf of better schools, better roads, woman suffrage, prohibition, or any other cause.

The good citizen cannot well get along without the newspaper and magazine. But he needs to keep in mind the fact that news items may be in error, and that the opinions expressed by editors and other writers usually represent the opinions of but a single group of people, which may be large or small, right or wrong. In most cases these writers are sincere, but there is always the chance for error. The intelligent citizen will not base his own opinions and actions solely on what he reads in ONE paper or magazine or book, but will seek to understand ALL sides of a question. He is helped to do this by the great variety of publications available representing every shade of belief, and by the freedom of speech and of the press under our system of government.


Freedom of speech and of the press does not mean that a citizen may always say anything he pleases in public. At no time has one the right to attack the character of another by false or malicious statements. This constitutes slander, or libel, and may be punished by the courts. In time of war freedom of speech and of the press may be restricted to an extent that would not be tolerated in time of peace, because if absolute freedom were permitted information might be made public that would be helpful to the enemy, and propaganda started that would be dangerous to the public safety. But even in war time, the people of a democracy

Community Civics and Rural Life - 47/88

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