Letting Our Values and History Guide Us: Inspiration for Libraries From Myles Horton
In the aftermath of the horrifying racist marches, violence, and murder at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in August 2017, people across the country have looked to history and shared values to help them clear their heads and find ways to move America forward. In explaining his decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee from Duke University’s campus, president Vincent E. Price argued that removing the statue was a way to express Duke’s institutional values, including a “commitment to justice, not discrimination; to civil protest, not violence; to authentic dialogue, not rhetoric; and to empathy, not hatred” (Price, 2017). The presidents and boards of the American Library Association, Public Library Association, and the Association of College and Research Libraries have published similar anti-hate statements. ACRL’s Board asserted that “ACRL is unwavering in its long-standing commitment to free exchange of different viewpoints, but what happened in Charlottesville was not that; instead, it was terrorism masquerading as free expression” (Morales, 2017). As this statement confirms, our shared professional values were developed over time and provide us with a guide on how to respond when all we want to do is react.
Ideas on how to educate in order to grow democracy have also stayed remarkably constant over time. The foundations of experiential education were first popularized by John Dewey with the publication of Democracy and Education in 1916. Critical educators working in the 1930s and 40s expanded on experiential education as they examined education through the lens of critical theory to develop critical pedagogy. One of these critical educators was Myles Horton, co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Highlander was founded in 1932 as a community folk school and training center to provide free adult education to rural Appalachian communities on everything from life skills and reading to community building and grassroots activism. Horton worked with the uneducated and largely illiterate people of Tennessee first in the labor movement and later in the civil rights movement. Highlander activists’ record of success is awe-inspiring as they played an instrumental role in the growth of worker and civil rights throughout the South. To name only a few examples, Rosa Parks attended trainings at Highlander months before she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr. first heard Pete Seeger (a Highlander regular) sing “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander’s 25th Anniversary Celebration (Horton, Kohl, & Kohl, 1998). Horton’s focus on popular, adult community education is not only inspiring but also instructive for libraries as we serve and educate our communities—whether they are public, academic, or school communities—during this time of deep political divides and strife.