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In Focus

Victor Swenson

Working for a Literate Vermont

By Rebecca Webber | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

“If you want literate children, you’ve got to have literate grown-ups,” says Victor Swenson. As executive director of the Vermont Council on the Humanities, Swenson has heard from countless parents fed up with a life of pretending to read.

He recalls different excuses parents used when their children would ask to be read to. “One man would say ‘books are no good,’ to cover up his inability to read. Another parent would look at the pictures and make up a story to go with them.”

For the past eleven years, the Vermont Council has tried to end the cycle of illiteracy in the state by encouraging reading in adults.

“Love of reading was something we wanted to put in the service of literacy,” says Swenson. “The idea was to develop it, see it grow, and then sustain it to lead us to some important social change.”The council began by adapting their existing library reading and discussion program, which had become a model for the American Library Association’s “Lets Talk About It “ series. With the help of librarians, scholars, and children’s book authors, the program became “Connections” -- sessions centered on themes such as friendship, courage, and historical periods. After reading two picture books and a longer book for each session, participants would discuss the humanities ideas they had encountered in the readings. “The discussion was the heart of the matter,” says Swenson.

The programs drew droves of adults and the council realized that it had tapped into a statewide need. In 1989, it announced a formidable goal: complete literacy in Vermont by the year 2000.

The goal seemed reachable, but within a few years, the council recognized that the problem of illiteracy ran too deep. About one in five Americans are unable to read or write; in Vermont the figure was one hundred thousand of the state’s 650,000 residents.

To respond to the need, the council has blanketed the state with literacy programs, devoting nearly half the council’s budget to the project. There are about five thousand adults signed up to learn to read at any given moment in Vermont, but it is still not enough, says Swenson. Because new generations are growing up illiterate and dropping out of school, Swenson says, “The problem is probably still growing rather than shrinking, even though there has been a lot of good work in the state.”

Working with adults revealed other critical factors. “What you begin to recognize is that illiteracy is very much an intergenerational problem,” says Swenson. “Kids learn so much from the ambience of the household and it’s hard to overcome deficits once they get to school.”

Recognizing this, the council designed “Creating Communities of Readers.” With grants of up to $5,000, community groups have started book wagons that travel to playgrounds, and programs in which parents receive home visits from volunteers, who give away books and talk about the importance of reading to young children.

“Our goal is to be as comprehensive as possible,” says Swenson. Last year, the council supported 2900 programs, reaching 175 communities in all of Vermont’s fourteen counties.

Looking to the future, the council will continue its emphasis on reading while developing new programming directed at strengthening the humanities in public education. The next executive director will have to take over the reins after Swenson retires this February. His post-council plans include devoting more time to teaching, the profession he left to join the council in 1974. He also wants to travel -- to spend time with his two daughters and his two-year-old granddaughter, who lives in Cambridge, England.

Wherever he goes, the humanities will benefit from his enthusiasm and expertise. “I want to keep my hand in the humanities,” he says, “both in terms of my own reading and teaching, and in ways to help advance the humanities in public life.”

Rebecca Webber is a writer in Oak Island, North Carolina.