Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1955

In her 70s, Welthy Honsinger Fisher begins literacy work: World Literacy of Canada is founded


This year, at the age of 76, Welthy Honsinger Fisher (1879 – 1980), a tremendously innovative and dynamic woman, becomes the driving force for the establishment of the World Literacy of Canada. She served as its Honorary President from 1959 until her retirement in 1978.

At the time of its creation, the main goal of World Literacy of Canada was to support literacy initiatives in India through education and community development programs. Since 1955, WLC has supported literacy and development programs in Canada, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. WLC concentrates on programs that address the issue of adult literacy, and particularly on meeting the needs of women. The educators of WLC believe in a holistic, integrated approach to literacy and community development and try to develop programs with sensitivity to the needs and the cultural context of the communities where they work.

Welthy Honsinger Fisher was born in Rome, New York, in 1879. At 21, she embarked upon a teaching career. Her first job was in Haverstraw, New York, in a one-room school called Rosebud College where she was in charge of 15 students. “There she had her first experience with prejudice: the one Negro student ran away, fearing blame for the misdeed of a white student, and Welthy brought him back and defended him”.

Welthy's original experience in education in the developing world was as a teacher and headmistress of a school in China in the early 1900s. From the beginning, her approach to education emphasized the importance of local control and she was committed to the idea of women's independence through the tools of education.

Welthy Honsinger was drawn to overseas service after teaching for six years in the United States. In spite of the reservations of friends and family, in 1906 she travelled to China and became the headmistress of the Bao Lin School in Nanchang, and her years in China are vividly described in her autobiography, ‘To Light A Candle’ (published in 1962 by McGraw-Hill). Of her years in China, Welthy Fisher said, "I began to study larger maps...to question the exclusiveness of nationality, religion and race."

Back home from China, she edited a monthly magazine for young people called World Neighbors, received an honorary degree from Syracuse University, lectured, authored four books for children and two for adults (String of Chinese Pearls and Beyond the Moon Gate).

In June 1924, at age 44, Welthy Honsinger married Fred Fisher, a Methodist Bishop working in India. The Fishers were well-acquainted with and respected by Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi and other prominent leaders of the Indian Independence movement. Following her husband's death in 1938, Welthy Fisher travelled widely, returning to China and then to India. During the 1940s, she spent "semesters" studying the educational systems of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, India and the Middle East.

On a trip she took to India in 1947, Welthy was asked by Mahatma Gandhi to return permanently to India and continue her work in education there. In that occasion, on December 14, 1947, Ghandi took Welthy’s hands and said: "When you come back to live in India, go to the villages and help them. India is the village." A month later, in January 1948 Gandhi was assassinated.

In 1952, fourteen years after her husband's death and four years after Gandhi’s, Welthy Fisher returned to India to start a new life. She was 72 years of age but felt young and vigorous and, in the two-year-old Republic of India which neither her husband nor Gandhi had to lived to know, she looked for fresh inspiration. Her life came full circle, and it was at that time in India that she decided that literacy training was a key strategy to eradicate poverty. At that time, the newly independent India became the world's largest democracy, but the great majority of its population (320 million of its 435 million people) were illiterate.

It was unusual that a woman from the USA campaigned for women's literacy and women's independence in India in the 1950s. That Welthy Fisher began her literacy work at the age of 72 and launched a new life path that would include teaching and travelling on almost every continent for the next eighteen years, shows just how extraordinary she was. Not suprisingly, Welthy Fisher herself noted that she experienced several "true reincarnations’ within her long lifetime.

Dedicated to improving the people's lives in "new India" through education, in 1953 Welthy founded Literacy House, a small, non-formal school that combined literacy with vocational training. However it was not long before Welthy and her fellow literacy pioneers realized that similar programs were needed throughout the world, and soon two non-profit organizations, the World Literacy of Canada (Toronto) and World Education (New York City) were founded with the purpose of providing literacy training to those who needed it most throughout the world.

Welthy Honsinger Fisher was deeply involved in both organizations for many years, either as President or advisor. Throughout her nineties she continued to travel widely and in 1978 she visited Peking as the oldest foreign guest of the Chinese government. She made two "farewell" trips to India in 1973 and 1977 but returned one last time in 1980 shortly before her death at the age of 101 in Southbury, Connecticut.

In March 1980, the Government of India issued a Welthy Honsinger Fisher commemorative postage stamp; she is the only American to be so honoured.

Part of Welthy Fisher's genius was that she understood the importance of learning on all fronts and she devoted much energy to educating and raising the consciousness of donors. Her strength, determination and stamina for literacy work in India seemed limitless and continued to be an inspiration for members.

Following her death in 1980, Indira Gandhi issued a message of condolence that stated:

Mrs. Welthy Fisher was a wonderful woman. Beautiful, efficient, enthusiastic and energetic, she lived life to the hilt. At Gandhiji's request she threw herself wholeheartedly into literacy work and put hundreds of thousands of young women on their feet. She loved and served India. I am glad to have known her and count her amongst my friends.

Welthy Fisher's vision remains with World Literacy of Canada and her unique life is a testament to her faith and perseverance. Her motto, a Chinese proverb, was the guiding force of her own life: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

Sources

Sally Swenson. Welthy Honsinger Fisher: Signals of a Century, by Three Decades for Literacy & Development: A History of World Literacy of Canada (http://www.worldlit.ca/history.html)

The 1964 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. Biography of Welthy Honsinger Fisher
(http://www.rmaf.org.ph/Awardees/Biography/BiographyFisherWel.htm)

Prepared by World Literacy of Canada (Toronto) and Daniel Schugurensky (OISE/UT)

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