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McGuffey's Readers

Milestones Vol 24. No.2

By Edith Porter

William Holmes McGuffey came from Scotch stock on his father's side and Irish and English on his mother's. Born near Washington, PA, he was brought up in Ohio, near Youngstown where his father bought one hundred sixty-five acres which had to be cleared. From childhood, he was precocious and more devoted to learning than to farm labor, though he did his share of it too. He had a sketchy education and then began the life of a country teacher drumming up "subscription scholars" through Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. He resumed schooling at the Greersburg (Greersburg was later changed to Darlington because of its frequent confusion with Greensburg by the Post Office) Academy under a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Hughes. When this training failed to qualify him to pass a board of examiners to become headmaster of a new school in Warren, Ohio, he decided to enroll at Washington College in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He soon mastered most of what they had to offer and when, in his junior year, he was offered a Professorship at the new University of Miami, in Oxford, Ohio, he accepted. The trustees of Washington College voted him his degree without completion of the course. His younger brother, Alexander, accompanied him to become educated under William Holmes' tutelage.

The younger brother became a prodigy of scholarship and deportment by constant contact with older serious colleagues of the Professor. Teachings of Pestalozzi had reached America, and the boy became the guinea pig; for example, young Aleck learned Hebrew grammar before English grammar and Greek and Latin followed, while his mind was fresh and pliant. William Holmes McGuffey believed a child should advance as fast as he could and would.

In addition to the duties of his Professorship, he fulfilled his ambition of qualifying as a Presbyterian minister. He was a Fundamentalist in belief, but in preaching he laid emphasis on character rather than on dogma. In 1830 his course on Moral Philosophy was regarded as the most exciting course there. He used the Socratic method, and in an age of academic stuffiness, his course was a real exception.

He was an early member of a society of intellectuals from in and around Cincinnati and leaders of education from nearby states. They formed the first important teachers' association in America and called it a "College of Teachers". It was later known as the "Western Literary Institute". The common school was the chief phase of education discussed, and McGuffey was a prominent member and frequent speaker and lecturer. His 1845 lecture before this society was an eloquent appeal for the education of the whole community; lessons for the laboring class that they might become pious and intelligent; the need of trained teachers; continued growth of teachers in service; adequate school buildings. This body promoted western culture and schools which gave impetus to western authorship and publications.'

McGuffey started a small experimental school to try out some of his theories on primary education. The daily lessons arranged for these classes gradually took shape as a book.

During his early association with the "College for Teachers" he was recommended to a printer who wished to publish a new set of school readers. He accepted the challenge and suggested his brother Alexander as collaborator. Alexander is credited with the remarkable anthology of fine English and American literature represented in The Rhetorical Guide which was later expanded into the Fifth and Sixth Eclectic Readers. They were to mold the tastes of four generations. For many a household they were, with the Bible, the sole source of mental enlightenment, for many a self-educated man, his only Alma-Mater.2

The choice of the word Eclectic hinted at McGuffey's aim of embodying all the valuable principles of previous education systems without any particular line of Kant, Pestalozzi, Descartes, or Locke.3

Although American readers began to appear in increasing numbers during the 1850's and '60's, no series at this time captured the attention of the schools so much as the McGuffey readers. These contributed much to the education of vast numbers of people living west of the Applachians during the last half of the nineteenth century, and it has been estimated that 122 million had been sold by 1900.

These largely reflect the culture of the time and area. Protestant Christianity permeated the west, and the tradition of including religious instruction in the readers had not wholly died out. McGuffey's code provided punishment for evil-doing and reward for virtue, but it was direct, earthly, and within youthful understanding - - not some vague notion of damnation or spiritual reward as represented in most of the works of his New England contemporaries. The vast majority of the selections have a strong moral interest without being specifically religious. Arther Trace describes them:

Even though many of the selections are concerned with such virtues as thrift, modesty, industry, and propriety, taken together the McGuffey readers constituted a kind of encyclopedia of morality calculated to give students a full sense of what is morally bad and morally good. McGuffey drew heavily upon the classics of American politics, from the writings of great statesmen such as Daniel Webster, Patrick, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Hayne, John Calhoun, and Benjamin Franklin. American writings are well represented by almost every great American author then known. In his concern that students acquire as good a literary education as possible from his readers, he included a generous selection from a fairly dazzling galaxy of great English authors.4

Thus, the student who read all his McGuffey's Readers not only received a pretty good literary education by seeing what the best American and English authors were able to do with the English language, but he had also learned a great deal about his country and about what is right or wrong. Presumably the reminders of God's presence which appear from time to time in the readers contributed something to his spiritual well being.

In an article in American Heritage, Walter Havighurst proposes the reason that the McGuffey series ran away with the race with fifteen sets of readers of his time is in the application to everyday situations of the words and ideas. He suggests the clue is in the first lesson - - "A is for Ax" - - when the ax was ringing in every clearing, hewing logs for cabins and schoolhouses and changing the midcontinent. Other homely and familiar things followed - - "box, cat, dog, nut, ox, pig, vine, wren, and yoke". The lessons were alive with children at work, at play; jumping ropes, sleds, dolls, hoops, kites and skates. He explains their wide interest:

The selections contained enough Puritanism to satisfy transplanted Yankees, enough Cavalier manner to fit the attitudes of the South, enough practical optimism to appeal to ambitious Scotch, German, and Irish settlers, and enough assurance of the material rewards of virtue to gratify all... The readers pictured a land where opportunity is open to all - - all who will sobertly and steadily pursue it... Here was the spreading myth of middle class America: work, strive, persevere, and success will follow.

The lessons contained no wonderers or wanderers, no pilgrims or seekers, no rebels, no reformers or dissenters, but endless examples of practical ambition and prosaic success. 5

They are often credited with being the first graded reading textbooks designed in America. They were a big step forward from earlier readers with their rural wit, the wide literary scope and their carefully organized notes, definitions, and instructions for teachers.6 One of the obvious omissions from his books is any political speech of Lincoln's, or any hint of the North-South conflict and upheaval.' This is probably because he was a transplanted Ohioan at the University of Virginia, and his books were widely used in the South as well as all over the West.

Harvey C. Minnich feels that the supremacy of the McGuffey readers was due to several reasons. The first was that they taught the child to read from the start, instead of keeping him at spelling for months on end. Spelling lessons taken from the reading assignment accompanied all selections. The literary character was excellent. It was his Pictorial Primer that introduced the children to the earliest phases of visual education and all the McGuffey readers had more illustrations than others of their day. His texts taught the fine art of speaking and pronouncing correctly, important in an area with so many immigrants. His method of captioning lessons created interest in themselves - - he introduced the human element. The material was adapted for the minds of children, avoiding the theological mysticism of New England. They presented stories about nature and experiences familiar in rural and small-town childhood. The McGuffey moral and social code fit in well with the religious background of Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Lutherans in the western states and with the Scottish and German thrift.'

Arther S. Trace remarks in a summation about various early American school readers, including McGuffey's, that what they had in common was: They were predicated on the assumption that while the student is learning to read, he should be reading something that is truly worthwhile.9

Ramon Ross, in an article in National Elementary Principal, states that the readers' contents seem to substantiate McGuffey's hopes of presenting a wide range of authors, to present the best specimens of style, to insure interest in the subjects, to impart valuable information and to exert a decided and healthful moral influence. He comments: all of us are aware of the difficulties inherent in teaching moral and ethical conduct. These seem to be better caught than taught.'°

He points out that several of McGuffey's practices could be used profitably today - - vocabulary development by unlimited word control; the deep interest generated in reading; the wide breadth of subject matter offered; captivation of the flavor of the story by the illustrations offered; unmasked treatment of the subject of death. He proposes a new McGuffey series, keeping the best of the old principles, and adding new selections covering naturalism, science, psychology, modern literature, and some inclusion to provide a common heritage of art.

Revived interest in the McGuffeys has its protagonists who point out that McGuffey's authors like Whittier and Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens, have over the years achieved greatness. Another group are those who advocate the basic education represented in the readers and who maintain that the life adjustment idea has been too prevalent at the expense of reading, writing, and ciphering. Another group of super patriots observe that their very ingredients which the Communists can't abide - - attention to God, Morality, and the Family - - could be potent medicine for a sick America.

Opponents to these ideas are teachers and educators who point out the uncontrolled vocabulary (some of the words used in the first reader are admittedly difficult, though within the understanding of their age), lack of colorful character of the illustrations, the tedious character of the writing and the dripping sentimentality throughout the readers.

Psychologists add their criticisms. They point out that children learn best the things which relate to their own needs, and they feel the material lacks orderly sequence aimed toward reinforcement in learning. Then, of course, we have the ever present criticism of the readers' Protestant-Christian religiosity."

His original readers gave elaborate instructions on how to read, for his was the era of declamation. Poetry and speeches were the highlight of family gatherings and holiday occasions, and many of the favorite selections were taken from the pages of the McGuffey readers. '2 My father, who was brought up with these readers in the 1880's recited from memory, "What I Live For" from McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. I teamed to my surprise that "Mary's Lamb" and "The Little Star" had more verses than those I learned in school when my father supplied them from memory from McGuffey's First Reader.

In 1845 McGuffey accepted a Professorship at the University of Virginia and took up the cause of compulsory education which Thomas Jefferson strove for without success. Virginia did not seem ready for it, but after the Civil War was forced to accept it as a condition of readmission to the Union.

He lectured and preached all over the state, and his conservative theology was generally approved; his Moral Philosophy was a popular class at the relatively liberal University of Virginia. He was able to teach even the dullest student with such clarity that a student rarely failed his course."

The National Education Association paid tribute to his contribution to education at the 1873 National Convention in a memorial resolution citing his life's devotion to the cause of education.

Further tributes to him have been made in the McGuffey societies and museums. Collections of his readers are sought for libraries, and Henry Ford commemorated him by reprinting the six readers of 1857.

Commager described the old McGuffeys as "instruments by which culture could be woven into the fabric of American life".

Minnich credits William Holmes McGuffey with exerting, from 1836 to 1900, the greatest cultural influence of any person in American History.

Alice McGuffey Ruggles, The Story of the

McGuffeys, p. 23. 2 Ibid., p. 97.

3 Harvey C. Minnich, William Holmes McGuffey And His Readers, p. 67.

4 Arther S. Trace, Reading Without Dick and Jane, p. 185.

5 Walter Havighurst, "Primer From A Green World", American Heritage, VIII (Aug. 1957), p. 94, 95.

6 Ramon Ross, "New Eclecticism for Old McGuffeys", National Elementary Principal, XLVI (Sept. 1966), p. 37.

7 Ibid., p: 38.

S Henry C. Minnich, William Holmes

McGuffey And His Readers, p. 60.

9 Arther S. Trace, Jr., Reading Without Dick

and Jane, p. 187.

10 Ramon Ross, "New Eclecticism For Old

McGuffeys", National Elementary Principal, XLVI (Sept. 1966), p. 39.

I' Ibid., p.37.

12 H. F. and K. Pringle, "He Scared the Devil

Out of Grandpa", The Saturday Evening

Post, CCXXVII (Jan. 22, 1955), p. 113.

13 Alice McGuffey Ruggles, The Story of the McGuffeys, p. 199.