The 2021-22 academic year is drawing to a close, leaving in its wake a legacy of ill will and anger brought on by battles between public school boards and the teachers’ unions on one side and parents and voters on the other; battles raging from San Francisco to Loudon County Virginia over issues such as school closures, virtual learning, gender and sexuality, critical race theory, the “1619 Project”, the politicization of curricula, the dumbing down of standards and much else.
Symptomatic of the malaise affecting American education is the recent publication of “The Nation’s Report Card” by the U.S. Department of Education, which shows, among other findings, that only 20% of America’s public school children are proficient in American history, 35% in reading, 27% in civics and 28% in writing. Failing grades were given in many other subjects as well.
Reform on a massive scale is clearly indicated and as would-be reformers go back to the drawing board they should pause to ponder the lessons offered by a seminal event in American educational history whose 180th anniversary coincides with this school year: The publication of the first two of William Holmes McGuffey‘s “Eclectic Readers,” known better as “McGuffey’s Readers.”
The first four, of what would become six, “Readers” were written by an obscure professor, William Holmes McGuffey, who taught at an obscure college, Miami University, located on the edge of the frontier in southwestern Ohio, on land purchased under the signature of George Washington and chartered by Thomas Jefferson. Classes began in 1824. The purpose of the new university, in the words of Steve Gordon, administrator of the present-day McGuffey Home and Museum in Oxford, Ohio, was “to educate leaders for the new nation.”
The new university succeeded in its mission spectacularly well, educating by the time of the Civil War, scores of future governors, senators and congressmen, state officials, generals and admirals.
The mission of young professor McGuffey, encouraged by his friend Julia Ward Howe, was even more ambitious— to educate the children of the new nation and to endow them with a common American identity. Between 1836 and 1930 an estimated 120 million sets of the “Readers” were sold, placing them on par with the Bible in sales terms. To this day an average of 30,000 sets of the “Readers” continue to be sold annually, many for use in homeschooling.
As impressive as the quantity of “Readers” sold is the quality of the books. Reading McGuffey’s “Readers” today, one is struck by how challenging they are compared to most of today’s elementary school reading books.
The “Readers” taught reading by the phonics method, requiring teachers to sound out words — a happy byproduct of which was to standardize pronunciation in a burgeoning far-flung, new country fractured by hundreds of dialects. New vocabulary words were introduced in the context of interesting stories that captured the interest of the students, and then the new words continued to be used, reinforcing their retention by the students. Students were required to read aloud, which enhanced their verbal communication and public speaking skills.
For more than a century after their introduction in 1836, McGuffey’s “Readers” were the major source of education for America’s school children, educating millions of them from coast to coast.
In 1946 Dr. Ernest H. Hahne, then-president of Miami University, gave a speech to the Federation of McGuffey Societies in which he identified the six qualities that made McGuffey’s “Readers” the enduring classics they became. First, Mr. Hahne said that Mr. McGuffey taught the primacy of character development as the foundation of all education.
Second, Mr. McGuffey “selected those readings from literature that stressed the importance of great men” – heroic figures that were worthy of respect and emulation.
Third, Mr. Hahne noted that Mr. McGuffey taught the importance of patriotism, of pride in America’s founding principles and the heroes connected with the nation’s founding.
Fourth, in Mr. Hahn’s accounting was respect for other peoples throughout the world and for the universal lessons that could be learned from the literature and folk culture of other countries. Many examples of these lessons are provided in the “Readers.”
Fifth, Mr. McGuffey emphasized literary values. The “Readers” included excerpts from the works of Shakespeare, Dryden, Dickens, Ruskin, Thackeray and MacCauley,” among many other great figures of the Western canon.
Mr. Hahne notes that Mr. McGuffey‘s literary bibliography basically became the foundation of the literary curricula in many colleges and universities in the 19th Century.
Sixth and perhaps most important in Mr. Hahne’s list; “McCuffey (who was a strong Calvinist) portrayed the literary and spiritual values of the Bible, which he regarded as the greatest of all books, containing essential guidance for living.”
Indeed, in Mr. McGuffey‘s view, the Bible was the foundation of the values upon which character is built and the wellspring from which charity, acts of kindness, humility and all other virtues necessary to leading a good life.
To note the phenomenal success the McGuffey “Readers” had in educating earlier generations of Americans is not to say that they could or should be re-imposed unaltered today.
The “Readers” were written at a time when the vast majority of students were white and Protestant. Four million African Americans were enslaved and women did not have the right to vote. And indeed, even in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the McGuffey “Readers” were repeatedly updated to meet the changing needs of a burgeoning, increasingly diverse population.
With appropriate updating, however, a new McGuffey “Reader” could provide sound guidance for reforming the deficiencies of contemporary reading and writing curricula in our elementary schools, deficiencies that are compounded as students advance to high school and on to college.
A wealth of great literature has been published since Mr. McGuffey wrote his “Readers” almost two centuries ago and a host of heroic figures — men and women of “every kindred and creed”—have emerged who embody the timeless virtues which he extolled.
Their stories should be told in a compelling way that captures the imagination of young students, challenges their intellect and appeals to their hearts— heroic stories that lead students to strive for excellence, inspire them to want to help others less fortunate and make their communities and their country better places.
The material is there with which to fashion a reinvigorated telling of the American story — “an informed patriotism” in the words of Ronald Reagan — that candidly recognizes the flaws in our nation’s history, but also acknowledges that our founding ideals and principles are noble — indeed the envy of the world— and that America is a good, indeed an exceptional, nation.
• James C. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center, an organization that seeks to “guard the legacy of American’s Veterans and their legacy of service and sacrifice.” Part of the mission of the AVC is to educate future military leaders about the history, ideals and principles of the nation’s founders.