(Re)Turning To W.H. McGuffey’s Frontier Virtues

By Susan Walton — February 02, 1983 7 min read
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In January 1982, a small school district in southwestern Virginia took a step that school-board members hoped would correct some of the problems they perceived in their reading-instruction program.

They were dismayed with the progress the children were making using modern basal readers. So at the insistence of the school-board chairman, Gus Sorensen, who remembered hearing about the books from his mother, school officials in Bristol took what some might regard as a giant step backward’ and invested in McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers.

They turned to Mr. McGuffey’s series--which largely dropped out of sight in the public schools around 1920--because, board members said, they wanted more challenging material, and because they sought textbooks that would help children to become honest, patriotic, kind, punctual, and persistent.

McGuffey’s Readers, which teach reading through a series of “improving” stories and poems drawn mostly from other authors, place heavy emphasis on these themes.

“We felt that the children needed more values like patriotism and honesty, that the basal readers were watered down too much,” said Evelyn Murray, who supervises the reading program in the Bristol, Va., public schools. But Ms. Murray also praised the methods, the rich vocabulary, and the literary quality of the selections in the series of six readers and a primer.

Somewhere, one suspects, William Holmes McGuffey is smiling down on Britol, Va. The scholar, educator, and minister died in 1873, but the values and educational tenets that he tried to incorporate into his readers--the first of which was published in 1836--were precisely those described by Ms. Murray 147 years later.

Today, although one can hardly argue that a “back-to-McGuffey” movement is underway, there is evidence of a resurgence of interest in the series that in many ways helped shape the values of middle-class America. For 80 years, McGuffey’s Readers were the textbooks from which 80 percent of all Americans were educated, according to Stanley W. Lindberg, a professor of humanities at the University of Georgia and editor of the Georgia Review, whose book, The Annotated McGuffey, traces the changes in the readers between the years of 1836 and 1920.

Annual sales have climbed from 4,000 copies to 20,000 since 1975, according to officials at Van Nostrand Reinhold, one of several publishers that keep the series on their sales list.

Public Schools Buy Readers

The publisher keeps no breakdown of sales to schools, but as of 1975, perhaps 40 public schools or districts had purchased some of the readers, and many private and parochial schools had never stopped using them. Now, says Robert Baird, Van Nostrand’s publicity director, he suspects that the number of public schools using the series has increased.

“I talk to a lot of teachers who are interested in using it,” he said. Some want to know if they can delete material that by current standards is racist, sexist, or overly religious, but they still want to use it.

Why? “Simply because it’s put together so much better than today’s readers are,” Mr. Baird said. “It progresses more smoothly. The material it uses is all considered to be beau-tiful. And none of it is Catcher in the Rye.”

Mr. Baird and others point out also that McGuffey’s Readers tackle fearlessly the moral instruction that modern texts shun as too controversial. “They have meat to them,” said Ms. Murray. “Everything has a moral to it. They say, ‘Do something worthwhile today.”’

There is, some observers point out, a mild irony in that praise. For although Mr. McGuffey himself was a definite proponent of moral education, the Cincinnati publisher who asked the professor of ancient languages to compile a reader was primarily interested in a product that would allow his firm to capture the rapidly expanding Western market before his competitors did, Mr. Lindberg said.

What they sought was a text that was as innocent of controversial materials as modern basal readers are today, because controversy damaged sales and gave the competition a chance to move in.

“There was a good deal of competition, and it increased throughout the years,” Mr. Lindberg noted.

“The reason McGuffey’s Readers were so successful,” he added, “was largely a matter of marketing.”

New England primers and others were in wide use, he said. “But most of them were British textbooks, so they were not really very appropriate for children on the frontier. That was the first intent [the publishers] had--they wanted a Western textbook and they promoted it as such.”

The publisher, Truman and Smith, used a variety of tactics to extend its control of the market, including modifying material from existing texts to suit the frontier spirit, Mr. Lindberg said. In a New England primer, A was for Adam. In the McGuffey primer, A was for axe. The publisher was also said to use less honorable methods, such as trying to convince local clergy that competing texts were the work of the Devil.

But Mr. McGuffey and the editors who took over the revisions of later editions focused most heavily on promoting the virtues that would build the pioneer spirit and hence the nation.

The selections covered many topics and were “improving” in all senses of the word. Good children were rewarded; bad children were punished. Mr. McGuffey was not only a professor of moral philosophy, he was also a Presbyterian minister and “undoubtedly a very strict and definite moralist,” said Sterling Cook, an art-museum curator who spends part of his time tending the McGuffey Museum at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

But, noted Mr. Lindberg, “they were very careful in terms of excluding anything that might hurt sales.” Promoted as containing no material antagonistic to “regional interests,” he said, the books never mentioned slavery or the abolitionist movements that prevailed in the North.

The editors deleted an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock talked of slavery. “That wasn’t an argument the South wanted to hear,” Mr. Lindberg said.

Fighting For The Fatherland

Although the books included selections that promoted patriotism during the Civil War, they were more likely to speak in general terms of the nobility of fighting for one’s fatherland and tactfully omit any mention of what that fatherland was.

And as social and ethical controversies surfaced in society, McGuffey’s editors were more likely to delete any reference to them than to take a stand one way or another, although they did support the temperance movement, those who have studied the readers point out.

In 1879, for example, 20 years after Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, a lesson on “How the World Was Made” was removed from the series.

The later editions changed in other ways as well, Mr. Lindberg said. While the first edition contained materials of strong literary merit, later editions tended to drop these in favor of “sentimental” verse.

The revisions that helped McGuffey’s Readers to hang onto the market eventually helped them to lose it, Mr. Lindberg said. Many educators complained that the 1879 edition lacked many of their favorite lessons. When the company attempted a sweeping revision in the second decade of the 1900’s, it was a dismal failure, he said.

By that time, the “graded” readers were badly out of step with the grade system that had been established in public schools.

“It didn’t die suddenly,” Mr. Lindberg said. “They really abandoned it.”

But those who use McGuffey’s Readers today say that the material is as timely now as it was in the mid-19th century. They say that children, who might be expected to find McGuffey stories somewhat corny, like the selections.

“The kids say, ‘this is what we want,”’ said Ms. Murray of Bristol. “It seems like it holds their attention. The children are saying, ‘I need this too.”’

The teachers, initially dubious, also like the readers, Ms. Murray said. “The more they teach it, the more they like it.” And parents are “demanding” McGuffey. “They call and say, ‘let’s get on with it,”’ Ms. Murray said.

The enthusiastic reception that Mr. McGuffey’s readers are receiving in Bristol might not be duplicated everywhere, and some would say that the materials do not belong in modern schools. But as Mr. Lindberg pointed out, the readers had an influence on American culture that no modern text could hope to duplicate.

“I’m not advocating going back to McGuffey,” he said. “But I am advocating, strongly, that we try to understand them. They shaped middle America and had a total cultural impact that is hard for us to understand today.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 1983 edition of Education Week as (Re)Turning To W.H. McGuffey’s Frontier Virtues


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