Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

The Strange Afterlife of William McGuffey and His Readers

Johann N. Neem

Classroom in Ohio, 1920s; details from McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader, Robert Martin/Alamy Stock Photo; THR photo illustration.

To some Americans, the McGuffey Readers represent a lost Eden.

President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has long been an advocate of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, she led the movement to shift funds and students away from public schools, supporting not only charter schools but voucher programs to allow families to use tax dollars to send their children to religious schools. DeVos argues that families, not government, should determine what kind of education to provide children, and even challenges the very premise that the public has the right to play a role in the development of the next generation.11xEmma Brown, “Influential Conservative Group: Trump, DeVos Should Dismantle Education Department and Bring God into Classrooms,” Washington Post, February 15, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/influential-conservative-group-trump-devos-should-dismantle-education-department-and-bring-god-into-classrooms/2017/02/15/196bf872-f2df-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html.

Many other Americans share DeVos’s belief that public schools no longer represent traditional American values, values that citizens of an older and more religiously observant Protestant America would have taken for granted. That transformation reflects a number of demographic trends, including increased immigration, and the related rise of a more ethnically and religiously diverse America. Perhaps more important than the growing presence of non-Protestant faiths, however, is the fact that many Americans are choosing not to attend church at all.22xSee, for example, Pew Research Center, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” October 9, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/. Yet such changes in demographics and habits came to seem directly threatening only after a series of Supreme Court decisions that, one by one, pushed most expressions of even the most diluted religiosity out of the public schools.

As a result of this enforced “secularization,” some Americans began to shun the public school system in order to restore a more faith-centered education for their children. In looking to the past, many evangelical homeschoolers rediscovered the McGuffey Readers, the leading grade-school readers of the nineteenth century. This series of primers that education reformer William McGuffey developed for American “common schools” in the nineteenth century has been credited, in the words of one historian, with “making the American mind.” A bit less grandiosely but no less significantly, another scholar has asserted that “outside of the King James Bible, the McGuffey Readers were the most widely read books in nineteenth-century America.”33xRichard Mosier, Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (New York, NY: King’s Crown Press, 1947), 25; Elliot J. Gorn, The McGuffey Readers: Selections from the 1879 Edition (Boston, MA: 1998), 2. But if those readers once represented a consensus of what Protestant America took for granted, today they present an alternative reality.

The original McGuffey Readers have been reissued in beautiful hardbound copies by the Christian publisher Mott Media because, in the words of the publisher, “When God is pushed out, humanism fills the void.” The Readers “are an answer for people concerned about humanism in education today.”44xMott Media Publishing, “About Us,” http://mottmedia.com/about-us, accessed January 11, 2018. To some Americans, the series represents a lost Eden, a time when Protestant Christian principles were widely shared and when schools openly cultivated Christian character.

The testimonials of contemporary users of the series speak volumes. One homeschooling mother with fifteen children extolled the Readers because “they were written during a time in our history when Biblical Christianity was practiced and endorsed throughout America.”55xSherry Hayes, Dollar Homeschool’s Guide to the McGuffey Readers and Other Eclectic Series Books, 4, October 2011, http://www.dollarhomeschool.com/Rays-sample/Dollar%20Homeschool%20McGuffey's%20Guide%20PDF%20sample.pdf. For many parents, the Readers are “refreshingly moral” because “they were written in an age of incredible spiritual awakening in America.”66xSherry Hayes, “McGuffey and the Christian Age of America,” Homeschool Sanity (blog), accessed January 3, 2017, http://mcguffeysworld.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20McGuffey%20era. Homeschooling evangelicals also value the Readers’ approach to teaching grammar and vocabulary through phonics rather than the “Whole Word” method, even though, in his own time, McGuffey’s approach would have been seen as innovative and a threat to traditional forms of educational authority.77xSee, for example, Timothy Power, “On the McGuffey Readers,” Sometimes I’m Actually Coherent (blog), September 17, 2007, http://tdpower.blogspot.com/2007/09/on-mcguffey-readers.html.

The evangelical embrace of McGuffey is almost matched in intensity by the disdain of many historians, some of whom portray the Readers as narrowly moralistic and conformist, imposing on one and all “a common (Protestant, Christian) Lord” and rejecting Americans’ diversity.88xJames W. Fraser, Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 35–40. Rather than reflect Americans’ shared norms, others contend, the Readers aimed to control the minds of working-class Americans: “Those who were rich and considered respectable exercised a kind of cultural control when they tried to regulate poorer classes’ thoughts and behaviors, even through such seemingly innocuous things as school textbooks.”99xGorn, The McGuffey Readers, 12. The Readers have been described as a conservative response to the American Revolution’s egalitarian principles.1010xMosier, Making the American Mind, ch. 1. One scholar has even concluded that McGuffey’s efforts to promote patriotism undermined American liberty by making Americans slaves to their nation.1111xFrançois Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006). See also James Block, A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002).

Whether revering or rejecting his work, McGuffey’s fans and detractors both manage to miss the point of his original project: to find a middle ground, a place where diverse Americans could come together around shared values in order to participate in common public institutions. Today, when the very project of public education is being called into question, even at the highest levels of government, McGuffey’s legacy merits reconsideration.

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