McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader
Today, a person who does not know about McGuffey who first picks up a set of the Readers is bewildered by the elevated reading level, particularly in the Fifth and Sixth books.
The extraordinary series of schoolbooks called McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers is virtually unknown to most people. What is more disturbing is that our teachers today have never heard of McGuffey. Why? The professionals controlling our schools (for lack of a better word) regard the Eclectic Readers as outmoded historical objects from the 19th century. McGuffey’s works are indeed something to scorn as his books provided students with a Christian worldview and solid morals, values, and principles. We cannot have such things today; this would breach the worshiped wall of separation.
The above aside, McGuffey’s Readers’ essential consideration is that they are all about something the school system frowns upon — students reading good wholesome material. In addition, our school system has failed to give people the tools necessary for learning beyond the classroom. Specifically, the ability to read, understand and think. The reading crisis directly results from a century of radical educational experimentation. Every day the news abounds with facts about the terrible state of our education system. Unfortunately, just like the church scandal, the mainstream only reports the surface of the educational crisis, not the core of the problem.
Enter one William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873), the Eclectic Readers creator known as “the schoolmaster to the nation.” He was born into a Scottish-Irish family in western Pennsylvania. As a youngster, his devout Presbyterian family moved to Ohio. In 1826, William graduated from college and then worked in various teaching positions. He quickly rose to the rank of professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
During the 1830s, the publisher Truman and Smith of Cincinnati, Ohio, approached Catherine Beecher 1 to author a series of readers. Beecher declined but recommended William, who agreed to develop four readers. He completed the task in just two years, and in 1836-37 the four Readers plus a “Primer” got into the hands of teachers.
After completing the first editions of the readers, the noble McGuffey was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and served as president of two colleges in Ohio. In 1845 he moved to the Old Dominion and became a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia.
By the time of McGuffey’s death in Virginia (1873), up to 50 million sets of his books found their way to teachers and students. Nevertheless, he never received more than the original amount supplied for writing the readers - $1,000.
After his death, the Readers continued to succeed, and William’s younger brother Alexander (1816-1896) sustained the excellent work by writing the Fifth and Sixth readers. He also authored the McGuffey Eclectic Speller. The Readers continued in wide use after the death of Alexander.
The Readers dominated education from 1836 through to the 1920s. More than 120 million copies of the Reader were sold during this period. As such, they were one of the most widely used works of literature of this period; as many as half the children learned to read the “McGuffey way.” Furthermore, the Readers gave students a shared sense of experience through knowledge of our founding history and culture. The Readers influenced many of our influential figures from the past in a positive way. For example, Teddy Roosevelt used “Meddlesome Mary” to describe governmental shenanigans. He was referring to a character named Matilda. 2
Today, a person who does not know about McGuffey who first picks up a set of the Readers is bewildered by the elevated reading level, particularly in the Fifth and Sixth books. Even the college student of today would have difficulty studying the contents of these two Readers. The Readers, designed initially for one-room schoolhouses, helped children from age six to late teens who shared the same teacher. In this setting, learning was natural, and each pupil advanced at their own pace. So, there was no collectivist educational system with a penchant for “social studies.” McGuffey’s Readers offered an array of great American and English literature. Selections included the Bible (uh oh), poems by Byron, Milton, Wordsworth, Poe, Shakespeare, etc. The Readers also had a range of texts from such greats as James Fennimore Cooper and Blackstone.
Instead of inflammatory rhetoric, the Readers used a more reasonable method to teach about the evils of slavery. For example, in a lesson called “The Birds Set Free,” a rich man approaches a boy selling caged birds for 50 cents each. The man then buys all the birds and lets them loose. The man explains to the boy, “I was shut up three years in a French prison, as a prisoner of war, and I am resolved to never see anything in prison which I can make free.” As for morals, values, and principles, the readers hold tales and lessons about the importance of charity, hard work, and honesty throughout each book.
Teachers throughout America used McGuffey Readers up to the end of World War I. During this period, John Dewey, head of the Teachers College at Columbia University (1904 to 1930), and his colleagues started an assault on traditional American education. During this time, the public education system started to teach our children to be socialist members of a one-world citizenry.
The frontal assault aside, the McGuffey Readers have enjoyed the enthusiastic support of many influential people in addition to Teddy Roosevelt. Henry Ford, who left school at age 15, had credited the McGuffey Readers for his success. In 1932, Ford bought the log cabin where William Holmes McGuffey was born. Later he moved it to his famous Americana museum at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, where it is on display.
Today, the Readers are making a comeback but not in the educational (cough cough) machine system. Private schools and home school aficionados find the Readers the most essential and effective educational instrument, bar none. Any attempt to introduce the McGuffey Readers into government schools would surely bring on the knee-jerk reaction of a “right-wing Christian plot.” The postmodern liberal Pavlov Dog reaction aside, thank you, William Holmes McGuffey.
Cogent Author and Publisher, Frederick R. Smith
Cogent Editor, Sean Tinney
Sister of the famous Reverend Lyman Beecher. The Beecher name is well known due to Lyman’s daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped stimulate the abolitionist cause and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Harriet was the sixth child born to Lyman Beecher and his first wife. Reverend Beecher was a conscientious Presbyterian, unwavering in his social and religious beliefs. He taught his children with a sense of social justice for everyone, including women and African Americans. Lyman Beecher was, however, an opponent of Roman Catholicism.
“Meddlesome Mary” was a reference to a character named Matilda who appeared in a humorous poem in the Fourth Reader “Matty” who was a curious little girl who could not keep her nose out of her Grandmother’s snuffbox.