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Sunday, January 1, 1984

Book Review: The Original Mcguffeys by William Holmes McGuffey

(Mott Media, 1000 East Huron, Milford, Michigan 48042), 1982
7 volumes • $69.95 set

For many years McGuffey’s Readers have charmed nostalgia buffs and have provided solid academic fare for a few traditional educators. The McGuffey’s Readers that were available, however, were later editions, the most recent being the 1920 revision. Now Mott Media, an aggressive publishing company in Michigan, has come forth with the original 1836 edition—and none too soon, in the light of the continued decline of education in America.

William Holmes McGuffey, often referred to as “The Schoolmaster of the Nation,” was born on the Ohio frontier on September 23, 1800. Young McGuffey received a “liberal education in the way of chores” (as one of his Readers later put it) and found little time and less money for formal schooling. McGuffey’s desire to learn was so intense, however, that his parents saw to it that he was able to gain admittance to Washington College in Pennsylvania.

Unable to afford the textbooks necessary for his college classes, McGuffey borrowed copies from friends or the library and copied them out in longhand. In later years, when McGuffey compiled his Readers, more than one story was based on the theme of a poor boy working his way to the top through determination and persistence. As one story in the Fourth Reader later pointed out, “The best seminary of learning that can open its portals to you can do no more than to afford you the opportunity of instruction. It must depend, at last on yourselves, whether you will be instructed or not, or to what point you will push your instruction.” (238) Impressed with his desire to learn and his already substantial attainments in classical languages, Rev. Robert Bishop, president of Miami University in Ohio, offered Mc-Guffey the chair of classics at the frontier college. At Miami, McGuffey taught during the day and studied for the ministry in the evening. In 1829 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. McGuffey filled pulpits in rural churches surrounding Miami, and preached periodically in the college chapel. It was through his Readers, however, that McGuffey preached to the nation. The Readers were published in 1836. Later editions were published by his brother Andrew. Eventually, through successive editions, McGuffey’s Scotch Presbyterian values were diluted by Unitarian influences.

Mott Media’s reprinting of the original McGuffey’s Readers captures the true letter and spirit of the stories as selected by the old schoolmaster himself. The Readers are sprinkled with selections from the Bible. (In McGuffey’s day, the Supreme Court had not yet discovered that the curriculum of America’s local schools was within its area of jurisdiction.)

McGuffey’s Readers also contain stories about great men, holding them up to schoolchildren as an example to follow. The late Dr. Max Rafferty once said that today’s history teachers “debunk the hero, and elevate the jerk.” Men like John Lennon are given a prominent place in history while George Washington, who served without pay during the War for Independence, is accused of padding his expense account. The problem with this teaching method is twofold. First, it leaves children with no models after which to pattern their lives. Second, it is usually historically inaccurate. The character sketches in McGuffey’s Readers, however, give young people ideals towards which to work. Even if children never attain the stature of a Washington or a Webster, at least they have been challenged. A crooked furrow is better than none at all.

McGuffey’s intention was for the Readers to produce young adults who displayed self- government under God. The values taught in the Readers, if followed by a substantial number of citizens, would lead to limited, constitutional government in which “virtue,” as our Founding Fathers would have it, not force, would maintain order.

Like many great books, McGuffey’s Readers will do little good unless ways are found to use them in educating today’s youth. My own experience in using McGuffey’s Readers in the classroom convinces me that students would much rather read these timeless stories than the sterile “Dick and Jane” genre of the past generation. The fact that the Readers contain so many selections from the Bible will undoubtedly make it difficult for them to be adopted by local school boards and textbook selection committees. Despite this “shortcoming,” there are, however, several ways in which the Readers could be used. Teachers can use them in a Reading Enrichment Program. When students finish their required reading, they could read McGuffey. Teachers can often pur chase materials like this (they are tax-deductible) without having to get permission. Sets can also be donated to school and public libraries. History teachers can use the books to illustrate 19th century values and how they laid the philosophical basis for free enterprise—suggesting that these values are still relevant today. Private schools, particularly those in the rapidly growing Christian school movement, will be able to incorporate them into their curriculum. One textbook publishing company, A Beka Books based in Pensacola, Florida, has taken stories from McGuffey’s Readers and placed them in its elementary curriculum. The New McGuffey’s Read ers, as A Beka styles them, are being used with success in many private Christian schools.

Finally, parents should have a set in their own homes. Here, McGuffey’s Readers will provide a necessary supplement to the morally and intellectually anemic fare being offered up by today’s educational establishment.

  • Mr. Peterson is headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including National Review and Human Events.