McGuffey, Schoolmaster of America

mcGBy Henry J. Pratt


   More than 180 years ago in Cincinnati, Ohio, the publishing firm of Truman and Winthrop B. Smith signed a textbook contract with William Holmes McGuffey, a dour disciplinarian and relatively unknown homespun philosophy professor. The contract obligated McGuffey to prepare six school books—a primer, a speller and four readers.


   When the now-famous contract was approved in 1834, the United States was a rapidly-growing country with ever-expanding western frontiers. People were beginning to appreciate the importance of sound public education, especially at the elementary level. Publishers Truman and Smith and Bill McGuffey were no exceptions.


   With no vocal minorities or feminists in textbook publishing and no watchdog committees hovering about, McGuffey methodically set about fulfilling his contract terms. McGuffey included in his textbooks what he considered most important for the schoolkids of yesteryear.


   Studies show about half of America’s school-children in the late 1800s and early 1900s were exposed to the living precepts of McGuffey’s Readers. More than 122 million of the McGuffey publications were sold in an 85-year period ending in 1920, and it’s estimated that a billion grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents read McGuffey during that time. Seven million copies were sold between 1836 and 1850 alone—this in a nation then of 23 million people.


   McGuffey’s texts and basic instruction methods, some teachers say now, worked in earlier America because of his strong belief and trust in the classic exhortation: “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”


   Under his textbook contract, McGuffey’s First and Second Readers successfully hit the print in 1836, followed by a surge of advertising hype by the publishers. The Third and Fourth Readers came out the next year. Brother Alex McGuffey’s The Rhetorical Guide was published in 1844 and later became the Fifth and Sixth Readers. In 1838 Alex also compiled the Speller.


   McGuffey’s publications became the basic elementary texts in 37 states, and were particularly popular in the frontier west. However, they were little used in New England, where early education was still slanted to the gifted and privileged few.


   Now generally taboo in children’s literature and textbooks, the McGuffey series abounded in teaching lessons on morality. Many stories were of the Horatio Alger bent, emphasizing to the children, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”


   In McGuffey’s Readers respect and obedience to parents and other elders were expected; honesty was the best policy; industry and frugality were glorified. Lying and profanity were soundly condemned. Such standards of conduct and behavior are often missing in today’s literature and textbooks. Many of our ancestors memorized poetic McGuffey lessons from yesteryear such as: “All that you do; Do with might. Things done by halves; Are not done right.”


   McGuffey was born on the western Pennsylvania frontier in 1800, the second of a family of 11 children. Did his teaching methods and textbook contents work in the heyday of a simpler America? This is best answered by saying that many of our great thinkers, political leaders, and literary and industrial giants studied McGuffey Readers while growing up. These included William Howard Taft, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain and Henry Ford.


   With our changing educational and social mores and more intense textbook publishing competition, The Readers became passe in the late 1920s. However, long-time admirers formed McGuffey Societies to honor the man. McGuffey was fondly referred to as “The Schoolmaster of America.”


   After spending 19 years as an Ohio educator, including four years as president of Ohio University in Athens, McGuffey went to the University of Virginia faculty. There, he quietly passed the last 28 years of his life, dying in 1873, but his dramatic contribution to American education lives on.

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