The Strange Afterlife of William McGuffey and His Readers

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Author: Johann N. Neem
Date: Summer 2018
From: The Hedgehog Review(Vol. 20, Issue 2)
Publisher: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,555 words

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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. (1)

Many other Americans share DeVos's belief that public schools no longer represent traditional American values, values that citizens of an older and more religiously observant Protestant America would have taken for granted.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. (2) 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." (3) 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." (4) 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.

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

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." (5) For many parents, the Readers are "refreshingly moral" because "they were written in an age of incredible spiritual awakening in America." (6) Homeschooling evangelicals also value the Readers' approach to teaching grammar and...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Neem, Johann N. "The Strange Afterlife of William McGuffey and His Readers." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 20, no. 2, summer 2018, pp. 114+. Accessed 20 Sept. 2021.
  

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