September 23, 2011

McGuffey: John must not tear the book

Near the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, William Holmes McGuffey was born on September 23, 1800 (Rebecca Harding Davis was born in the same town 31 years later). Despite dropping out for a time due to lack of money, he graduated from Washington College in 1826. He began teaching ancient languages at Miami University in Ohio.

In the "frontier" of Ohio, publishers Truman and Smith recognized that children in the New World were following the same educational practices from the age of Calvinism. The popular New England Primer reinforced a negative view of humanity: "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." Far away from New England, that old book seemed trite. They approached McGuffey and asked him to pursue a completely new primer. For parts of three years, he worked on what he called The Eclectic Reader; by the end of the century, 100 million copies were sold. Today, the book is known as The McGuffey Reader.

The book introduces reading using simple words, often repetitive and instructive, usually with an accompanying illustration. The first of the four-volume first edition begins:

Here is John.
There are Ann and Jane.
Ann has a new book.
It is the first book.
Ann must keep it nice and clean.
John must not tear the book.
He may see how fast he can learn.

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