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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

August 6, 2014: Virginia Voices: William McGuffey

[In about a week I’ll be taking my annual August pilgrimage with the boys to my home state of Virginia. So here’s another annual Virginia-inspired series, this one focused on interesting voices from the state and leading up to my next Guest Post!]
On the minister and academic who impacted education as much as any single American.
Okay, this one is kind of cheating—all four of the week’s other Virginia voices were born in the state; whereas William McGuffey (1800-1873) was born in Pennsylvania, spent much of his life there and in Ohio (where he served as a minister, teacher, faculty member, and college president at numerous institutions), and lived for only his last 28 years in Charlottesville (where he was a professor of moral philosophy at UVa). But McGuffey is buried in the official University of Virginia burial ground, has at least one prominent Charlottesville building named for him, and was thus a presence in my childhood without my knowing a single thing about him. Now that I’ve learned a few such things, I’m determined to share them with you, rules of the week’s series be damned (a word choice upon which the intensely religious McGuffey would frown).
McGuffey is best known for his McGuffey Readers, the series of textbooks he produced from the 1830s (when he was commissioned by the Cincinnati publisher Truman and Smith) through the end of his life (and that were carried on after his death by other family members such as his brother Alexander). And when I say best known, I mean best known—by most estimates the Readers sold more than 150 million copies in the century or so after their initial appearance, making them a bestseller to rival only texts like the Bible. That comparison is entirely apt, as McGuffey’s principal occupation as a minister and religious philosopher meant that he produced Readers which were openly and consistently focused on educating young Christians, and on defining a national identity that was explicitly linked to that spiritual one. As such, the McGuffey Readers are partly of continuing interest for the glimpse they provide into a period when public education and religion were deeply intertwined, and when indeed the Second Great Awakening had recently spread such religious influences across America in new and potent ways.
Yet if in this religious content and tone the McGuffey Readers reflected aspects of their period, in other important ways they pushed American education far beyond where it was when they appeared. That’s true in part due to specific aspects of their content, such as the inclusion of numerous poetic and prose passages from literature (classical and contemporary), which helped make literary reading and analysis an important part of education in America. But it’s even more true, I would argue, of the Readers’ fundamental premise: that all American students deserved and needed a rigorous introduction to reading and many related topics (spelling, writing, elocution, ethics and philosophy, and more), one available relatively inexpensively and in an easily accessed and shared form. A prominent scholarly book on early 19th century religion defined it as the era of “The Democratization of American Christianity,” and I would say the same of the McGuffey Readers’ impact on education: they democratized it. Hard to imagine a more potent or more American effect than that.
Next voice tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Voices from your home you’d highlight?

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