Saturday, August 5, 2017

One-room Schoolhouses Blog #5

McGuffey Readers and a Quiz for You

By Julie A. Hanks, Ph.D. aka Jesse J Elliot

         Teachers and students in America went from scratching their letters and words in the dirt of a log/sod cabin to reading the classics in prescribed texts.  Educating our new nation went from makeshift cabins to actual classrooms, decorated with maps, ABCs, and children’s work. According to Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize author, “The McGuffey Readers effected the first mass-educated and mass-literate generation in the modern world.”
   With the Western communities becoming more established, desks
with built-in ink holders replaced crude benches or stools brought
from home. (These improvements were only in the public schools
for whites or the mission schools.) As the infrastructure of the
schools changed, so did the pedagogy, most notably in the addition of the McGuffey Readers.
         Children’s literature did not exist as a genre in the 19th Century. Except for Goody Two Shoes, written in the late 18th Century and republished in 1881 by John Newberry in London, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and adages made up the literature or oral literature for children.  (Note the very adult selections from the sixth level edition of the McGuffey Readers below in your quiz.) The hundreds of children books we have today with child-friendly illustrations were not available or affordable. A few illustrated children’s books were made in Europe for the very rich but were too expensive and certainly too unavailable in the American West.               
         Now, for the first time, Readers contained stories, poems, essays, and speeches that attempted to provide a graded scale of difficulty (as well as moral teaching). As the readers' efficiency progressed, so did the McGuffey Readers. Stories in the first book were pretty didactic and uninteresting, but by the second eclectic reader, the stories were written better, and their morals or lessons more digestible.  In fact, one of the stories, “The Leaf,” was an inspiring allegory illustrating the delicate balance between life and death. This story was so beautifully written that over a hundred years later, Leo Buscaglia wrote his own version—and published it as The Life of Freddie the Leaf.  Though the illustrations were lovely, I actually found the original version better written.
      Interestingly enough, the some schools still use the readers, especially home schools. Though the first reader is the weakest, the stories in the readers continue to improve.  Written and edited by William Holmes McGuffey, the text is still effective if used along with contemporary readers and modern learning materials.

QUIZ: Not all readers managed to make it through to the Sixth Reader, but here is a sample of writings from the McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader.  See how well you can do matching the correct authors to their works.  The correct answers follow these two mixed-up lists:

1. Song of the Greek Bard                                     A. Shakespeare

2. Lochinvar                                                          B. Shakespeare

3. Character of Columbus                                     C. William Hazlitt

4. Prince Henry & Falstaff                                    D. Washington Irving
5. Political Tolerance                                            E. Horace Greeley

6. My Mother’s Picture                                          F. William Cowper

7. Labor                                                                 G. Washington Irving

8. Thanatopsis                                                       H. Thomas Jefferson

9. Indian Jugglers                                                  I. Sir Walter Scott

10. Death of Sampson                                            J. Bible

11. Antony over Caesar’s Dead Body                    K. Lord Byron

12. “He Giveth His Beloved Sheep”                     L. William Cullen Bryant

13. Death of Absalom                                            M. Milton

14. The Last Days of Herculaneum                       N. Homer

                                                                               O. Edwin Atherstone

                                                                               P. John Locke
                                                                               Q. President Abraham Lincoln
                                                                               R. Harriet Beecher Stowe


1. Song of the Greek Bard                                                                A. Lord Byron

2. Lochinvar                                                                                      B. Sir Walter Scott

3. Character of Columbus                                                                 C. Washington Irving

4. Prince Henry & Falstaff                                                                D. Shakespeare

5. Political Tolerance                                                                         E. Thomas Jefferson

6. My Mother’s Picture                                                                      F. William Cowper

7. Labor                                                                                              G. Horace Greeley

8. Thanatopsis                                                                          H. William Cullen Bryant

9. Indian Jugglers                                                                               I. Wm Hazlitt

10. Death of Sampson                                                                        J. John Milton

11. Antony over Caesar’s Dead Body                                                K. Shakespeare

12. “He Giveth His Beloved Sheep”                                    L. Elizabeth B. Browning

13. The Last Days of Herculaneum                                             M. Edwin Atherton

14. Death of Absalom                                                                         N. Bible


  1. Good read - I am a retired teacher, 42 years, and am always on the look out for good ol' school days blogs. I also am the proud owner of a couple of McGuffey's

  2. Dear Neil, I too am a retired teacher and I share your enthusiasm for historical education items. I first heard about the McGuffey Readers when Leo Buscaglia published his book. I was very impressed until my "Kiddy Lit" teacher read us McGuffey's "The Leaf," and we realized that Leo had not only plagiarized, but his version was not as rich. Thirty five years later, I found a complete set of the Readers in a wonderful bookstore in Plymouth, MA. :-)
    The first reader is pretty bad, but from the 2nd Reader on, the stories and essays are quite good. Thanks for writing. Julie aka Jesse J Elliot.