“McGuffey’s Homogenized America”
The McGuffey Readers helped to shape the young minds of millions of children. Used as a learning tool, they could be found in school rooms everywhere, especially in the Midwest. For some people, they were the only source of reading material available. They were very widely published, second only to the King James Bible in printed volumes. About 50 to 100 million copies were published between 1836 and 1890. In short, the McGuffey readers were radically popular. Because these books were so incredibly influential, one must question the content that they presented, which would inevitably have an effect on the people who would read it. While the readers consisted of a variety of selected short stories, poems, essays, and famous speeches; all of them shared a common trait. Each passage stressed values and virtues which were then thought to be favorable by the moral majority.
Of course, McGuffey had to have been very careful when selecting the works that would be in his Readers. He had to cater to the said moral majority. His focus audience would determine how well the Readers were accepted. Because of this, his audience was basically the white Protestant Americans, as they were the most common. One of the main priorities was satisfying the largest number of people. This way only the fewest amount of potential readers
would be excluded. After all, what could seem virtuous to some people might be offensive to others. With this in mind, the works that were included in the McGuffey Readers contained lessons that were especially of interest to the focus audience of white Protestants. As mentioned before, the McGuffey Readers put a lot of emphasis on the moral lessons that they taught. This was especially true for religion. Because the line between church and state was so thinly drawn back then, it was not thought to be wrong to teach religion in schools. In fact, the majority encouraged it. This is shown exceedingly in the Readers, as the lessons stress prayer and following the ten commandments, and even contain sermons from the Bible. These lessons were originally designed to instill strong religious values into the pupils who read them. They showed positive effects of virtuous behavior, and the negative consequences that resulted in selfishness and indolence. An example of these ethics can be found in “The Golden Rule”, where one particular child is rewarded with a lightened heart when she returns a five dollar bill. This method of teaching also coincided with the all-around Protestant agreement that salvation is found through the diligent work and study of the individual. By examining individual efforts to be pure and godlike, the McGuffey Readers once again cater to the homogenous view of the Protestant America.
Given the focus audience of the McGuffey Readers, it is not hard to believe that most of the characters that the lessons portrayed were from that particular audience. In fact, in all but a small few of the passages, all of the characters within were white and Protestant. There was only one example of a different religion that I could find (Jewish), and that was irrelevant to the story. There were absolutely no examples of blacks, and the one of native Americans was hardly
realistic. There were also only a few cases that portrayed the poor. (In these situations they were always either put into their situation by bad chooses they had made, or were rising up from the dregs of society because they were virtuous and good.) Different nationalities were also hard to
find represented in the McGuffey Readers. When they did show up, they were usually shown as poor. This was probably originally intended to help the pupils identify with the lessons that they were learning, but it provided a very slim view of the world.
Although the Readers were supposed to support the idea of a pure and homogenous society, it is hard to understand why they ignored the issues of the time almost completely just to fulfill that requirement. In the time period in which this edition of the Readers was printed, reconstruction, social Darwinism, and then segregation was taking place. But the Readers did not talk about them. In fact, they didn’t even mention blacks at all. Women rights were also a big issue, as they gained new ideas of independence. Women were involved in social issues, like prohibition; and many held jobs. But the Readers always describe women as “the angel of the home”, motherly and domesticated. They were never portrayed as anything but that. Additionally, immigration had flooded the United States with all kinds of different nationalities. These were almost never mentioned. The only example that I could find of foreign nationalities was from a short story called “The New Year”, in which a boy gave his brand new silver dollar to a German family who was poor and starving. Big surprise there, a virtuous white American kid helps out a struggling migrant family. That’s so clich? that it makes me sick. In addition to practically ignoring the issues surrounding blacks, women, foreigners, and the poor; the
McGuffey Readers also failed to address other religions besides Protestant, except by very briefly saying that a couple of people were Jewish in “The Good Son”. All in all, the Readers were very out of touch with the social and racial aspects of Americn life.
Because of their failure to acknowledge the differences in American culture, the McGuffey Readers probably ended up ostracizing a whole lot of people, like blacks, native Americans, and women. Many of whom could have been potential readers/buyers. This probably hurt the sales of the Readers. Additionally, the writings probably seemed a whole lot less credible because of their failure to write about how life really was. However, because of the broad audience that the books did acknowledge, they ended up reaching a great deal of people. So, the whole view of America as a homogenized nation is sort of a double edged sword. Even if McGuffey had selected passages with more diversity, he still would have offended somebody.
In conclusion, although the country described in the Readers seemed “lily white” in comparison with the one it is today, it really wasn’t. It just goes to show you what people can cover up for the sake of education or profit. It also paints a picture of how the moral majority of Americans at least wanted to live, even if they lived differently. It really puts into perspective the goals and virtues which the Americn culture values today.
Selections from “The McGuffey Readers” 1897