Time to resurrect Mc Guffey's Readers

John F. Kelly

October 30, 1991|By John F. Kelly

SCHOOL teachers in some parts of the country reportedly are using McGuffey's Readers, originally published in 1836, to help teach children to read. Since Baltimore is now known as "The City That Reads," I think it would behoove school officials to look into buying a few crates of old McGuffey's and passing them out.

As a matter of fact, it probably wouldn't hurt if they included a few other books in the bargain. I can think of at least a half-dozen that would be appropriate, including "Noah Webster's Reader," published in 1805.

"Webster's" promises, "An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Tastes of Youth. And Also to Instruct Them in the Geography, History and Politics of the United States. To Which are Prefixed Rules in Elocution and Directions for Expressing the Principal Passions of the Mind. Being the Third Part of the Grammatical Instruction of the English Language."

If that doesn't do the trick, "Murray's English Grammar," published in 1810, might. It offers advice on all kinds of things, including work habits. "Thousands whom indolence has sunk into contemptible obscurity might have come forward to usefulness and honour if idleness had not frustrated the effects of all their powers."

Jedidiah Morse gets at the same sort of thing in "The American Universal Geography" (1812): "Temperance and industry have not heretofore been reckoned among the virtues of North Carolinians. The time which they wasted in drinking, idling and gambling left them very little opportunity to improve their plantations or their minds."

But it falls to Frederick Emerson in his 1844 classic, "North American Spelling Book," to illustrate the dire consequences of too much fooling around.

In "The Bad Boy," Emerson cites the tale of a boy who "set his dog on a cow." The dog bit the cow's leg, causing it to run and hit Ruth's arm, which "was so much hurt, it had to be cut off. How sad to have but one arm. How bad the boy was to set his

dog on the cow. Ruth can not be of much use now as she was."

Roswell C. Smith is obviously a devotee of no-frills education. His explanations of all sorts of scientific phenomena are simple and straightforward and free of academic clutter. He explains earthquakes in "Introductory Geography" (1840) thus:

"Earthquakes are sometimes supposed to be caused by

electrical matter, or inflammable air, pent up in the bowels of earth, suddenly finding vent, and forcing its way through every obstruction. Just before the shock is felt, the sea often swells and roars, the water grows dark and muddy; birds and beasts are in consternation, and a rumbling noise, like distant thunder, is heard underground."

"Cobb's Spelling Book," published in 1828, deplores vulgarity almost as much as it deplores poor spelling. The book urges children to rid their language of such vulgar expressions as "loom" (for loam), "pi'zn" (for poison), "rassle" (for wrestle) and "afeered" (for afraid).

Lindley Murray, author of "The English Reader" (1814), thinks public speaking might improve language skills. He offers several tips on delivering a speech, including this one on pausing:

"Pauses are necessary to the speaker that he may take a breath, without which he cannot proceed far in delivery; and that he may, by these temporary rests, relieve the organs of speech, which otherwise would be soon tired by continuous action; to the hearer, that the ear may also be relieved from fatigue, which it would otherwise endure from a continuancy of sound.

"Great care must be taken that the pupil end one sentence completely before he begin another. He must let the arm drop to the side, and continue for a moment in that position in which he concluded, before he poizes his body on the other leg, and raises the other arm into the diagonal position."

Perhaps the greatest lesson of all, though, is contained in "A Little Pretty Penny Pocket Book," written by Isaiah Thomas and published in 1787. Under "Behaviour in School," Thomas writes: "Bawl not aloud in making complaint. Make not haste out of School, but Soberly go when thy Turn comes. Go not rudely Home. Stand not talking with Boys to delay thee, but go quietly Home. When it is Time to return to School again, be sure to be there in Season and not loiter at Home. Divulge not to any Person whatsoever, elsewhere, any Thing that passed in School, either spoken or done."

That alone may be reason enough to resurrect McGuffey & Associates.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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