(I can’t re-type all of EJA’s text in this piece he wrote on early education in the US. I may try to edit it so that type and spacing look more attractive, but for now, please enjoy it. (And never format using the space bar.) Grandchildren, when we went to Hueston Woods in Summer 2016, we found out that McGuffey had lived in Oxford Ohio, so Grandpa and some others went to visit his museum.
Grandpa and McGuffey
The lark is up to meet the sun,
The bee is on the wing,
The ant his labor has begun,
The woods with music ring.
Should birds and bees and ants be wise,
While I my moments waste?
So let me in the morning rise,
And to my duty haste
When Grandma Murray died suddenly in January of 1948 arrangements were made for Grandpa to continue living in their house by having a young married couple move in to help him. It didn’t work out satisfactorily, at least according to Mother, so on Wednesday of Holy Week that year, the day after I got home for the Easter holiday from college at John Carroll, Mother and I drove up to Hopkinton and brought him home to live with us for what turned out to be the last two and a half years of his life. “We just made him come,” she wrote her sisters in the convent on Good Friday to tell them what was going on with their father. But she felt he was actually glad since “he fits right into the picture and enjoys the youngsters”—i.e., me painting the new garage doors and Flo and I arguing, our argument being, according to Mother, “as childish as ever, but oh! the big words” we used—from our new college learning I suppose. Mary Ann (age six) was home and Flo unintentionally—in a wheelchair since having her leg shattered from being hit by a car at Marion the previous October after an Anamosa football game. Bob would be home from Loras that evening. And she pledged she would bring Grandpa in to see them shortly.
It was a wonderful two years having Grandpa there. There was some friction of course, having two “patres familias” in the house, but Dad adjusted generously in most regards. It was not too inconvenient for Mother and him to move to the large guest bedroom off the living room downstairs and give Grandpa their room upstairs (and they continued there thereafter). And Dad yielded his chair by the radio in the study to Grandpa with his pipe and ashtray, and read his paper in the living room. Television was not a problem. Although 1948 was the year television viewing exploded across America with the Milton Berle show (from being a largely New York phenomenon before), our family was far from being “the first by whom the new is tried”, far more “the last to lay the old aside.” We were regularly, in my estimation, ten years behind the rest of the country in new entertainment excitements. I don’t remember Grandpa ever watching television anyway. He was a radio man, liked listening to radio news, speeches and ball games, and mysteries with Mary Ann on the floor beside him, calming Mother for her concern that they might be too adult for her (as if anything like today was allowed then).
Grandpa generally got up later than Dad, who had eaten and gone to work by then, so having Dad’s seat at the breakfast table was not a problem; and other meals could be taken together in the dining room. The house itself was large and spacious (five bedrooms upstairs with six full beds) and only four family members living there then. And in the Fall of next year Flo was off teaching high school at Morley nine miles distant and Bob and I away at seminary and college during school terms. But for holidays and summers it was nice for all of us to have Grandpa about and added much to his life I think. He enjoyed us and we him. And Uncle Louis dropped down easily from the farm (Grandpa’s farm originally of course); Aunt Minnie and Uncle Elmer and Uncle James and Aunt Grace came from Marion; Sr. Marie Charlotte also had permission to visit (with a companion nun of course).
Great respect was paid him. It was our upbringing. Although Flo was smoking at the time, she did not smoke in front of Grandpa. He did not approve of women smoking. And although he was a staunch Democrat and Dad a Republican, politics was not an ugly thing then, but discussion was avoided anyway. It was a well-known fact and source of joking among all who knew our family that Dad was Republican and Mother Democrat and cancelled each other’s votes. Dad and fellow businessmen in town often attended Iowa Republican conventions as far as Des Moines and Mother, through the invitation of good friends in Washington, attended Harry Truman’s 2nd inauguration in 1949, sat right on the platform (with Shirley Temple), and was written up in our local paper.
Dad and Bob and I were working on the yard and pasture those summers on our 3½ acre “estate” on the edge of small town Anamosa, building a barn by moving our old wooden garage to an old stable foundation found north of the house (from earlier residents) and adding a corral for Flo’s horse Rags Moken. Mixing and pouring cement ourselves for a large circular drive for cars, plus rock walls and sidewalks made by me. Dad liked taking time from his dry goods store to re-live so to speak his farming and carpenter days. And saving money. A do-it-yourself family we were to the extent he could arrange it. He didn’t like us to seek jobs elsewhere: “I’ve got plenty of work for them,” he told Mother. It wasn’t ideal working for a father but he was generously and uncomplainingly paying for education for us far beyond what he and mother ever had so it was hard for us to complain. Dad loved manual labor, and long hours, and Bob and I watched impatiently as the sun climbed over the sky, hoping for a “Well, that should do it” statement to head for the bikes and swimming or whatever. Grandpa came out now and then to walk about, inspect and prune a plant or bush here or there, and watch us a bit. His life had been outdoors.
It was one pleasant summer morning while working and talking to him that he recited to me the short poem quoted above. A poem he said he had learned years ago as a boy in school. I was charmed to hear him recite it in his eighties and asked him to repeat it several times and wrote it down and memorized it. I repeated it to my children years later and they learned it. Most can recall it now I believe. I always suspected it might be from the well known McGuffey Reader schoolbooks and that Grandpa probably learned it in country school and it wasn’t hard some years ago for Beryl to track it down to McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, newly rev. edition, 1849, lesson 81, p. 54. Written by the Rev. William Holmes McGuffey himself.
McGuffey was born at the turn of the century, 1800, when the nation was not a dozen years old and still under its second president. Of Scottish ancestry, his father was a minister and he became one too eventually, though for the first 18 years of his life had only the scant education of “winter schools,” (the kind my father and many farm children attended as farm work permitted). Then through hard work and perseverance he gained a solid education for himself, made a reputation teaching and lecturing, and became a college president at 36. When offered $1,000 by a small publishing firm to design a series of four readers he quickly compiled them and set upon a career of fostering education as widely as possible.
Most Americans have heard of the McGuffey Readers and correctly identify them as the schoolbooks that were the primary educational tool of 19th century America, in the famed one-room schoolhouses (some 200,000 we’re told) that dotted the pioneer and farming landscapes of the nation. An educational endeavor mandated by Thomas Jefferson himself, who stressed popular education as the safeguard of the new republic’s character and wellbeing. McGuffey’s and similar readers, along with Noah Webster’s Dictionary and Speller, became mainstays of that safeguard and as of 1960 (from its beginning in 1836) some 120 million copies of the Readers were sold, putting them in a sales category with only the Bible and Webster Dictionary. Thousands are still sold each year. The 1879 edition (seven texts) is still in print and still used in some few school systems, and by parents who home school and teachers who seek basic education in reading, writing and speaking, with strong emphasis on moral and cultural values. McGuffey Readers are “public domain” now and can be used by anyone in any way desired. My mother kept a copy of this edition on a table in the living room of our house on the hill and spoke of Grandpa in regard to it, though it was not the edition he used. Given to her by long-time friends, the “Tracy girls" in Florida.
The concept of “graded readers” (as opposed to “grade level” texts) was the crucial innovation for success in the one-room country school system, since students of a single-room school with a single teacher were often few in number and might easily range in age from as much as six to twenty-one years or more (Think immigrants!), and time available for schooling for rural folk was measured, as noted, in months more than years. It was imperative then that older and more talented students be allowed to progress at faster rates than younger and slower; and then, having attained higher skills in higher readers, help the lone teacher instruct students at lower levels—a pass-it-on system that consolidated their own learning at the same time. My Mother’s teacher, scarcely older than her, roomed at the Murray farm for various terms and went to confession, church, and dances with them.
Many who have heard of the McGuffey Readers also assume that they were the only or primary textbooks of the school system, when in fact most of a country school day was spent learning the other traditional school subjects of geography, history, the various sciences, and above all mathematics. Grandpa, as example, kept a large ledger on a desk in his study to manage the varied business of his farm: buying and selling produce, hiring help, financial and banking transactions and taxes. And Grandma handled the chicken business of the farm, keeping records and selling eggs as far away as Detroit. The Readers (as titled) covered only grammar and reading and their related aspects of writing and speaking. Reading is the key to all information and all knowledge of course, and therefore to success. But for McGuffey, though reading brings knowledge, knowledge alone does not assure character. And only character can assure a productive and happy life. And character comes from what is read
McGuffey Readers therefore were designed to insure good character by teaching how and what to read: namely, the best British and American writers expressing the best moral and cultural truths in prose and poetry. Real literature, not made-up, on challenging subjects, and as early as possible. To this end McGuffey spared no expense in printing his texts in the most attractive and readable form the technology of his time allowed. He was especially concerned that illustrations be engraved as vivid and fine as art and expertise could produce: “No expense spared”, “by the best American artists” were favorite advertisements. Close inspection supports his assertions. The illustrations of the 1879 Readers are wonderful in detail of costume, action and facial expressions, matching closely the story lines and “such that,” he boasts, “the skilled teacher will be able to use them to great advantage” in discussion and teaching.
If you have not seen a McGuffey reader it is worth an hour or two’s perusal in a library, most of which will have the 1879 edition. Examining it you will find yourself in an earlier time, a country-oriented world of old-fashioned lives, themes and values, when some 50 % of the American labor force was still engaged in farming. There was wickedness in those days of course and bad people, but nothing gross or unnatural as often today. Bad people for McGuffey were more likely to be lazy rather than wicked, and a boy in danger of becoming bad was one who shunned school and church, had developed bad habits and in particular laziness. Hence a strong work ethic and perseverance are constantly stressed in the Readers, laziness scorned. A mother hen (Reader One) takes her brood for a walk. They come to a streamlet. The mother hen jumps across using a rock mid-stream as help, but the chicks are flustered and scurry about unsure. Finally one chick tries to jump but fails. The others will not even try: “Mother asks too much of us,” they complain. Later, when the mother finds breadcrumbs, she and the chick that tried to cross share them. The others must go hungry. Lesson taught.
Another virtue notably stressed in the Readers is “kindness,” which you might agree is scarcely mentioned today. But which you might also agree, on reflection, implies the possession of numerous other virtues too.
This old man can not see. He is blind.
Mary holds him by the hand.
She is kind to the old blind man.
Kindness to animals also—wild and tame, dogs, cats, horses, birds, even mice. Reader 2: When “Little Kitty” catches “little mousie,” mousie slips away and escapes.
The first volume, Eclectic Primer, for beginning boys and girls (1879 edition), has 52 lessons in a mere 64 pages (less than 1¼ pages a lesson and introduces for mastery no more than six new words a lesson, with few more than one syllable and three letters each. Surprisingly, cursive writing (“slate work”) begins almost at once, including reading it in the text and copying. An expensive element to introduce into a printed text, since cursive writing had to be specially engraved for publishing. But an important skill for McGuffey. Interesting also because a few years ago an Indiana school announced that it would no longer require cursive writing, and some children today can hardly decipher it. Conversely, most of my aunts and uncles, even some with small formal education, had beautiful penmanship. My father and Aunt Verone in particular.
As might be expected, given McGuffey’s background, the Readers are replete with religious, moral and ethical considerations far beyond what would be tolerated in a public school textbook today. In the Eclectic Primer “God” is introduced as a vocabulary word in lesson 51, and immediately used:
“Do you see that tall tree? Long ago it sprung from a small nut. Do you know who made it do so? It was God, my child. God made the world and all things in it. He made the sun to light the day, and the moon to shine at night. God shows that he loves us by all that he has done for us. Should we not then love him?”
Lesson 52 adds the word “Lord” as vocabulary; then closes the book with a poem, “The Lord is Nigh.” Two of its three stanzas are:
When the stars, at set of sun,
Watch you from on high;
When the light of morn has come,
Think the Lord is nigh.
All you do, and all you say,
He can see and hear;
When you work and when you play,
Think the Lord is near.
Think the Lord is near.
References to the Bible are frequent throughout the series, including entire lessons on the “Lord’s Prayer”, 3rd; “Sermon on the Mount”, 4th; “The Golden Rule”, 4th; “Speech of Paul on Mars Hill”, 6th;; and general encomiums such as: “The Bible: the Best of Classics” 5th, and “The Goodness of God,” 5th. Happily the early, somewhat grim Scottish Calvinism of the brothers evolved steadily in later editions to the more congenial Christianity of the general populace.
The First Reader repeats the Primer’s “The Lord is Nigh” poem—in cursives. The child modeled on this reader, says critic Shannon Payne, is ”prompt, good, kind, honest and truthful.” Which could be said of all the readers. The word “wholesome” comes readily to mind in assessing—a word I think not commonly used today: “tending to improve the mind or character”, “conducive to good health or well-being”, “good for children.” The deeply wholesome McGuffey Readers molded generations of young Americans to honesty, decency and nobility of thought. Henry Ford (a year older than Grandpa) was so proud of his McGuffey education that he paid to have the 1857 edition he studied reprinted.
The First Reader concludes with commendation and advice for the student:
“We have come to the last lesson in this book. We have finished the First Reader.
You can now read all the lessons in it, and can write them on your slates.
Have you taken good care of your book? Children should always keep their books neat and clean.
Your parents are very kind to send you to school. If you are good, and if you try to learn, your teacher will love you, and you will please your parents.
The Second Eclectic Reader (1879 ed.) includes “The Little Star” poem (“Twinkle, twinkle, …”), four stanzas if you’ve not heard them all, though without accreditation to Jane Taylor, 1806. Stanza three being:
Then if I were in the dark,
I would thank you for your spark.
I could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
Another poem in that Reader (Lesson 43) was a favorite of my Mother, who quoted it to us children each year, especially the first two stanzas: “The Wind and the Leaves,” by poet and lyricist (with Stephen Foster, et aliis) George Cooper. McGuffey obviously liked the poem and devised Lesson 42 as a prelude to it: about one small leaf that was afraid on learning that it would one day fall from the tree, but was made happy when shown how beautiful it would become at that time.
The Wind and the Leaves
“Come little leaves,” said the wind one day.
“Come o’er the meadows with me, and play;
Put on your dress of red and gold, —
Summer is gone, and the days grow cold.”
Soon as the leaves heard the wind’s loud call,
Down they came fluttering, one and all;
Over the brown fields they danced and flew,
Singing the soft little songs they knew.
“Cricket, good-bye, we’ve been friends so long;
Little brook, sing us your farewell song, —
Say you are sorry to see us go;
Ah! you will miss us, right well we know.
“Dear little lambs, in your fleecy fold,
Mother will keep you from harm and cold;
Fondly we’ve watched you in vale and glade;
Say, will you dream of our loving shade?”
Dancing and whirling, the little leaves went;
Winter had called them, and they were content.
Soon fast asleep in their earthly beds,
The snow laid a coverlet over their heads.
The poem is still popular in children’s books. I have heard one of my children quote from it.
The Fifth Eclectic Reader was intended to be the last and was called “The Rhetorical Guide” because its many examples of prose and poetry were designed at that level for recitation. Soon though it was joined by Reader Six, an even larger volume for the same purpose. Both readers were created by Alexander McGuffey, brother of William, and each is a repository of renowned literary passages of British and American writers: 255 in all, by over a hundred contributors, e.g., Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Walpole, Pope, Poe, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, Hawthorne, Byron, Irving, Parkman, Jefferson, Bacon, Scott, Milton. All selections are short (1 to 3 pages), all chosen for literary excellence, wisdom, edification, inspiration, morality and values. All meant to be read aloud, many to be memorized, and many national favorites now from the millions of McGuffey students who learned and recited them—including Mother and Grandpa. It is no wonder that Mother loved poetry and words of wisdom and filled notebooks with them all her life.
Bryant’s Thanatopsis; Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Soliloquy; Speech of Henry V to His Troops; The Fall of Cardinal Wolsey; Longfellow’s Village Blacksmith. Mother cited from it many times and there was in fact just such a smithy in Anamosa off Main Street where I stopped often as a boy coming home from school or from Dad’s store to look through its great open doors at the white-hot forge and glowing horseshoes held in tongs by the smith’s “large and sinewy hands ” as he hammered them on his anvil, sparks flying. He never spoke to me but sometimes let me and other boys stand near the forge—awesome for a boy. The poem itself stuffed with Longfellow’s moral comments on the smith and his work: “honest sweat”; “owes not any man”; each day “something attempted, something done,” “the flaming forge of life”.
Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death Speech; an instructive passage from Louisa May Alcott’s earlier, popular work: “An Old Fashioned Girl”; and Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (arguably the most quoted poem in English) on the unremembered poor. Lincoln once summarized his entire upbringing in a single verse from it:
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The short and simple annals of the poor.
A favorite stanza of Mother’s:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The long introductions to these “Rhetorical Readers” divide into numerous categories titled: Articulation, Inflection, Modulation, Accent and Emphasis, Reading Verse, Poetic Pause, The Voice, and Gesture—each interesting and seldom taught for general education today; each an area for perfecting the public recitation of literature, with selections for practicing each separate faculty and notes on the key emotions to be emphasized when so doing. An essential skill, public declaration, according to McGuffey for success in life—yet little attended to today judging from the ineptitude in that area of an overwhelming number of our politicians, teachers, preachers, businessmen, lawyers, athletes, and ordinary fellow citizens.
Lesson One of the Fifth Reader, titled “The Good Reader,” summarized here, illustrates the importance of this skill. You may smile as you read it—somewhat embarrassed perhaps even. Is it serious? Could any student of any age have been so innocent, so naive as to be impressed by this story? As McGuffey intends? But you might be “wistfully” impressed also to some extent—as I. Mightn’t it be nice if we all could be so innocent again as to be motivated like the people in this story? Your young children might still be. Have them read it. Or—better—read it to them—aloud.
King Frederick the Great was sitting in his room one day after a morning’s hunt when a soldier came in with a letter whose author requested that it be read at once. The soldier is not able to read and since the King’s private secretary was away the King asked a young page on attendance if he could read it. (The King’s eyes were still smitten by the harsh light of the sun from his morning’s hunt so he could not read it for himself.) The page agreed but stumbled so with words and pronunciation that the King, in disgust, dismissed him and asked a second page in the room to read it. This youth, determined to surpass the first, read so slowly and pompously, emphasizing each syllable of each word without regard for meaning, that the King, exasperated again, dismissed him. Then, looking out the window, he asked who the little girl was sitting by the fountain? It was, he was told, the daughter of one of his gardeners, helping her father pull weeds.
Ordering her brought in the King asked her if she could read the letter. “Certainly,” she said. But for some moments she stood quietly holding the letter so that the King impatiently asked whether in fact she really could read. “Yes,” she explained, but first she had to examine the letter to know how to read it properly. The letter it turned out was from a widow whose only son had been taken into the King’s army. The widow pleaded for his release. He was not well to begin with, she said, and he wanted to be an artist, not a soldier. Moreover, she said, her husband, the boy’s father, had earlier been killed in battle fighting for the King. She did not want to risk losing her only child also.
So beautifully did Ernestine [That was the name of little reader—really.] read the letter with just the proper emotion that tears filled the king’s eyes and he said that he would grant the widow’s request and Ernestine herself could bring the good news to her since her fine reading of the letter had brought about his consent.
Then the king ordered the two boys who read so poorly to be sent away for one year to learn how to read correctly [obviously the McGuffey way]. Which they did, and took their lessons so seriously and became so good at reading that they each advanced to successful careers, one as a lawyer and the other as a statesman. Moreover, the widow’s son (at Ernestine’s suggestion) became an artist and was invited to paint the King’s portrait and succeeded so well that he received many further assignments and became a famous portrait painter.
Ernestine’s father was promoted to head gardener for the palace and Ernestine herself was sent on to further education at the King’s expense.
All of which happened because of her ability to read well.
Here then in this simple morality tale we have the essence of the McGuffey educational philosophy: to read ever noble writings, such as even the slight poem on duty quoted at the beginning here, and disperse their wisdom effectively to others through skilled elocution.
Elocution! A word I have not heard for decades—since childhood. The art of public reading and speaking effectively: for instruction, persuasion, edification, using all the basic skills and functions of language and oratory. In my four years of Jesuit high school at Campion there were campus-wide elocution contests on occasion—something I’d not seen before nor have since. A staple in early education as we see here, but a lost concern today. (We’re not talking debating—a different intent.)
I was picked for one contest by my English teacher and recommended a long poem to learn and recite, which I found dull and uninteresting. And with scant coaching. The poem was about an Indian attack on a Western army fort so must have had some potential for dramatic recitation—which eluded me. And better coaching might not have overcome my ineptitude anyway. I did not make it through the preliminaries, nor even through my poem, as I recall, before being thanked and dismissed. But I will never forget my classmate who won the contest. On an empty stage, on his knees, staring down at an imaginary body of Caesar, and declaiming Shakespeare’s incendiary words written for Mark Antony—with gestures to fit:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
That, I learned, was elocution.
Grandpa, my Mother, various aunts and uncles, all the older people I grew up with who had studied McGuffey, always and noticeably emphasized through some dramatization of voice or gesture the poems and stories they recounted. Sometimes overdoing it perhaps to our unaccustomed ears, but nonetheless as they had learned and heard it in school. And Grandpa and Mother even when repeating an Irish or Democrat political speech or skilled pastor’s sermon they’d heard (the popular Fulton J. Sheen) always attempted to convey to their listeners its affect on them—as McGuffey intended. And Grandpa famously choking up routinely with his own Irish emotion.
Grandpa was born in 1864 and sent by his parents James and Mary Ann (Ronan) Murray to the little country school about two miles east of the farm on the road to Worthington, which I passed often when young. His older children, Minnie, Laura, Mary and James likely attended there also. Attendance at school was not mandatory in those days, at least for farm children, when even young boys and girls might be near indispensable for farm work, given the many chores and tasks they could perform: e.g., Alice at age 11 driving the morning’s milk to the creamery at Sand Springs 4½ miles distance.
But the lure of higher education (and Catholic education in particular) was strong to the Murray family. And while a two-mile walk to a country school was nothing to a child in those days, four miles to Worthington were. The younger Murray children rode horse and pony to high school there, and my Mother well recalled Grandpa buying “Babe,” the beloved family pony, for such use, and the fall she became ill and Grandpa stayed up two whole nights tending her. She kept one of Babe’s shoes on her desk at home all her life. Youngest child Alice, at age 13, rode horse “Old Net”, alone or double with a friend, sometimes not getting home till after dark and “not very good-natured,” said Grandma.
All the Murray children received some education beyond grade school. My Mother one and a half years of high school boarding at the Visitation Academy in Dubuque, where older sister Minnie earlier and younger sisters Mary and Alice later studied—at family expense. James and Charles finished high school in Worthington and had stints at college in Dubuque (“Dubuque College” for James; named “Columbia College,” Charles; now “Loras”). Louis had “winter school” in Dyersville before taking over the farm from Grandpa at age 22.
My father was not McGuffey educated. After the pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Worthington established the parochial school there in 1874, the Ament family, living in Worthington then, attended it with father taking grade level education there. It was taught by Franciscan nuns brought over from Germany by the bishop of Dubuque and parents had the option of having their children taught in English or German (Worthington being an overwhelmingly German community then) and my father had a considerable a bit of German along with English. A two-story brick school building was built in 1889 with nine large rooms—four steam-heated for classes, the others by potbelly stove.
The school was not graded at first (that is, was taught like a country school) and only grade-distinguished when a high school was added in 1916, after my father’s time. With only a single chalkboard in the entire school, about a yard square (like the one I built in my basement here), the students worked with individual “slate boards” and screechy slate pens à la country schools, with recess spent outside pumping water for each other to drink. I do not recall my father ever quoting poetry, though he was an avid reader of fiction as a boy, then newspapers, journals, and non-fiction books as an adult. He also had “winter schooling” boarding at the Brothers School in Dyersville (which later became a high school) and was skilled at math and kept the books and records for his dry goods business with all the math and record keeping that entailed for forty years. And was prominent in the town. The first of the twelve children of Theodore and Elizabeth Ament to receive a complete high school education was number nine, Ernest, because of his desire to become a priest.
The McGuffey Readers were not designed to go beyond eighth grade education. Most of the teachers who taught them had not exceeded that level of education themselves and many who finished the courses stayed on to teach them. At least one sectarian group (of Amish I believe) did not accept as teachers those trained beyond grade school level. Nor is there a recommendation at the end of The Sixth Reader urging students to continue their education upwards. There were always schools and colleges for professional disciplines that need higher educational skills (medicine, law, engineering, etc.), but good, moral living and good character seem not clearly a necessary part of their curriculum and perhaps it is too late by then even. Nor did farming and small businesses, as understood then, require such advance education—my father’s example.
My mother’s grade school diploma was not given for finishing grade school, but to establish her qualifications for advancing to high school should she wish to, not an assumed thing then. The ten areas it guaranteed her qualified in were: Orthography, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, Grammar, Physiology and Hygiene, U. S. History, Music, and Civil Government. Her average score for her exams there was 90%, with a 99% score in arithmetic. She was not tested in an eleventh area, Elementary Agriculture, perhaps taught mainly to boys who intended to farm.
My father wanted a farmer’s life, but my mother did not. It was no intransigency that prevailed there. With nine sons Grandpa Theodore had more than enough help for his small dairy farm (he chose the harness trade as his main support) and later for his larger farm, and as the younger boys reached an age to help, the older who were not needed moved on: Leo and Herman to farm on their own; Dad and Benjamin to carpentry; Ernest to the priesthood; Lester to manufacturing; and Pete to civil service work. Carpentry for my father was learned by apprenticeship. He worked for John Klaren, the best carpenter in the area (Years later farmers pointed to their barn and said, “John Klaren built this.”). Klaren wrote my father each spring to ask if he would work for him again. It was for carpentry work that he moved to Anamosa before marrying and living there with my mother, and when a small dry goods store my mother clerked in closed, she persuaded him to buy it and follow that trade.
He was also exceedingly skilled on the trumpet, thanks to his father. As a boy he used to cry when his father got out the trumpet for practice, but it changed his life for the better. In WWI, in the Coast Artillery, he was accepted into its military band and when stationed in Portland, RI, took some lessons (the only lessons he ever had outside his father, who had taught himself to play) from Ira Holland, who had been First Trumpeter for John Philip Sousa. Back home he played for the band of every town he lived or worked in and for the Cedar Rapids Symphony and the famed West Des Moines Drum and Bugle Corps that competed nationwide, and some called him “the best trumpeter west of the Mississippi”. Not long before dying he wondered to me if he might not have been happier as a professional musician, the trade he listed on leaving the army. (I’m not sure we children would have had the same quality education we had had he done so!)
“At no time in the history of these readers have they been without formidable competition,” says Henry H. Vail in his brief account of them (1911). But they had “staying qualities.” “Teachers often became so familiar with their contents that they needed no book in their hands … but to each child the contents of the book were new and fresh. It is the fashion of the present day to exalt the new at the expense of the old, … . But the child of today is very much such as Socrates and Plato studied in Greece. … At a given stage in his upward progress, he is interested in much the same things. He is led to think for himself in much the same way, and the whole end and aim of education is to lead toward self-activity. The readers that deal simply with facts—information readers—may lodge in the minds of children some scraps of encyclopedic information which may in future life become useful. But the readers that rouse the moral sentiments, that touch the imagination, that elevate and establish character by selections chosen from the wisest writers in English in all the centuries that have passed … have a much more valuable function to perform.”
If the end of education, as McGuffey believed, is to establish good character and a lifelong hunger to read and emulate the morality, beauty and wisdom of great writing, the Readers succeeded eminently. “Character is [emphasis added] more valuable than knowledge and a taste for pure and ennobling literature is a safeguard for the young that cannot be safely ignored.” (Vail).
The American Country School system has been called the most successful educational system in the history of the world for teaching the basic skills of life—reading, writing and arithmetic—to the greatest numbers of people, with morality and patriotism added. As late as 1999 researcher Raymond Bial declared without qualification: “The quality of education received in most rural schools far exceeded modern standards.”
Equally on a broad scale it has been claimed: “The American country one-room school system was, and perhaps still is, the most successful of all American institutions ever created.”
Somewhere (I can no longer find it) I have a document recording a comment by Grandpa Ament that as a boy he attended school with “Charlie Murray. Who always had his lessons done.” It would be in that same schoolhouse almost midway between the two farms they grew up on. They were two years apart in age and I find it pleasant to imagine them sitting side by side on the same bench memorizing something or other (The Lark poem perhaps), never dreaming that years later the son of one would marry the daughter of the other. Quite different in temperament, ethnicity and politics, but not in character and religion, the two large families were greatly respectful of each other and were united over time by a surprising number of marriages.
To keep Grandpa’s and William H. McGuffey’s poem alive for at least another generation I hereby offer a gold dollar (gold-colored, mind you) to any direct descendant of Grandpa today or hereafter of 15 or under years of age at the time who will memorize the “Lark” poem and recite it to me accurately and without aid in person or over the phone or whose parent or older relative or lawyer friend or guardian or teacher or elected official of rank of mayor or governor or above will hear and vouch to me for his or her accurate recitation without aid. This offer has been witnessed by my wife, who may also witness the recitation in my absence.