Teachers and Textbooks

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Teachers and Textbooks


Female Teachers. The common school reforms firmly established the institutional structure of public education as well as the ideology of universal education. But the key to making the new schools efficient and productive was the teacher. Before the school reform movement teachers had little training and few effective textbooks on which to rely. Almost everything that occurred in the classroom depended on the direct relationship between teacher and


Education in America benefited dramatically from improved textbooks, particularly those of Noah Webster, a Yale-educated Yankee known as the Schoolmaster of the Republic. His reading lessons, used by millions of children, were designed in part to instill a sense of patriotism among the newest Americans, the immigrants. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his famous American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828. Spending nearly twenty years of his life on the project, Webster wrote a dictionary that helped to standardize the American language. Together, his textbooks and dictionaries defined a specifically American spelling and usage that he hoped would differentiate American English from the language of its former colonial parent. Webster worked to promote universal literacy and to foster a unified national consciousness through the development of a common language.

Source: David Simpson, The Politics of American English, 17761850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).

student. A good teacher meant a good school, but the practice of using untrained college students as school teachers made that result unlikely. After 1820, however, a change came about in the profession of school teaching as male teachers were increasingly replaced by young, unmarried women. In Massachusetts, for example, the percentage of male teachers in the public schools fell from around 60 in 1840 to less than 14 percent by 1860. The schoolmaster gave way to the schoolmarm in state after state for a variety of reasons, but the primary justification for the acceptance of women into the ranks of teaching was that they were inexpensive to employ. Female teachers took home much smaller paychecks than their male counterparts; most female teachers earned less than a common laborer. Nonetheless, thousands of young women gravitated toward the profession of teaching and in doing so reshaped the image of public education.

New Textbooks. In the typical elementary school the curriculum was in most cases limited to whatever was in the textbook. Youngsters studied individual books rather than subjects. Together with the Bible, textbooks were the only contact that many students had with the world beyond their communities. Recognizing the importance of textbooks in shaping young minds, educators such as Noah Webster sought to supplement the tools available to teachers by creating uniquely American texts for American schools. Webster almost single-handedly replaced the outdated New England Primer (1691) with his spellers and readers. Websters American Spelling Book (1788), commonly known as the Blue-Backed Speller, An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking (1787), and his most famous work, American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), all became common reading and reference books for generations of children. The era of the common school produced other long-running series of American schoolbooks, such as the Peter Parley textbooks for elementary school children first published in 1827 by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. The most famous textbook series was that of the McGuffey Readers, one of the most remarkable and enduring series of graded readers ever issued in America. For some sixty years after their introduction in 1836 the McGuffey Readers were the most widely used reading books in the nation. As the McGuffey Readers became standard, they brought a degree of uniformity to Americas widespread schools, permitting children to move easily from one school to another and spreading a common curriculum through all parts of the country.

Teaching Techniques. Although most school reformers deplored the traditional emphasis on rote learning and the system of awarding small prizes and medals for a students skill at regurgitating facts and phrases, such practices continued to dominate the standard teaching practice of the period. While reformers such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard tried to promote the goal of real understanding rather than rote memorization, teachers were slow to adopt such new teaching techniques. For the teacher facing a classroom of children of varying ages and levels of education, recitation and drill of Websters spelling books or McGuffeys Readers seemed the most sensible way to provide order and promote the required moral lessons. Despite the focus on the monotonous memorization of textbooks, the school experience of children in the 1830s and 1840s was a marked improvement over that of their predecessors. Schoolbooks were better and more available, and the influx of female instructors meant that there were fewer bullying brutes or harsh taskmasters posing as teachers.

Unified Message. Teachers and textbooks shared the complementary purposes of articulating and shaping the attitudes, values, and tastes of the nations children by preaching American traditions and Christian morality. Surpassed in number of readers only by the Bible, these new textbooks, written almost exclusively by New England authors, taught a common and widely accepted message of the righteousness of America and the destiny of its people. Grammars, spellers, and readers assured students that God had created their world and that he divinely favored the United States, which was undoubtedly the most glorious of all nations. But students were also warned that the bestowal of Gods blessings upon people and nations alike depended upon their own continued moral behavior. As one speller asserted: In this country the way for a poor little boy to become a great and happy man is to be honest, industrious, and good. Conversely, children learned that Poverty is the fruit of idleness and that Declining prosperity is the usual attendant of degenerate morals. Textbooks and teachers exalted patriotism and morality as they attempted to define and unify a nation that seemed increasingly undefinable and diverse.


No textbooks for young people were more widely used in the nineteenth century than the McGuf-fey Readers . Willia m H. McGuffey , an Ohio teacher-preacher of exceptional power, first published hi-s grade-school readers in 1836. During the following decades McGuffey would sell more than twenty-tw o million copies. The McGuffey Readers hammered home lasting lessons of industry, honesty, and patriotism throug h a variety of reading lessons and parables. They also created a common curriculum for every student in the nation. Students everywhere absorbed such reading exercises as Respect for the Sabbath Rewarded, True and False Philanthropy, No Excellenc e without Labor, and The Patriotism of Western Literature. The popularit y o f the McGuffey Readers reflected the emphasis on moralism and virtue that pervaded the educational climate of the early republic, but the textbooks were neither sectarian nor openly political. As an advertising blurb printed with McGuffeys Edec tic Fourth Reader in 1844 exclaimed: NO SECTARIAN matter has been admitted into this work. Such conscious impartiality made the McGuffey Readers an amazing commercial success in all parts of the country.

Source: John H. Westerhoff, McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (Nashville: Ab-ingdon, 1978).


Ellwood P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States: A Study and Interpretation of American Educational History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934);

David B. Tyack, Turning Points in American Educational History (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1967).

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