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“You give them something to eat.” Matt. 14:16

Public Education
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Primers and readers: agents of change or maintainers of status quo?

The New England Primer and McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were widely used as texts by many American children over the span of three centuries. An examination of some of these materials gives a clue to what kind of values shaped our system of public education — and the children who were in turn shaped by it.


New England Primer

This textbook was used by students in New England and other English settlements. First printed by Benjamin Harris in 1690, it was used by students into the nineteenth century. It combined the study of the alphabet with Bible reading. In addition to the alphabet rhymes, it included a catechism. Emphasis was on fear of sin, God’s punishment and the inevitability of death. Download an excerpt from the New England Primer.


McGuffey Readers

In 1833, Truman and Smith, a small publishing company in Cincinnati, Ohio, contracted with the Reverand William Holmes McGuffey to create a series of readers. The first reader, published in 1841, introduced children to a moral code that emphasized promptness, goodness, honesty and truthfulness. Subsequent readers presented the white Anglo-Saxon as the ideal American.

From the fourth reader on, youth were introduced to what was considered the great literature of the day. The sixth and final reader contained 186 selections, in which 111 great authors were quoted. Also included in the sixth reader were 17 selections from the Bible. The McGuffey Readers probably exerted more influence on literary tastes in the United States than any other source other than the Bible.


—Adapted from I Dream of a School: Mission Study on Public Education Youth Book with Leader’s Guide by Martha Bettis Gee. (New York, New York: General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2004)

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