William Holmes McGuffey: schoolmaster to the nation

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Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994 - Biography & Autobiography - 244 pages
William Holmes McGuffey: Schoolmaster to the Nation is the first definitive biography of the man whose McGuffey Readers shaped the character of entire generations of school children from 1836, when they were first printed, until the 1920s, with over 120 million copies in circulation. In fact, various editions of the series have been in print continuously until the present day. Historian Henry Steele Commager claimed that the Readers "played an important role in American education and helped shape that elusive thing we call American character." No in-depth biography of McGuffey has been published since Miami (Ohio) University professor Harvey Minnich's study in 1936. This volume reflects the continuing interest in McGuffey's educational theories, and also contains previously unpublished letters to his family in the Youngstown, Ohio, area, his boyhood home.
Born in 1800 in the pioneer wilderness of western Pennsylvania, McGuffey moved as a small child with his family to Coitsville Township, near Youngstown, where he grew up. Teaching in subscription schools, he earned the money to complete his bachelor's degree in Washington College, Pennsylvania, before joining the faculty at the newly-founded Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. It was here that McGuffey compiled (with his brother Alexander's assistance) the first edition of the Readers. Although lacking executive skills, McGuffey also served as president of both the ill-fated Cincinnati College and University before accepting a faculty position at the University of Virginia, where he spent his final years.
Although strongly religiously-oriented in the 1836 edition, reflecting McGuffey's background as a Presbyterian minister in addition to his educational interests as a college professor, the Readers kept pace with the changing face of American society, as the country emerged into an industrial giant at the turn of the century. Subsequent editions of the Readers, supervised by the astute, sales-conscious publishing houses, reflect a more secular orientation.
Despite the changes over the years, the McGuffey Readers continued their emphasis on student achievement, character training, and on an intellectual unified pluralism. Current criticisms of education, citing the "dumbing down" in today's textbooks, the lack of emphasis on ethical training, and student achievement in today's public schools, perhaps supply partial answers to the perennial question: Why the continuing interest in the McGuffey Readers?
Although McGuffey was a controversial figure in his lifetime, when he served as a professor of Moral Philosophy at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and at the University of Virginia, and as president of Ohio University, his educational methods as exemplified in the Readers proved highly successful in teaching millions of pioneer children not only how to read, but to remember what they read for the rest of their lives. Perhaps now is the time to rediscover McGuffey and his Readers.

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The Continuing Influence of the Readers

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