©2013 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE TO READERS: Regular attendees of my little recitations will know by now that I am slightly obsessed with my own youth and childhood. When a solipsist trusts only his/her own memories and experiences, then the past becomes the single source of “reliable” knowledge for that person — in this instance, me. I am continually reaching back into my youth to try and retrieve the coherent, palpable wholeness that filled my perception then. Of course, it is impossible to get all that back, for very clear reasons which I will not go into now because they would constitute too much of a digression. Let me just say by way of preamble that the following essay is partly the result of one of those crazy quests.
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Like millions of Americans taught to read and write within the period 1930-1970, I have held onto fond memories of the Dick and Jane readers that were used for our instruction in elementary schools. There was something warmly cozy about the water color illustrations which occupied a large portion of each page’s space. The scenes, all done by Eleanor Campbell and Keith Ward during my elementary years (1946-1952), lingered within my consciousness. Now, in my mature years, looking through a commemorative collection of five Dick and Jane “stories” (©1996 Scott, Foresman Company) re-printed by HarperCollins, I was shocked at the simplistic renderings, both in art and in wording, served up by those books I once had treasured.
In a related serendipitous event, I recently visited the restored fort at Fort Davis, just 26 miles north of my home. In the “Visitors’ Center” I browsed through the artifacts and books, mostly about the “buffalo soldiers” (black enlisted men) and the Apache and Comanche tribes that used to roam this area, and was attracted to some tan volumes titled McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader (Primer through Third). I flipped through the pages of the First Reader and was at once amused and fascinated by, and admiring of, what I saw. Here were some very detailed pen and ink drawings illustrating brief, simple stories, essays and poems. And the words introduced in each lesson were presented initially as a vocabulary with phonetic spelling above the literature, often enveloping the drawing. I decided then that I must buy those volumes and compare and contrast them with the booklet of Dick and Jane commemorative selections at home.
The first realization that came to mind as I considered my new project, however, was that I must limit the scope of the essay, for I am no professional in the psychology of learning or in the more intricately specialized science of phonetics. I wanted to restrict myself to what any non-specialist might judge: the aesthetics and organization of the “whole word” emphasis (Dick and Jane) and the “phonetic” emphasis (McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader). Actually, though, it is virtually impossible to be distinguishing in the comparison because the two series evolved over the years, with McGuffey allowing more room for whole word interpretation, and Dick and Jane mildly acknowledging some role for the phonetic approach. With that caveat in place, I will direct my assertions and judgments solely to the publications I have before me: McGuffey readers (1873-1906) and Dick and Jane selected chapters (1946-1965).
Very quickly I realized that this subject is more complex than I had imagined, especially in the McGuffey books. For that reason, I think it will be best to lay out the first two chapters of each text, discussing the elements of each in turn, and then comparing them. Since McGuffey appeared first, let’s start with it. But first a little background.
Before William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) started his series in 1836, American school children had to endure the harshness of the New England Primer:
WHAT A DOUR TIME!
The colonial pupils had to learn their letters via rhymed iambic dimeters, presumably read to them by their school master and then memorized by them. Of course, the positive side was that they were getting an early exposure to verse, if not poetry. But at what a cost! Just consider the horrific images presented to their tender faces and the nightmares that must have filled their sleep at night. Here, Adam’s sin is dumped on their heads, play and slay are related through rhyme, whipping is a tool of the school, their lives are as brief as an hour glass’s spilling, Job blessed a God who allowed his many torments, and Korah ( the Old Testament rebel against priestly authority) was swallowed up by the earth along with his chief followers. The counter examples are vague and lame: Read the Bible to be good, the eagle is a high flyer, memorize the Bible for comfort, the bold lion and the mild lamb are meant to be buddies, and the moon prevents total darkness. (Remember the “C” entry, for we will come back to that scene soon.)
After several exhausting years as a one-room school teacher — beginning when he was fourteen — and getting a college education in between terms, McGuffey received a contract to develop a series of graded readers. He had already gained a reputation for his intense interests in morality and education; as a devout Calvinistic Presbyterian, McGuffey poured religion into his educative mix, although not as harshly as his predecessors. Also, in concert with the conventional attitude of his time, he did not hide his anti-Semitism. As later editions of his books were edited to water down the heavy theology and erase the anti-Semitism, McGuffey reportedly frowned at the changes but either did not care enough or was not sufficiently influential enough to thwart them. The books retained a moral tenor, but the stories and poems were more oblique and homely in presenting it.
Now let’s take a look at the first couple of lessons in McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, Revised Edition as they appeared in 1881 through 1909 printings.
Above is the top half of the first illustration in McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, 1881 Edition. The drawing in my copy shows the entire cat. This one is better, however, because the picture in my book is flawed by poor printing, possibly due to excessive ink, although it is in a way admirable because one can see how the artist meticulously drew countless strands of fur.
The rat, also, is introduced in Lesson I. I was unable to locate the particular McGuffey rat illustration; so, for the purpose merely of carrying our discussion along, I have substituted an image of a rat from the clip art app in my computer. The clip art product is not quite as impressive as the one in McGuffey (its small size makes it look more like a mouse) , but it is at least in the same position and is clearer.
On the right hand page, just above the illustrated rat are two rows: the first, of four words; and the second, of six letters with diacritical marks, thus:
a and cat rat
ǎ c d n r t
(That is not an /e/; it is a hard /c/; aka /k/)
a rat a cat
A cat A rat
A cat and a rat.
A rat and a cat.
So, what have we here? In the “Preface” to the McGuffey Primer, the publishers state: “The plan of the book enables the teacher to pursue the Phonic Method, the Word Method, the Alphabet Method, or any combination of these methods.” The Phonic Method and the Alphabet Method are evident in the second line – the letters, where short /a/ and hard /c/ are represented phonetically by /ǎ/ and by /c/, respectively. That diacritical mark for the hard /c/ is apparently no longer used by linguists and phoneticists; at least, I could not find it in my search on the Internet; the letter /k/ is used instead. (But, that is a bit of a digression; shall we continue?) The Word Method (also termed the “Whole Word Method”) is provided for by the two lines below the rat: “a rat….a cat” repeated in the next line with capital /A/ replacing lower case /a/.
Note that no periods are employed in those two Whole Word lines, but the last two lines on the page are followed by periods:
A cat and a rat.
A rat and a cat.
The inclusion of periods at this point was a mistake, in my view, because the pupils will have to be retrained later to avoid sentence fragments except in rare instances, such as after an excitable demand or exclamation; and the two phrases here are in no way exhibiting excitement. Of course, the teacher might point out to her/his pupils that an exception is being allowed here in order to introduce the relative positioning of the indefinite article “a”, where at the beginning of a “sentence” the capital letter is used, while within the sentence the lower case letter is usually required. Also, she/he might use the occasion to discuss the correct use of the period, even though there are no verbs in this lesson and therefore no actual sentences. (The verb “has” is introduced in Lesson II, so we cannot absolutely say that such a discussion would be premature, just early. Still, I think it would have been more sensible to have waited until Lesson II to introduce capital letters.)
There are some other salient aspects of this lesson that intrigue me. First, only six letters are presented; but they can be formed into four words and those four words can be sensibly joined together into one phrase. I say “one phrase” because the meaning of the two printed here is really the same; the organization has only been reversed. That reversal, however, is also an interesting element; for it shows that some flexibility is allowable in constructing phrases and sentences without constricting the meaning, only possibly changing the emphasis. Also, while no true verse is involved here, there is the potential for one in the rhyme of “cat” and “rat”; so the pupils are very subtly being prepared for the actual verses which will appear a few lessons later. Rhyming also helps the youngsters in their spelling because, if they know for sure how to spell “rat”, they should not find the extrapolation to “cat” very difficult.
Finally, there is the life lesson presented here and in the following lesson — the same as in the verse couplet for the letter /C/ in the New England Primer: the deathly hostility between the cat and the rat. While not a “morality” or “ethics” lesson, it is a basic life-and-death one.
In Lesson II, another four words (ǎt, the, rǎn and hǎʂ) — along with our first proper noun, “Ann” — are introduced. And, as in the first lesson, some new letters (/h/, /th/ and /ʂ/) show up. A fifth letter /e/, although not explicitly listed, is yet brought into the lesson via the word “the”.
In this lesson, the ink drawing shows the cat stretched fully forward, his jaw gripping the rat’s back. The printer’s ink was excessive, so the features of the cat and the rat are less than optimal. Oh, you can see what is happening — and it is indeed an action picture — but you cannot gather much detail. And, this time, the phonetics, vocabulary and Whole Words are all below the illustration. I should add here that the succeeding illustrations vary in their clarity, several being quite clear while many are too dark. But, the compositions fill their allotted spaces; the lines are impressively detailed and, for the most part, fit the elements of their associated stories adequately.
So, now we have two verbs “has” and “ran” and a proper noun “Ann” with which to construct actual sentences. (Our “rhyming dictionary” is likewise expanding!) Also, we have a definite article “the” to distinguish from the indefinite article “a” we were stuck with before; that might be a bit much intellectually for our pupils to grab onto this early in the course, but it would not hurt to try and point out the difference and then tell the pupils not to worry too much about it for the time being. If they surprise us by comprehending the difference readily, we might point out that the distinction is a very basic but important one in the science of logic.
Here are the sentences that are offered:
The cat has a rat.
The rat ran at Ann.
Ann has a cat.
The cat ran at the rat.
Look at all the rhyming words involved here! “Cat”, “rat” and “at” (our first preposition). Then, of course, there is “Ann” and “ran”, soon to be joined in the next lesson by “can” and “fan”. Besides the versification potential, we have repetition of a large segment of each word, which both aids learning the words and shows the pupils how interrelated many of our English words are. Moreover, we now certainly have the element of drama if not much by way of a story. Other characters, too, become part of the community, though not of the same family. Nat appears in Lesson III, an unidentified “man” and a “lad” in Lesson IV, a dog named “Rab” in Lesson VI, an older boy named Tom in Lesson IX, a girl named Nell in Lesson XIII, and a girl named Mary leading a blind old man in Lesson IV. I think you should get the point that these characters are not as restricted in their relationships as are the characters in the early Dick and Jane books.
Cursive script is introduced as early as Lesson V, wherein eight of the sixteen words learned in the previous four lessons are written out in three brief sentences. The fifth lesson is primarily a review which, besides the cursive writing exercise, contains nine more sentences in typeface. Every fifth succeeding lesson is a “review”, and cursive exercises appear irregularly at those times.
By this point also, the semicolon and the question mark have been employed, although not very rationally; for the semicolon was used where the colon would have been better in the sentence: The man sat; the lad ran. (The two clauses are equally balanced.) As for the question mark, it appears in two sentences of the “review” but was never used in any previous lesson.
Rhyme was inevitably present as early as Lesson I (“A cat and a rat.”) and an embryonic verse brought forth in Lesson VII (“See the frog on a log.”). However, the authors apparently believed that not enough glossary was available until Lesson XLV to introduce poetry per se, or rather verse. In that lesson, we find two stanzas written in cursive:
Work while you work,
Play while you play,
One thing each time,
That is the way.
All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by halves,
Are not done right.
And in Lesson VII, the final Lesson, appears a verse of three stanzas printed with typeface:
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.
All your joys and griefs he knows,
Sees each smile and tear;
When to him you tell your woes,
Know the Lord will hear.
Although compassion, sharing, diligence and kindness are inculcated virtually throughout McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer (Revised Edition), God and His relationship with people, primarily children, is not mentioned until the last two lessons. The theology may be softer than was that of the New England Primer, but it is still there.
Some natural science is also presented in the primer and in the more advanced readers, but it is not always sensible or accurate. When McGuffey acknowledges in the Primer’s Lesson XXXVIII that the quail is good to eat but he would not like to kill it, he is revealing some ambivalence. And when, in Lesson XXI of the Second Eclectic Reader, he claims that the drone bees do not contribute anything to the hive’s community and are killed by the worker bees, he is significantly misinforming his young pupils; because the drones join the other bees in maintaining the optimal temperature of the hive and they inseminate the queen bees. While it is true that the worker bees expel the drones from the hive during a certain season, they do not kill them; a drone dies while mating with the queen: his penis becomes stuck and is pulled out along with part of his abdomen. Thus, the first time is the best time is the last time, for drone bees anyway. However, the habits and fortunes of bees were not as well known in McGuffey’s day as they are now.
Yes, McGuffey included many of the rough facts of life in his lessons, and he was a bit moralistic. However, his tone was more realistic than preachy: as the popular phrase of the 1960s succinctly put it, McGuffey “told it like it is.” That was not the case with the Dick and Jane readers, which, to me and to many others now, proffered silly anecdotes about children dressing up in their parents’ clothes and becoming overly excited when their dog Spot encounters a frog or Jane gets three dolls for her birthday.
And it is the latter toward which I want to turn our attention now.
Dick and Jane
As I said at the start of this essay, I hold onto fond memories of the series of graded readers known generically as the “Dick and Jane books”. They have been so indelibly imprinted into the memories of my generation, as well as the memories of earlier and later pupils, that many people are eager to buy reprints — not for educational use but as nostalgia. The readers have been generally untaught since they lost favor in the 1970s. Why?
In February 2004, the newspaper USA Today ran an article about Dick and Jane that quoted Prof. David Bloome of Ohio State University, who asserted that for every person who loved the primers “‘as many people grew to dislike them and resent them. Many people struggled with those books. Many people found them boring. Many people found them not to speak to their experiences.’”
Of course there was repetition in the McGuffey readers: that’s a necessary tool in teaching children to read. The Dick and Jane authors, however, employed repetition ad nauseum. Here is a sample page’s verbiage in the “episode” where the dog Spot discovers a frog under a bush (Jane is speaking.):
Come and see.
Come and see.
Come and see Spot.
All I really recall learning from those books are the words come and go, look and see, up and down, run and funny…and the most useful word of all: Oh.
The same US Today article claimed that the series had been “a calculated attack on phonics. The authors believed children learned to read best by memorizing a small handful of ‘sight words’ and repeating them over and over — the ‘look/say’ method.” Under such criticism, the publisher reportedly did introduce some element of phonics. I cannot attest to or refute that, since I do not have the entire series at hand. Nonetheless, Dick and Jane survive now only as memorabilia, material for jokes and movie plots.
The Main Characters
Here we see Jane, on her tricycle, trying to retrieve her doll from Spot’s jaws, while Dick follows in his red wagon with Sally riding behind him. Note the correct if idealized anatomies and visages, the warm water color tones, and the minimal background. The ethnic homogeneity and social class level is not emphatic in this scene, although it is apparent in the book as a whole. There was little likelihood that children of other cultures and social strata would find much to relate to in these readers. Also, the vocabulary was irritatingly repetitive.
Comparing the artwork in the Dick and Jane books with that in McGuffey’s definitely shows Dick and Jane to a disadvantage. Although the water colors are “cozy” in Dick and Jane and the drawing is anatomically accurate enough, they are all done by the same artists (Eleanor Campbell and Keith Ward during the period under discussion) and therefore lack the variety available in McGuffey’s. It is true that today’s children — hell, even my generation! — would probably be puzzled by the 19th century clothing shown in the McGuffey prints and the odd lifestyles, such as a little girl riding in a wagon pulled by two goats. But, to the artistically minded like me, the detailed renderings of tree leaves, clouds and structures in the distant backgrounds would be engrossing and even inspiring. Also, the relevance of what is depicted to the narratives involves the peruser of a McGuffey reader in a way that the bland and empty scenes in the Dick and Jane primer cannot match.
That is especially true when the illustration appears to indicate more action than the words relate. For instance, in McGuffey’s Lesson IV an old man is sitting on a chair out in his yard with a bandaged foot supported by a stool and pillow, while a boy a short distance away is running by with a crutch, presumably the old man’s; yet the sentences below only mention that the man has a hat and is sitting, and the boy has a cap and is running. My view of the scene tells me that the boy is either mischievous or malicious, but the remarks below say nothing about what the boy is up to. So, even though the lesson perhaps is flawed, the flaw itself is inviting of attention, an attention that can cause the reader to study the words even more carefully than he might have done otherwise.
Well, that pretty much covers everything I can say with any sense of proportion about McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers and Dick and Jane. Actually, I could go on for several more hours and pages about those books and literacy itself, but this post is already nearly 3,400 words long, and my audience — what remains of it — is doubtlessly ready for me to conclude.
So, farewell for now, gentle readers, and don’t forget to read, read, read, read….