Friday, November 9, 2012

William Holmes McGuffey

WilliamHolmesMcGuffeyKYBourbon County, KY
Marker Number 178

Marker Text: Born September 23, 1800 - Died May 4, 1873. Famous for his eclectic readers which introduced thousands of children to the treasures of literature. At this site he taught from 1823 to 1826 before joining the faculty of Miami University.

Location: On High Street, Paris, KY across from the Duncan Tavern. Erected by the Kentucky Department of Highways.

  McGuffey Readers played an important role in American history. Most prominent post-Civil War and turn-of-the-Century American figures credited their initial success in learning to the Readers, which provided a guide to what was occurring in the public school movement and in American culture during the 19th century.

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This marker is a little different that it rests next to the wall of a building on High Street, Paris, KY across from Duncan Tavern.  Click any photo to enlarge.

  The McGuffey Readers reflect William H. McGuffey's personal philosophies, as well as his rough and tumble early years as a frontier schoolteacher. McGuffey's Readers were more than mere textbooks, they helped frame the country's morals and tastes, and shaped the American character. They approached learning by using the natural curiosity of children; emphasized work and an independent spirit; encouraged an allegiance to country, and an understanding of the importance of religious values. The Readers were filled with stories of strength, character, goodness and truth. The books presented a variety of contrasting viewpoints on many issues and topics, and drew moral conclusions about lying, stealing, cheating, poverty, teasing, alcohol, overeating, skipping school and foul language. The books taught children to seek an education and continue to learn throughout their lives.

  The original author of the Readers, which would continue to carry his name during later revisions even after his death, William Holmes McGuffey, was born September 23, 1800, near Claysville, Pennsylvania. His parents then moved to Youngstown, Ohio with in 1802. McGuffey's family had emigrated to America from Scotland in 1774, and brought with them strong Presbyterian-Calvinist opinions and a belief in education. Educating the young mind and preaching the gospel were McGuffey's passions. He had a remarkable ability to memorize, and could commit to memory entire books of the Bible.

  McGuffey became a "roving" teacher at the age of 14, beginning with 48 students in a one room school in Calcutta, Ohio. The size of the class was just one of several challenges faced by the young McGuffey. In many one-teacher schools, children's ages varied from six to twenty-one. McGuffey often worked 11 hours a day, 6 days a week in a succession of frontier schools, primarily in the State of Kentucky, such as, at this site in Paris, Kentucky. Students brought their own books, most frequently the Bible, since few textbooks existed.

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Marker is on the opposite wall of the building on the left across the street from Duncan Tavern (prior blog post) on the right.

  Between teaching jobs, William McGuffey received a classical education at the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Washington College in Washington, PA in 1826. The same year he was appointed to a position as Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

  In 1827, McGuffey married Harriet Spinning, and the couple eventually had five children. Very little is known about the early lives of these children, although one daughter's diary reveals that perfect obedience and submission were expected. William McGuffey spent his life striving to instill his strong convictions in the next generation. He believed religion and education to be interrelated and essential to a healthy society.

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The Duncan Tavern is on the left out of the frame across the street and the back of Bourbon County Courthouse can be seen in the background to the left.

  While McGuffey was teaching at Miami University, he established a reputation as a lecturer on moral and biblical subjects. In 1835, the small Cincinnati publishing firm of Truman and Smith asked McGuffey to create a series of four graded Readers for primary level students. McGuffey was recommended for the job by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a longtime friend. He completed the first two Readers within a year of signing his contract, receiving a fee of $1,000. While McGuffey compiled the first four Readers (1836-1837 edition), the fifth and sixth were created by his brother Alexander during the 1840s. The series consisted of stories, poems, essays and speeches. The advanced Readers contained excerpts from the works of great writers such as John Milton, Daniel Webster and Lord Byron.

  McGuffey was remembered as a theological and conservative teacher. He understood the goals of public schooling in terms of moral and spiritual education, and attempted to give schools a curriculum that would instill Presbyterian Calvinist beliefs and manners in their students. These goals were suitable for early 19th century America, but not for the nations' later need for unified pluralism. The content of the readers changed drastically between McGuffey's 1836-1837 edition and the 1879 edition. The revised Readers were compiled to meet the needs of national unity and the dream of an American "melting pot" for the worlds' oppressed masses. The Calvinist values of salvation, righteousness and piety, so prominent in the early Readers, were entirely missing in the later versions. The content of the books was secularized and replaced by middle-class civil religion, morality and values.

WilliamHolmesMcGuffeyKY2  Although famous as the author of the Readers, McGuffey wrote very few other works. He was athletic, loved children, had a sparkling sense of humor, and enjoyed a good joke. McGuffey left Miami University for positions of successively greater responsibility at Cincinnati College, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and Woodward College in Cincinnati (where he served as president). He ended his career as a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Through the hard times of the Civil War and following, McGuffey was known for his philanthropy and generosity among the poor and African-Americans. William McGuffey died in 1873 and is buried in the university burial ground, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  The William Holmes McGuffey Museum was established at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio.

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