Schoolmaster to the Nation
By: Dolores P. Sullivan
Salem, Mass.:Associated University Presses:1994
Book Review by: Bob Venard
Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Dolores P. Sullivan's work William Holmes McGuffey, Schoolmaster to
the Nation is misleading in title. In spite of the fact that Sullivan refers to it as a biography, only a small portion deals specifically
with McGuffey, while the majority addressed the McGuffey readers, and their impact on American education and morality.
William McGuffey was a stern Presbyterian minister and educator of
Scots-Irish background who, perhaps more than any other individual shaped the social and moral influences on American youth during the
19th century. McGuffey readers were the primary elementary school textbooks in the United States for 75 years, have sold over 120 million
copies, and are still published today.
McGuffey recognized a need in the early 1800's to provide universal
education for the huge numbers of isolated pioneer families and language impaired European immigrants. He combined his talents as an
orator and educator with his religious convictions, and developed a progressive series of six texts, which were highly effective in
teaching reading, pronunciation, elocution and retention of information. All of which was interwoven with McGuffy's beliefs in God,
morality and right living, which he considered of primary educational importance.
Sullivan's portrayal of the McGuffey influence cannot be faulted for
depth of research or an abundance of information. A reader might conclude, however, that William Holmes McGuffey, Schoolmaster to the
Nation includes an important story of American culture, but also that as a story, it is poorly told.
The book seems stiffly academic and disjointed in flow, with names
of people and places and titles and social status which represent thorough research, but add nothing necessary or helpful to clarify
the portrait of McGuffey or his beliefs. Perhaps this information is meant to compensate for a lack of available knowledge about McGuffey
Sullivan's book includes a fascinating story of how a man of high
moral standards, staunch convictions and a driving work ethic impacts America's moral fiber, which he accomplishes in spite of shortcomings
of vanity, manipulative ambition, and an often cold and rigid personality.
By the late 1800's the McGuffey readers, as Sullivan documents, were
revised to the standards of the times, which included molding the contents of the texts to conform to maximizing monetary profit, which
had been inconsequential to McGuffey, and to appeal to the broadest potential market. As a result McGuffey's objective of instilling
nondenominational religious values was compromised and replaced by the accepted goals of the industrial age, physical and materialistic
William Holmes McGuffey, Schoolmaster to the Nation is not so much
a story of a man as it is a story of the evolution of American values. McGuffey manifested the values of a nineteenth century patriarchal
society, and taught them to millions. The reader, however, must piece this underlying theme together from the informative but awkwardly
The author's effort to stretch a minimum of information about McGuffey
into a "biography" does disservice to the greater story. The overall story is whether we have built upon America's 19th century values
or regressed from them. Had that been the theme of Sullivan's work, she might have written a stimulating and thought provoking book
while using exactly the same information.