The American Experience in Education

By John Barnard; David Burner | Go to book overview

4

I
AMERICAN SCHOOL BOOKS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Ruth M. Elson

Teachers have long relied on school books for instruction. Their importance was especially great in the nineteenth century, since simple recitation from texts was then the usual school exercise. The textbooks were repositories of conventional wisdom and common belief and aspiration. This selection from Ruth Elson's careful and thorough study of nineteenth-century school books recounts the place of texts in instruction and examines some of their teachings on race and on the formation of character.

Other studies of children's books are J. Merton England, "The Democratic Faith in American Schoolbooks, 1783-1860," American Quarterly, 15 ( 1963), pp. 191-199; John A. Nietz, Old Textbooks ( Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961); John A. Nietz, The Evolution of American Secondary School Textbooks ( Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle, 1966); and Monica Kiefer, American Children Through Their Books, 1700-1835 ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948).

The purpose of nineteenth-century American public schools was to train citizens in character and proper principles. Most textbook writers had an exalted idea of their function; almost all made statements such as the following: "The mind of the child is like the soft wax to receive an impression, but like the rigid marble to retain it." They were much more concerned with the child's moral development than with the development of his mind. The important problem for nineteenth-century

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