Oregon's First State-Mandated Uniform School Readers: Politics and Education

Article excerpt

A STORM OF CONTROVERSY arose among politicians, educators, newspaper editors, and citizens in 1873 when Oregon endeavored to adopt its first uniform readers for the public schools. The Pacific Coast Series, published by A.L. Bancroft & Co. in San Francisco, elicited immediate protests. Hostility toward the series increased until eventually Oregon newspapers were referring to the situation as the School Book Fraud and angry letters to the editor carried inflammatory headlines such as "Burn the Books." (1) Six years after their adoption, the use of the series was discontinued by a legislative amendment to the School Law of 1872 in response to statewide and nearly universal dissatisfaction with the Bancroft books. Unhappiness with these readers reflected a mixture of resentment over the high-handed way the readers were adopted and discontent with the content of the books themselves. The Bancroft series differed significantly from traditional school readers by avoiding doctrinaire moralizing and including the work of West Coast writers. Belief that the work of West Coast writers was inferior to that of more well-known authors from the East and concern about the lack of religious content contributed to the removal of the Pacific Coast Series in 1879.

In adopting uniform school readers, Oregon's newly created Board of Education was following the theories of what came to be known as the Common School Movement, which began in New England and spread Westward. (2) The term "common" referred to the movement's focus on public schools as well as its goal of achieving uniformity in education. Between 1830 and 1870, Americans involved with the Common School Movement worked energetically to improve public elementary schooling. The movement had three goals: the establishment of state control over local schools, the provision of free elementary education for every white child in the United States, and the development of trained educational professionals. The first step was "to establish some form of state control over local schools." (3)

Two mechanisms helped spread the Common School concept to the West Coast. One was educational periodicals such as the Massachusetts Common School Journal, edited by the educator Horace Mann, the Connecticut Common School Journal, edited by Henry Barnard, and the Common School Director, edited by Samuel Lewis. Second were education organizations such as the American Lyceum, the Western Literary Institute, and the American Institute of Instruction. (3) There is little direct evidence that these journals and organizations had an influence in Oregon, yet by 1872 the Oregon Legislature began to act on the principles of the Common School Movement.

THE ROOTS OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS in the United States lie in the Protestant church and in New England, a fact that has profoundly affected the development of public education throughout the nation. (5) In Puritan New England, education was primarily a religious activity emphasizing individual conduct, and elementary readers focused on human behavior within the context of religious piety. (6) During the westward migration of the mid-nineteenth century, American emigrants carried the New England-based attitude toward education with them in the form of McGuffey Readers. The McGuffeys, first made available in 1836 and the most popular readers of the time, reenforced the New England approach toward education, although they "substituted a morality built upon secular experience for the gloomy moralizing of the Puritan texts." (7) These popular schoolbooks were dedicated to the belief that "education itself was primarily moral, and only secondarily intellectual." (8) The readers were used in almost all of the states, particularly those west of the Appalachians and in the South, and most western emigrants saw them as the model for school readers. (9)

Before 1872, Oregon had no department of public education and the governor acted as state school superintendent. …