Guardians of Tradition, American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century

Guardians of Tradition, American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century

Guardians of Tradition, American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century

Guardians of Tradition, American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century

Excerpt

To discover what ideas were held by the ordinary man in any period of history is one of the persistent problems of intellectual history. The ideas and ideological development of literary men can be analyzed; recent work in intellectual history has presented us with analyses in abundance. But the ordinary man, unliterary by nature, left no direct expression of the concepts he accepted. His household furniture and artifacts offer source material for social history, but his intellectual furniture rarely appears in a form capable of surviving him.

What the averbal man of the past thought about anything is probably lost forever to historical research, but one can at least discover those ideas to which most Americans were exposed by examining the books they read. Apart from the Bible, the books most widely read in nineteenth-century America were not those written by intellectuals, but schoolbooks written by printers, journalists, teachers, ministers, and future lawyers earning their way through college. The selective process by which these people decided what political, economic, social, cultural, and moral concepts should be presented to American youth undoubtedly helped to form the average American's view of the past, the present, and the possible future of man. However ill qualified to do so, the authors of schoolbooks both created and solidified American traditions. Their choice of what they admired in the past and the present, and what they wished to preserve for the future, was likely to be the first formal evaluation of man and his works to which an American child was exposed. The school- books delineated for him an idealized image both of himself and of the history that had produced the admired American type. They were a compendium of ideas popularly approved at the time, and they offer an excellent index of concepts considered "proper" for the nineteenth-century American.

To what extent an individual may be influenced by concepts implicit in his schoolbooks is a question that needs the attention . . .

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