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Our Times... And Mine
A newsman returns to a classic work by a famous predecessor and finds that Mark Sullivan’s vanished America has something to tell us
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
We were told that the Florida curriculum was born of a sincere concern: How can young Americans be expected to defend their country in time of war, for example? (However, some critics said the Floridians’ greater fear was of attack not by foreign armies but by immigrants and nonwhites from within our own borders.) How can young Americans stick to our institutions in time of economic instability or perform any of the other deeds’of heroic belief that our predecessors were so often called upon for? Schoolchildren today learn so many horror stories of oppression by the dominant cultures in American history; so many tales of scandal are repeated, so many heroes tarnished in the classroom. Never mind that it’s all more or less true. Today there’s less of the kind of values education we find in the old McGuffey Readers , and you won’t see slave-owning, false-tooth-wearing George Washington held up for the kind of adulation he once commanded. And don’t forget that George never cut down that cherry tree. Can we be certain that our children will have the faith and strength our grandparents had when they turned down fascism and communism at the height of the Great Depression?
Can we be certain that our children will have the faith and strength our grandparents had? The solution, I believe, is shown in Our Times , in a way Mark Sullivan may not have realized.
The solution, I believe, is shown in Our Times , in a way Mark Sullivan may not have realized.
Sullivan lavishes his attention on the McGuffey Readers , believing them to be the key to “the American mind” (and largely defending his claim) and the origin of many of the preconceptions and values held by a majority of Americans during his times. The McGuffey method may look clumsy at best, preachy at worst, to modern eyes. I doubt there are many Sunday-school texts with so relentless an emphasis on moral instruction, and that emphasis pervaded every aspect of the classroom; even penmanship exercises, Sullivan recalls, meant copying out pious proverbs.
Yet Sullivan stops short when he comes to the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree, a typical lesson in the McGuffey Readers . Sullivan writes that such stories may have encouraged cynicism in American schoolchildren, since they were so often called upon to repeat and believe what they knew perfectly well to be untrue: “By the 1920s, youth doubted whether that story accorded with what they —or their fathers—would have done under similar circumstances, and decided it was inconsistent with their own observations of life—and passed on to raise doubts about some other orthodox statements of history and rules of conduct.” Indeed, the cherry-tree legend reminds him of all the tales of wise, well-behaved, and well-spoken farm animals that fill McGuffey’s pages and that must have seemed ridiculous to young people growing up in a predominantly agricultural America. Sullivan sees a whole trend of youthful cynicism and wonders if it isn’t a rebellion against McGuffey; he doesn’t doubt it’s worrisome.
Still, these same cynics in training served their country in Great War, endured the Great Depression, and (in some cases) served their country yet again in the Second World War. This is my parents’ generation, the very generation held up to us today as exemplars of the best kind of American patriotism. If they were cynical, it doesn’t seem to have interfered much with doing their duty as Americans.
Perhaps the worst cynics after all are those who disbelieve the optimism of the young, who think the young need dictating to before they’ll do the right thing. At any rate, this kind of doubting is no new trend in American society.
The temptations to despair are many, the cynics and the naysayers numerous, yet the United States of America remains a landmark of civilization. Capable of error, but also capable of recognition and regret. Strong and proud, and unrivaled in history for its attempt to build and govern a society of multiethnic, multireligious, multiracial equals under the law. In Our Own Times we have endured many dark hours. Yet the American experiment is no less worthy and no less successful today than it has ever been. How Mark Sullivan would have loved to witness and write it all!