Old Wisdom For a New Year

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Old Wisdom For a New Year
Since my Christmastime column was a bit less than festive, I want to try and begin 2023 on a positive and upbeat note. Most of us are by nature eternal optimists—some would call it delusional, but I like to think of it as aspirational—and the new year always presents a fresh opportunity for us to improve ourselves. We start out with the best of intentions, but we’re too often doomed to fall short, hence the familiar internet meme: “I”m opening a gym called ‘Resolutions.’ It will have exercise equipment for the first two weeks and then turn into a bar for the rest of the year.” There have been times, though, when self-improvement was a way of life, not just a handful of quickly forgotten New Year’s resolutions. I was reminded of this in a recent Hanukkah gift from my brother, a facsimile edition of McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader, Revised Edition ©1920. McGuffey’s Readers had been a great favorite of our late father’s, an English professor, though more for their concept than their content. They were America’s first popular textbooks in the 19th century, originally written by Scottish immigrant and professional educator William Holmes McGuffey in the 1830s for primary school students through the 6th grade. They have reportedly sold an astounding 122 million copies, falling somewhere just behind Shakespeare, the Bible, and Webster’s Dictionary. The last official revised edition was just over 100 years ago, and they’ve now passed into the public domain, still in print and freely available online. It’s a poignant irony that the books that taught millions of Americans to read, that were intended to set a national standard for literacy, reverence for learning, and formation of moral character are now effectively marginalized as fetish objects for home-schoolers and religious fundamentalists. On one level, it’s easy to see why: McGuffey Readers fit right in with the aggressive back-to-basics/prayer-in-schools movement that surged in the ’70s and ’80s as a reaction to perceived ’60s permissiveness, opposition to “forced busing,” and political potency of wedge-issue culture wars. We still see it in Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation, a coast-to-coast right-wing campaign to dial back “woke” educational curriculums and ban “inappropriate” books, and hysteria over “critical race theory.” The series itself recognized by the end of the 19th century that Bible-thumping Calvinism, stern moralistic lectures, and reinforcement of white male patriarchal social and political hierarchies, which may once have suited a largely homogeneous Western European population, had grown irrelevant in an increasingly heterogeneous, multi-cultural, diverse and more egalitarian society. But what was also lost as the series faded from wide popularity was the notion that it was worthwhile to impart a working knowledge of a common canon of prose and poetic literature, and to cultivate not just competence, but standards of excellence in reading, writing, and public speaking. Nowadays, anyone who defends those 19th century virtues of cultural literacy, character formation, and formal communication skills tends to sound either like a fool or a reactionary, partly because for the past 40 years these concepts have been cynically commandeered by the political right. How this happened remains a bit of a mystery, since Ronald Reagan was famously one of our most intellectually incurious presidents, yet it was during his presidency that conservative intellectuals attained their greatest prominence, and there was serious and robust public debate about a wide range of policy questions. Today’s Republicans, children of the Reagan revolution raised to “maturity” in the era of Tea Parties and Donald Trump, are spoiled and thuggish, defiantly stupid, anarchic bomb-throwing brats, like some kind of weird cross between Ferris Bueller and a murderous Chucky doll.
But the civilizing values that the McGuffey Readers, at their best, tried to instill have not fared much better on the political left. There clearly was no Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee vetting their curriculum, and marginalized voices of BIPOC communities are nowhere to be found in their yellowing pages. What some have criticized as “the cult of the amateur”—the less formal experience and training the better, since by definition it only reinforces white male cisgendered hierarchies—promotes the idea that any of us can do almost anything if we have a strong enough passion for it. Maybe not brain surgery or flying a jet, but becoming rich and famous by live-streaming yourself playing video games on TikTok, or renting yourself out as a living, breathing video billboard for thousands of dollars to millions of viewers as a social-media “influencer”? No problem!
Our problems can’t be solved by assigning McGuffey Readers to today’s students. But I do think it would be beneficial to somehow revive the idea that cultural and actual linguistic literacy matters, that logic, reason, and critical thinking are worthwhile cognitive skills, and that good citizenship, civility, and civic engagement are not only desirable but in fact are essential elements in building and maintaining a functioning and durable democracy.

It’s not easy to wrap all this up in a neat little package of New Year’s resolutions, but I would reduce it to one: my father’s familiar admonition that I heard all my life, a bit of old-country Yiddish wisdom: “Be a mensch.” * I’m trying, Dad. I’m trying.

*a person of integrity, honor, dignity, rectitude; a stand-up guy
Joel Bellman

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