Friday, August 23, 2013

The New England Primer

This is the New England Primer, the first American text used to teach school children to read.  It was in print from 1681 to 1830 and was, for millions of children in the New World, their first experience with formal education. In addition to the alphabet, it reinforced Puritan and Calvinist beliefs that life was short and brutal, that mankind is helpless in the face of sin, and that most of us were ending up in hell anyway.  

This is always the first text I teach in my American 
Literature class.

The text I use is from 1727.  This is the 1803 edition. Photo by the Library of Congress.

Here are some of my favorite couplets from the primer.

A--In ADAM'S fall, we sinned all
The first rhyme in the text, illustrating the use of the letter A, reads "In Adam's fall, we sinned all."  It's hard to top that for a concise summarization of the Puritans' moralistic world view, isn't it?  Because as long as we are teaching kids the first letter, we might as well take this opportunity to remind them that they were born damned to hell.  (Something tells me these kids didn't get nap time back then.)

C--The CAT doth play and after slay.

D--A DOG will bite a thief at night.

E--An EAGLES flight is out of sight.  
I kind of like this one. This is one of the few rhymes that is actually kind of charming.

F--An idle FOOL is whipt at school.

P--PETER denies his Lord and cries. 

T--TIME cuts down all, both great and small.
Because even kindergarteners need to be reminded that we are all in the icy grip of death.

U--URIAH'S beauteous wife made David seek his life.
The story of David and Bathsheeba would get an R rating by the MPAA today (for nudity, sex, adult themes, and violence), but back in 1727 it was fodder for the under-6 set.

X--XERXES the great did die, and so must you and I.

Y--YOUTH forward slips. Death soonest nips. 
Yes, that's the angel of death pointing an arrow at the head of a child.  

I use this primer in class because I like asking the students to extrapolate the value system of the society that produced it.  They're good at understanding the Puritan paradigm based on the kinds of things these people taught their children.  I then ask them to create a new primer for 21st-century kindergarteners that stresses the values of cooperation, collaboration, health-consciousness, environmental awareness, etc., and they usually do a nice job.

This "knowing about knowing" or "learning about learning" is called metacognition, which is a very trendy word in education today and will get you lots of points at the next faculty meeting.  

And that's real lesson here, folks. How to impress people at your faculty meetings.



Source Cited:
Updegraff, Marie. "Education Spelled Freedom." The Stamford Historical Society. Web. 22 August 

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