As I return (at last!) to my little cataloging-and-blogging project, I find myself interested in some of the small pamphlets and booklets that somehow found their way into the Wood’s House Collection. Today’s specimen, for example, is a neatly printed booklet of 31 pages that offers a window into the history of education in the United States.
In this piece, Bertha E (for Evangeline) Bush* presents what she intends to be the first in a series of little literary exercises for US public school students; it appears to have been used not only in schools, but also as a performance exercise or presentation for civic clubs in the early part of the 20th C. in the United States. She envisions the program’s use on “those Friday afternoons which are devoted to ‘speaking pieces'” — apparently a practice in which one Friday afternoon session per month might be devoted to reading and presenting literary works aloud (5).** The precise age of her intended audience isn’t entirely clear, although she does seem to be aiming for what she calls the “lower grades” (so, probably the middle to upper range of elementary students, judging by the language used in the text). The program, which is supposed to be led by a student who is designated the “presiding officer,” consists of brief introductory presentations and questions about Eugene Field (more on him in a moment), a little singing, and some theatrical recitations and presentations of Field’s works for and about children, interspersed with short breaks to write little essay exercises about Field using biographical information contained in a set of “talks” provided in the appendices after the script. If you’d like to read the whole thing, it’s worth a look — check it out here.
Eugene Field is perhaps best known for pieces like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (which you can hear read by various folks here)*** and Little Boy Blue. He also worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist for several different newspapers, and in that arena was notable as a humorist.
From the point of view of a GenXer educated in a public school system in suburban Chicagoland (not too terribly far from Field’s stomping grounds as a columnist for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News), this script often seems quaint and artificial. Bush’s vision of childhood, as framed through Field’s writing, is a kind of moral imposition on both performers and audience, a didactic presentation in which the learners become the instrument of the lesson. Of course, that may put things a bit too negatively — there is, I think, something admirable in the way Bush’s extended presentation and exercises promote a sort of active learning, even in the midst of what a contemporary reader might find fairly heavy-handed didactic scripting. The essays in particular ask the students to explain the content presented to them in their own words, and that content poses a curious challenge. Bush presents Field as simultaneously a minor saint and a trickster, the sort of fellow who wrote a sermon (included in this text) for his grandmother as an adolescent and who then grew up to earn a reputation as an avid purveyor of pranks. That complexity is probably a leap too far for the readers Bush had in mind, but it seems to leak constantly from through the seams of her glowing biographical descriptions.
I was also curious about the language Bush used, which (again, from a much later point of view) sometimes seems decidedly odd:
Presiding Officer: Long ago it was written of one whose life on earth was done: “He being dead, yet speaketh.” Through all our lives Eugene Field will speak to us, and long after the time has come when the youngest pupil here shall die of old age the poet we are studying to-day will soften and cheer mankind with his words of merry tenderness. Through these the oldest and most care-worn are made again citizens of the world of childhood and helped to see lovable traits even in the bad boy.
Yeah. This is not the elementary school material — or the notion of childhood — I remember, and it bears closer examination.
*Bush is best remembered, I think, as the author of another little textbook, The Story of Robin Hood.
**Caveat: I am not a historian of education, so I’m mostly drawing on what Ms. Bush says herself about what she’s up to and some other announcements and descriptions in old teaching periodicals.
***This poem was famously also set to music, and Bush’s script calls for the children to sing it early on in the presentation. Check out Buffy Sainte-Marie singing a version of the song on Sesame Street in the 1970s: