Commentary Magazine


Basic Reader Series, published by Scott, Foresman & Co.

Modeled Children

Basic Readers “Fifties” Edition and new Basic Readers “Sixties” Edition, (including Think-and-Do Books and Teacher’s Editions).
by William S. Gray, Marion Monroe, A. Sterl Artley, May Hill Arbuthnot, Helen M. Robinson, and Lillian Gray.
Scott, Foresman and Company. Variously priced.

Messrs. Gray, Artley, et. al., are the authors of the Think-and-Do Books, a series of workbooks designed to teach children how to read. Their publishers, Scott, Foresman & Company, estimate that four-and-one-half to five million children from grades one to three are using them. They have been used extensively all over the country since their introduction in the early 1940’s; to keep up with demand several printings are issued each year, usually in quantities of 100,000.

I first became acquainted with a Think-and-Do book when my daughter brought one home from kindergarten. The format was familiar—a full-sized, paperbound book of multiple-choice problems. One exercise in particular attracted my attention. Under a picture of a little girl squatting before two chickens tugging at either end of a worm, was the question: “Is this funny?” My daughter had put her check in the “no” box and the problem had been marked wrong. When I questioned her about it, she answered, “That’s the way chickens are. What’s funny?”

I looked again at the picture, but it remained a humorless drawing in the tradition of standard textbook illustrations. On the inside border of the page, I was able to find the rationale for the exercise: “Lead the children to see that we laugh when things seem funny to us.”

Closer scrutiny revealed that the girl in the picture was laughing. (It isn’t always easy to tell.) We laugh when things seem funny to us; the girl in the picture is laughing; therefore it is funny. I pointed out my discovery.

The reply was, “That’s Sally. She’s only three.” She herself was five, and her reasoning was indisputable.

Sally and the chickens turn out to be only one of many drills running through the series from pre-reading to third grade that instruct children in the matter of laughter. Preceding each one are drawings that illustrate the fact that a man sleeping is not funny while a man falling is, that a dog running is not funny, but a dog holding a teddy bear in its mouth is, and so on. Following Sally and the chickens come similar exercises at a higher level of reading skill. In one story various people are brought in to make a dour princess laugh. “One man appeared with a toy clown and a toy horse. The toys were hanging by strings from sticks. By pulling first one string and then another, the man made the toys do clever tricks. He made the horse gallop, and then he made the clown hang by its heels from the horse’s back.” If the pupil should fail to find this funny, he is perhaps in need of remedial work in “interpretative skills.”

The back of each Think-and-Do book bears an Index of Skills which divides the exercises into two categorries: “interpretative skills” and “word-perception skills.” The latter deals with such familiar things as phonetics and vocabulary. Under “interpretative skills,” however, one finds “forming sensory images,” “perceiving relationships,” “strengthening memory,” “recognizing emotional reactions,” and so on.

The Teacher’s Guidebook to the series adopts the view that modern education must take the pupil’s entire personality into consideration; accordingly the authors have set out to train the total child: mind, emotion, memory, senses, sexual identity, etc.

Under “forming sensory images,” the pupil is told that dimes do not have a taste, that tree bark is never smooth. Under “strengthening memory based on association,” he is marked wrong if he associates birthday with rabbits; party, cake, presents, but not rabbits are to be remembered with birthday. Under “drawing inferences from pictures,” he is corrected if he prefers a sad-looking doll to a smiling one or an old-fashioned car to a late model. Under “perceiving relationships,” he is to distinguish men’s work from women’s: mowing the lawn from dish-washing.

Furthermore, to develop his ability to “make inferences based on logical sequence,” he is given the beginnings and ends of stories and asked to supply the middles. (One is reminded of similar exercises used in recent studies on creativity; here, however, the measuring rod is reversed.) In the world of this book, there is only one correct middle—the most obvious route between the beginning and the end. If at first something is dry and later wet, what other reason than that it must have rained?

The assumption seems to be that for every situation there exists only one proper response, be it emotional, perceptual, or intellectual. The latest Teacher’s Editions of the workbooks bear some evidence of retreat from this rather extraordinary position; certain cautionary notes have been inserted beneath several of the more touchy exercises. After the correct answers have been underlined, this sentence occurs, “Any response that the pupil can justify is acceptable.” Though such instruction grants to teachers the power to decide appeals, they do nothing to the fundamental proposition instilled in the pupil that there are emotions which are correct and others which are not.

In yet another note, the teacher is warned, “Since humor is a subjective matter, pupils’ reactions will vary. Each child’s answers should be respected.” Again, the statement comes after the correct answers have been given, making two interesting categories: correct answers and allowable answers. But are subjective matters, matters for instruction?

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What is fun and what is desired would seem to be two more subjective matters. Quite as remarkable as the attempt to teach children what is fun and what they want, however, are the author’s definitions of the two notions themselves. Sally is shown pushing a toy buggy in which a cat is sitting. Who is having fun? Sally. Not having fun? Cat. Sally sprinkles water on Dick. Fun? Sally. Not fun? Dick. The active one has fun, the passive one does not, and by their pairing it would seem that “fun” is to be associated with someone else’s “not fun.”

In a drill on desire two lists are given: Dick, Jane, Sally, and Mother in one; opposite it are pictures of various articles—baseball and bat, lady’s hat, high heels, teddy bear, etc. Between the two lists stands the word “wants.” The pupil is to trace lines from the person to the article the person “wants.” While generally one wants that which one doesn’t already have, not so with Dick, Jane, Sally, and Mother. Dick “wants” the ball and bat, Mother “wants” her hat and her high heels, Sally “wants” her teddy bear. In the Think-and-Do world of the authors, Sally does not “want” her mother’s high heels; like Dick, she pares down her wants to what she already has.

The model man the authors are striving to mold emerges as not very different from the drawings of him in textbooks. He is a mildly sadistic individual with limited desires. He laughs heartily and readily at whatever is labeled comedy; he thinks this year’s car is more beautiful than last year’s and last year’s more beautiful than the one before. He has never tasted anything that is not known for its taste, and he is careful to avoid smooth barks as well as illogical sequences. Warily he treads the thin line of proper heterosexuality and accordingly avoids tasks labeled feminine such as dish-washing. Finally he marries a woman who regards the lawn mower as taboo.

Thus, in the words of the authors, millions of children will come to “enjoy the sense of belonging to Dick, Jane, and Sally’s family. As they live vicariously with these book children, they share the warmth and understanding of wholesome family relationships. Gradually they integrate the book children’s character traits and activities into their own life experience.”

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