When critics of Freemasonry opine that fraternities like ours aren't suited to Modern Man™ or Modern Society™, they might very well be right. But the problem is that those critics don't seem to really know just WHY they are right.
When I was writing Heritage Endures two years ago, I was working on a chapter addressing the thorny issue of membership numbers, and how they have affected American Freemasonry since about 1960. I was writing specifically about Indiana, but I looked out at the larger American landscape to see what grand lodges had done since the 1950s in reaction to falling numbers of men becoming Masons. The short answer is that they made BIG changes, and most were not for the better.
In my own way, I was engaging in the very sort of monster hunting that I have accused others of in an effort to see just what the original tipping point really was that sent us into a shrinking membership. I never found it before my deadline, but I didn't really care at the time, because I was actually just wanting to chronicle what changes had resulted: things like reduced proficiency standards, one-day classes, printed rituals, open recruitment, advertising, lowering of petitioning ages to 18, and lots more were all done to address shrinking numbers of petitioners and ongoing participation. If you want the stories about those changes, you need to read the book. But those were all effects, not the cause.
Well, I think I've stumbled into it. At least, I think it was a MAJOR cause, if not THE cause. and you might think I'm crazy or just engaging in rank nostalgia for some misty, forgotten era that never existed. And I'm not.
I'm dead serious.*
It was the death of the McGuffey Readers in America's schools.
In 1837, an American son of Scottish immigrants named William Holmes McGuffey was teaching in Ohio, and he was asked by a Cincinnati printer to devise a series of books to teach children how to read. McGuffey had worked as a traveling teacher since the age of 14, and eventually became a lecturer on theology at Ohio's Miami University. Between 1836-37, he created four volumes of graded readers (eventually expanded to six, with the help of his brother Alexander). The first volume of McGuffey's Eclectic First Reader for Young Children began with the simplest of phrases and the basics of phonics, just as most of us have learned to read today: A cat and a rat. The lad has a hat. See the frog on the log. And so on. Each succeeding chapter and subsequent volumes became more complex as the reading level rose. The books also taught children how to write, showing examples of handwritten sentences, and requiring kids to practice with chalk on slate to emulate them.
The McGuffey Readers became enormously popular almost instantly. They were snatched up by American teachers all over the growing nation, and this coincided with the explosion of demands in the 1820s and 30s for public education in every new state. McGuffey's method was vastly superior to the way the Founding Fathers had learned to read and write, by rote memorization and endlessly writing proverbs in a copybook.
As a direct result of McGuffey's books and the teaching method that came about, the Americans who fought in the Civil War in the 1860s as 20-year olds were the first literate, mass-educated generation in the modern world. That's why Civil War-era letters and diaries from soldiers on both sides of the conflict are so vivid and numerous today, compared to previous eras.
Between the first editions in 1836-37, all the way through 1960, more than 130 million McGuffey Readers were sold, and it has been conservatively estimated that each copy was read by at least ten students. That's how pervasive they were. And that's why when the McGuffey Readers were yanked out of schools in the early 1960s, it has had what is clearly a direct and arguably corrosive effect on society at large, and for the purposes of this story, on Freemasonry itself. Here's why.
The more advanced Readers contained increasingly sophisticated stories and excerpts of what were (and still are) considered the Classics: the Bible, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, John Milton, Byron, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, founding fathers like Franklin and Jefferson. As children learned to read and the volumes advanced, they were introduced to the great works of literature and taught not to fear them. McGuffey himself was a Scots Presbyterian, a Calvinist at heart, a Biblical scholar, and he taught theology. Consequently, as they progressed, the books instilled his messages of what he saw as universal beliefs, habits and manners in every single student who learned to read using his Reader. The Biblical passages were used to teach moral lessons, not religious or denominational ones. The non-Biblical readings also taught allegories, explained historical events, or told heroic tales of acclaimed heroes of the past. There were poems, tales of excitement and daring, cautionary fables, and countless others that became the shared fabric of what "everybody knew" in America.
Additionally, McGuffey's method stressed the importance of speaking properly. Generations of children were encouraged to memorize passages from the books to be recited aloud. This was their first experiences in speaking in public, along with the mental discipline of memorization. McGuffey's instructions in the books urged students to engage in discussions to more fully understand what they had read about. In this way, children were taught the basics of logic and public oratory.
In the 1870s after McGuffey's death, his books were revised and the reading passages were updated. At that time, the Readers were given a facelift with new illustrations, and new messages replaced some of the Biblical readings, but certainly not all. Critics had complained that the original books didn't apply to the enormous new waves of immigrants who came to America, which is why they were revised with more specifically American themes at that time. They were made more patriotic in nature, and taught what we call today the civil religion - what later critics sneeringly came to mock as 'middle-class values' in the 1960s and afterward. Even the most innocuous of reading exercises gently nudged messages about responsibilities: bravery, honor, manners, mutual respect, doing good, not being rude, sharing, friendship, industriousness, and charity. In other words, guidelines for being a good citizen.
All of these were in line with what the Founders had regarded as the founding principles that were absolutely necessary to the success of the American experiment of a democratic republic. The Founders agreed that the public was nothing more than a mob if they weren't equipped with a basic moral code they wouldn't violate when no one was looking. That was the only way the new American society could possibly work without falling apart. McGuffey provided that handbook in a pretty effortless manner, even to those who would never set foot in a church or crack open Deuteronomy.
Modern scholars and sociologists want to pig-wrestle McGuffey's Readers (the very few alive today who know about them) into the blame game that hurls race and gender roles into the wider societal slop bucket - and nearly every other discussion these days - but that's not at all a fair estimation of the enormous and pivotal role the Readers had. They became the common currency of general knowledge for nearly every single American child - from the children of millionaires, Supreme Court justices, and captains of industry, right down to the kids of street sweepers, coal miners and ditch diggers. Toney kids from Philadelphia's Main Line, Boston's Beacon Hill, and the FFV's of Virginia in 1950 learned to read the very same stories and learn the same lessons and moral code that freed slaves, illiterate immigrants, and backwoods dirt farmers and their children did in 1870.
More than any other influence on America, the McGuffey Reader became the great leveler for almost a century and a half.
The Age of Snark didn't begin in the 2000s, it started in the mid-50s. By the 1960s, McGuffey's books were branded as hopelessly out of date and out of touch with "modern society." McGuffey's Readers were put on the chopping block and eliminated in favor of the Dick and Jane stories, blanched of the virtues, patriotism, morals and manners messages. Gone, too, were the standardized Classical reading excerpts found in the more advanced Readers. So were were McGuffy's readings about rural life and ethics, in favor of SRA reading exercises that leaned more heavily on the cynicism and "sophistication" of city dwellers (overwhelmingly New Yorkers) regarding small town life and "middle-class morality." Thus, the almost universally shared cultural messages passed on to tens of millions of American children each year that made the country so homogenous in attitudes when they entered adulthood - regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion, or social class - were eliminated in less than a decade. The second half of the Baby Boomers became the first generation to learn how to read without McGuffy's guiding voice about ethics, virtue, morality, manners, language, and introduction to the Classics. No generation of American children since has shared that common basis of education on a widespread basis. And what used to be called the 'Melting Pot' of America was replaced by what modern sociology majors call the 'Salad Bowl,' in which we now share very little in common.
Those very same messages were reinforced by the lessons in the fraternal groups that grew by leaps and bounds during the very same era - Freemasonry included (along with the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men, the Woodmen, and hundreds more). Consider that those pre-1960s generations were not put off by what many today see as tortured language in the rituals, or Albert Pike's prose. What many modern Masons see as creaky or anachronistic stage plays in the Scottish Rite were common currency up to three generations ago, when your next-door neighbors were still actively involved in local theater groups, and every teenager learned debating and speech making.
The morality plays of Masonic ritual were analogous to a live theater version of McGuffey for generations of Freemasons. The lessons of Freemasonry that stress virtues like fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence were found as often in McGuffey as in the Old Testament. That was true for members of mainstream grand lodges in the U.S. and Prince Hall-derived ones alike. Take a look at the contents of the Fifth Reader: the second and third readings were lessons about "The Poor Widow" and "The Orphan." There's "The Just Judge" and "Decisive integrity" and "The Intemperate Husband." There's a passage about "The Festal Board" and "True Wisdom." There's "A Hebrew Tale" and "Death and Life."
When grand lodges 'back East' like Virginia and Pennsylvania first sent charters for new lodges into the expanding wilderness as America grew westward in the late 1700s, their reasons were simple: to educate and civilize a rough and rugged population in regions that had no formal schools. Masonic lodges didn't carry the denominational baggage that the competing churches did, and they taught something that the churches weren't: how to effectively operate a democratic society in a world that had little experience at it at the time. But Masonry didn't achieve explosive growth until the end of the Morgan Anti-Masonic period and after the end of the Civil War because society was still largely illiterate. The majority of Americans in 1825 would have little or no appreciation of the Liberal Arts and Sciences because they had no experience of the concepts. But a growing number of adult American men over 20 years of age by 1865 DID have a basic understanding, and McGuffey's readers were the reason. And by 1870, grand lodges were chartering lodges by the hundreds each year - so fast that influential Masonic leaders became alarmed that they were growing too big, too quickly.
After American Freemasons topped more than 4 million in 1959, the decline began the very next year from which the fraternity has never rebounded. And it wasn't just the Masonic fraternity, either. Both Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol wrote seminal studies around 2000 that recorded the dramatic plunge in America's voluntary associations and chapter-based organizations of all kinds after 1960 — from lodges like the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, and Eagles, to PTAs, card-playing clubs, bowling leagues, and the American Red Cross. Church attendance has been in a steady decline since that time, as well. Americans didn't want to associate with each other any more. But we've lost something more than just the desire to be with other people.
It was by 1960 that the McGuffey Readers were entirely phased out nationally (although it started in the 1930s), and I would argue that Freemasonry and other similar institutions cannot recover because Americans — and all Westerners — no longer share those common cultural guidelines anymore. Freemasonry is, at its core, a Western philosophy that put the ideals of the English and French Enlightenment into concrete practice. But just like the democratic republic of the United States, its success is predicated upon a certain commonality of shared ethics, behavior and knowledge among its potential members. What Freemasonry teaches our members goes hand in hand with the 'civil religion' that the Founders believed to be essential. Without it, the whole thing collapses like last week's leftover broccoli. And that should concern all of us.
In an age when no one "knows" anything anymore and our collective memory has been replaced by consulting Wikipedia on our iPhones while seeking 'likes' for our Twitter post one-liners, there's a whole lot more in danger now than just fewer Masons showing up for stated meetings. It is probably simplistic to say, but you can arguably trace much of the rank incivility and bleak pessimism that is so rampant today directly to the replacement of McGuffey's lessons by Howard Zinn and his ilk's deliberate anarchy, revisionism, and miserablism in the textbooks that have dominated schools since the late 1960s.
The McGuffey Readers are still in print to this day, and still being used. In 1985, there were 150,000 sold. Today, they still sell about 30,000 a year, and they remain popular with private schools and home school families. So if I follow this premise to its logical conclusion, Freemasonry may have its greatest future among the young men educated in those types of environments.
But that's another article.
*As we used to say in the advertising business, 'Where do ideas come from? Somebody else!' I veered into this notion of McGuffy's Readers and the effects on society by their disappearance in Charles Murray's brilliant study, Coming Apart (2012). Anyone wanting to explore the death of middle-class mores and culture in the U.S. between 1960 and 2010 needs to start with Murray's book, which statistically lays out his case in black and blue. Murray's a dirty word in academic circles these days, and that's because he can back up his assertions with real facts and figures instead of feelings and opinions. It should be the next book you read after Putnam's Bowling Alone and Theda Skocpol's Diminished Democracy.