Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Making Dick and Jane: Historical Genesis of the Modern Basal Reader

by Allan Luke - 1987

This article traces the development of the Dick and Jane texts, examining the dominent intellectual and economic considerations of their authors and publishers in order to demystify their transmission of values, beliefs, and meanings. (Source: ERIC)

The author wishes to thank Alec McHoul, Suzanne de Castell Carmen Luke, Joel Taxel, and Kieran Egan for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article. This research was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

In William S. Gray and May Hill Arbuthnot’s Fun with Dick and Jane, Dick and Jane are presented as mythological characters; that is, they are what semiologist Umberto Eco would call cultural archetypes, “totalities of certain collective properties and aspirations.”1 Dick, for instance, is mischievous, helpful, respectful of parental and community authority, disdainful of females, kind to animals and paternalistic toward his little sister, cooperative (and competitive) in play, and enthusiastic at work. As “emblematic” figures, these characters remain fixed and easily recognizable. Dick and Jane become phantom representations of a 1950s Everychild. The making of this particular official fiction—the whitewashed world of Dick and Jane, of untroubled Progressive childhood, of the simplified nuclear family—into one of the dominant cultural mythologies of inter- and postwar generations of schoolchildren is the subject of this article.

Scrutinizing the Curriculum Foundation Readers2—more commonly known as the “Dick and Jane” readers—several critics of the 1960s and 1970s have argued that they conveyed a postwar ideology of individuality and compliance with authority. Zimet sees the shift from more traditional textbooks to the Dick and Jane genre as indicating a movement from the “inner-directedness” of nineteenth-century life to the “other-directedness” of twentieth-century industrial culture:

Contemporary America, as seen through these readers, is an other-directed society in which the individual is not motivated to act by traditional institutional pressures but by others whose requests or demands are respected enough to produce compliance. Individuals enter into relationships for specific reasons, and these relationships are generally controlled by the opinions of others.3

Gray and Arbuthnot’s texts, seeking a broad audience in a national and international market, distorted the “pluralistic” character of American society.

One might conclude from these books that Americans are almost exclusively Caucasian, North European in origin and appearance, and are quite well to do. . . . Religion is rarely mentioned, but Christian religious observance is over-emphasized with no hint of the range or variety of observances found among different religious groups.4

In the estimation of liberal and Left critics, the texts are blatantly classist, sexist, and racist. The gender relations portrayed in these readers, moreover, commonly are cited as archetypal cases of textbook stereotyping.5

For their part, child psychologists Bettelheim and Zelan have compared the literary and psychological content of American basals in the “Dick and Jane tradition” with those of European schools.

The universal use in the United States of basic texts that are alike in their repetitious emptiness, and of stories that tell only about the most shallow “fun” activities, makes one wonder whether it is indeed possible to teach reading to modern children by means of texts that are neither condescending to them, nor dull, nor excruciatingly repetitious, nor restricted to the use of a few simple words.6

They argue further that traditional fairy tales, children’s poetry, and novels should “stimulate and encourage children’s imaginations” by providing “literary images of the world, of nature and of man.”7 Bettelheim and Zelan conclude that primers and early reading textbooks

should be able to render in a few sentences three-dimensional, true to life images of people in their struggle with some of life’s more serious problems, demonstrating how, through these struggles, people are able to achieve greater clarity about themselves, about their relations to others, about what is required to be able to live a meaningful life.8

Closer scrutiny of the discursive form of selected narrative from the series indicates that ideological themes and contents are established through the repetition, within and across story grammars, of particular social roles, relationships, and intersubjective exchanges.9 Texts like Fun with Dick and Jane and Our New Friends,10 the first-grade readers, taught the kind of play that went into the making of “efficient” citizens, for beneath the veil of portrayed play was the rehearsal of adult social roles and relationships. Sally’s predictable wit—her creative rule-breaking—is attributed to naivete, and consequently her socialization into the family unit requires that she be domesticated. This ideological theme correlates with the Deweyan and Meadian maxim that play is not without pedagogical merit and that children learn, develop, and grow through creative play, rather than through formal discipline, didactic instruction, and hard work.

In this manner, the lessons of Dick and Jane’s universe stand centrally within the crucial curricular goals of “progressive adaptation” to social environments, and of creative development, the very essence of Progressivism restated in the regional departmental curriculum guides that so rankled postwar classicists.11 The kinds of play portrayed—playing house, playing school, “Simon says,” hide and seek, guessing games, and cooking—are not gratuitous but rather direct preparations for mature social life. Hence, “adaptation” is selective, a kind of conformity to highly conventionalized authority and gender relationships within the family structure: The text displays parallel but altogether differentiated paths to social development for male and female children.

But to suggest that the Dick and Jane texts are archetypal examples of the ideological character of children’s reading material may neglect due consideration of the historical goals and conceptual bases of their authorship. My intent here is to trace the making of the Dick and Jane texts, examining the dominant intellectual and economic considerations of their authors and publishers, and thereby demystifying the transmission of what Williams has called “the selective tradition”12 of ideological values, beliefs, and meanings.


Since initial steps in rendering problematic the classification, framing, and transmission13 of educational knowledge, progressively greater attention has been turned to the class-based ideology in the formal curriculum (e.g., textbooks, examinations, policy documents) and in the hidden curriculum of social relations in classrooms and schools. Subsequent work in the sociology of the curriculum sets out to describe approaches and methods for research on the ideological function of historical and modern curricula.

In Ideology and Curriculum, Apple argues that curricular research should entail the explication of how “the structuring of knowledge and symbol in our educational institutions is intimately related to the principles of social and cultural control.”14 He views schools as sites for the maintenance of existing patterns of the control, production, and distribution of economic and cultural resources. Giroux’s research agenda begins from what he considers the primary failings of “correspondence” theories of ideological reproduction (e.g., Althusser, Bowles and Gintis): the stress on the economic, rather than cultural, basis of curricular content and the presumption of the efficacy of modern curricula.15 Arguing that schools are more than “ideological reflections of the dominant interests of the wider society,” he critiques base/superstructure models as ignoring the reality of “counter-hegemonic forces” embodied in student and teacher “contestation and resistance.”16 In other I words, Giroux argues that while educational knowledge and pedagogical models are organized on “class principles,” the process of knowledge trans- I mission is mediated by the cultural field of the classroom and human subjects engaged in educational practice at all levels (including curriculum development and research) in a manner that precludes “determinate effects.” Ideology per se, then, is not the determinate instance of a given mode of production, but rather a factor coded in curriculum that is subsequently mediated by the concrete actions of teachers and students in the classroom.

Proposing a model for educational research, Giroux nonetheless sees the curriculum as an embodiment of a “dominant rationality” and calls on scholarship “to lay bare the ideological and political character”17 of contemporary and historical curriculum. In order to understand school knowledge as a complex historical dynamic, he views the task of curriculum critique as the detailing of the entire field of “social” and “discursive relations” that make up school knowledge.

Certainly, in the last ten years research in curricular criticism has come a good distance toward showing how curricular content has been ideologically biased toward the interests of dominant socioeconomic groups in industrial and postindustrial society. In her study of how American history textbooks have distorted labor history, social issues, and socioeconomic change, Anyon appraises the findings of research on curricular content:

The whole range of curriculum selections favors the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Although presented as unbiased, the historical interpretations provide ideological justification for the activities and prerogatives of these groups and do not legitimize points of view and priorities of groups that compete with these established interests for social acceptance and support.18

In sum, these and like studies find that the content of the curriculum is a central component in what Wexler has termed the “selective transmission of class culture as common culture.”19

Yet the principal method of curricular criticism has been, and remains, the juxtaposition of “official” textbook versions of social reality, social and political relations, history, and conceptual categories with revisionist social history and alternative views of social, economic, and political culture. Research procedures generally entail a rendering of explicit ideas, value judgments, and statements conveyed in the text, followed by a discrepancy analysis of these data with actual social “reality” or social history. Secondary methods have involved the analysis of quantitative data on gender and race of authors and characters and the notation of stereotyping.20

A second, complementary but often neglected step in the analysis of the ideological character of curricula lies in the examination of its construction, noting the “principles that structure the selection and organization of the curriculum,"21 as well as the distinctive economic and cultural forces that molded the production of the curriculum. Apple notes that sociological and educational research on “how . . . ‘legitimate’ knowledge [is] made available I in schools” generally has bypassed the study of the actual production of the primary medium of school knowledge: the school textbook.22 He views text production as at once a cultural and an economic activity: Human subjects are engaged actively in the processes of conceiving, designing, and authoring texts, within the economic constraints of the commerce of text publishing and the politics of text adoption. So seen, the textbook is an artifact of human expression and an economic commodity. As Apple further notes, the “unpacking” of the “social relations of production” of curricula, and “the conceptual apparatus that lies behind them,” has escaped critical analysis.23 His research agenda, which entails specifying the commercial and political constraints on text construction, is based on the presupposition that the textbook, and hence educational knowledge, is a cultural product like any other, a commodity for consumption. As cultural products, textbooks are written and produced by particular historical interpretive communities: groups of academics, teachers, and curriculum developers operating from paradigmatic assumptions about teaching and learning, and the specific domain of knowledge to be transmitted.

When one lacks adequate understanding of the conceptual and economic activity of textbook development and publication, the genesis of the ideological character of children’s textbooks may be viewed erroneously as the determinate result of a “hidden hand” of class or economic agency, historical accident, or authorial genius. As noted in Williams’s explanation of ideological production, the process of a selective tradition—whereby class-biased knowledges and competences are sanctioned as legitimate school knowledge—is historically dynamic, mediated throughout by the agency of human subjects.24 This mediation, moreover, may result in contradictions between means and ends, intents and outcomes, within the cultural selection process. The consequent structure and content of the curriculum thus can be reconsidered as the product of historical processes engaged in by human subjects, rather than as a simple mechanistic reflection of dominant class interests.

What is needed, then, is an account of the making of educational texts that identifies the points of convergence and contradiction between the intellectual labor of text production (conception and authorship) and the economics of publication and distribution (commoditization). An analysis of the conditions and conventions of text production can specify the “historical complexity of the influences on publishing and its content, readership, and economic reality,”25 focusing on the relationships between dominant paradigms of educational research and curricular development, between authorial conception and mass production. Hence a “theoretically and politically grounded . . . investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)"26 is undertaken here.

The purpose of the following overview and critique of the development of the Curriculum Foundation Readers, then, is to identify the dominant assumptions of the authors and publishers of the curriculum, such that the structuring principles of that curriculum become apparent. First, an overview of the emergent early- and mid-twentieth-century “industrial” relationship between publishing, large-scale curriculum development, and economic interests is undertaken to frame the analysis of text authorship and production. This is followed by a detailed history of the conceptualization, authorship, and production of one of the most successful basal reading series in the history of modern publishing: Scott Foresman and Company’s Dick and Jane readers.


School textbooks—despite the historical development of an anonymous, authoritative “textbookese” that succeeds in disguising their subjective and ideological origins27—remain commodities, objects for sale produced and consumed by human subjects. The book, like music and artwork, is the product of a particular form of labor: The production of aesthetic and expressive artifacts of both elite and mass culture entails the intellectual work of conceptualization and authorship. But books are actual physical commodities bought and sold in the educational marketplace. Their production also involves design, printing, marketing, and sales.

Textbooks thus stand as a specialized form of literate labor within mass culture. Unlike trade texts they have been developed by educators and, particularly since the early twentieth century, by university-based researchers. Although they are produced by large companies and marketed to administrators and consultants representing local, regional, and state jurisdictions, their ultimate consumers of course are those teachers who teach them and those students who read and respond to them. As for their overall social function, textbooks act as an interface between the “officially” state-adopted and state-sanctioned knowledge of the culture, and the learner.28 Like all text, school textbooks remain potentially agents of mass enlightenment and/or social control.29

The development and marketing of the modern school textbook in the last century has been subject to progressively more industrialized and systems-oriented approaches to curriculum development30 and to the economies of scale of what has become historically an increasingly monopolized publishing industry.31 In the United States, combined textbook sales rose from $7,400,000 in 1897 to $17,275,000 by 1913. By the end of World War II, sales had risen to $131,000,000.32

Beginning in the twentieth century, the influence of applied psychology spread to virtually all sectors of the industrial economy. The rationale of the universal application of scientific inquiry to social and cultural domains in industrial and postindustrial society was, and remains, a “technocratic” belief in the unbiased, ideological neutrality of science.33 The enthusiasm of educators for scientifically based pedagogies was fueled by a postwar belief in the prospect of unlimited economic growth and scientific development. Certainly, the extension of applied psychology to such practical domains as education, mass media, advertising, and marketing is a paradigm case of the Progressive advocacy of the application of “scientific” approaches to the remediation of institutional life.

Early-twentieth-century psychologists like Wundt’s student Hugo Munsterberg, Elton Mayo, and others led the way to the scientific assessment of social and industrial needs.34 While “scientific management” offered increased output of standardized products through normed and controlled production processes,35 “ market research” yielded data on consumers’ wants and needs, and the “science” of advertising played an increasing role in the stipulation of consumer demand. John B. Watson’s departure from foundational academic research on behavioral psychology to the greener fields of Madison Avenue in the 1920s exemplified this application of science to early twentieth-century enterprise.

Since the rise of Progressive and scientific approaches to educational practice, curriculum theorizing, making, and evaluation has fallen under the auspices of this technocratic rationale. The “assembly-line” approach to curriculum developed by Charters and Bobbitt at the University of Chicago and the later educational “needs assessment” and “goal” formulation advocated by Tyler and colleagues laid out a wholly “scientific” rationale for the selection of curricular knowledge. Much of this foundational research for the development of a science of curriculum, moreover, was undertaken during the interwar years with increasing support of private corporate funding.36 Cremin describes this historical application of systems management to curriculum and instruction:

From the second decade of the twentieth century . . . Taylor’s . . . scientific management swept not only industry, but education as well. . . . Its influence is manifest in the work of Franklin Bobbitt and W. W. Charters . . . [who] tended to analogize from the world of the factory to the world of the school, conceiving of the child as the raw material, the ideal adult as the finished product, the teacher as the worker, the supervisor as the foreman, and the curriculum as the process whereby the raw material was converted into the finished product. To the extent that the characteristics of the raw material, the finished product, and the conversion process could be quantitatively deferred, rationally dealt with and objectively appraised, curriculum-making could become a science; to the extent that the workers and the foreman could engage together in the scientific determination and rational pursuit of curriculum objectives, teaching could become an applied science, a form of educational engineering.37

The historical end product of this inter- and postwar trend toward the mechanization of curriculum development is the standardized and mass-marketed curricular package, replete with teachers’ guides, worksheets, guidelines for testing, and other adjunct instructional materials: an exemplar of “technical form.38

These early to mid-century developments in curriculum were concomitant with expansion and growth in the publishing industry in general, and in the marketing of educational products in particular. In Communications, Williams explicates the effects of capital expansion on the development of textual and electronic mass communications media. Williams argues that the larger (and by definition more heterogeneous) the audience, the more the message is generalized and universalized, diluted of any potentially problematic and thereby unpalatable meanings. The result, Williams claims, is development of a “synthetic culture, meeting and exploiting the tensions of growth”39 of the market.

Surveying the status of text publishing in this culture industry, Williams maintains that “the production of books seems to be undergoing similar changes of ownership to those noted for the Press at the end of the nineteenth century,” namely the “tendency towards combined ownership” and the absorption of independents into large media corporations.40 The result is the subordination of more traditional motives for publishing (e.g., bookcraft, literary and aesthetic merit, political expression, religious conversion) to the “methods and attitudes of capitalist business.” Williams goes on to argue that “all the basic purposes of communication—the sharing of human experience—can become subordinated to this drive to sell.” In an increasingly competitive market, he notes, decisions about what will be published and how are concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. This “concentration of ownership” he views as a “severe threat to the freedom and diversity of writing.41 The twentieth-century selective tradition has been thus mediated to an ever greater extent by the economic interests of corporate publishers. Commenting on the situation after World War II, Miller noted that “as more American houses became big and bureaucratized,” financial terms had become the “basic language of the firm.”42

Clearly, audience and consumer demand maintains and spurs on modern culture industries like publishing. As in Eco’S “consumer of text,” “hungry” from and for “redundance,” the culture industry creates in its audience a sense of dependency on the continuance of its conventions, codes, and messages.43 In this manner, market demand is generated and sustained by the accessibility and ease with which cultural products can be consumed. Hence, the need to produce further “identical” (textual) products is increased: This process whereby “appeal” is “manufactured” figures prominently in modern publishing.44 Cultural production, then, becomes an ideologically and aesthetically nonproblematic process, and worth is determined primarily by increased demand. Consumption does not satisfy “need” nor does it simply exhaust supply, but conversely generates greater “wants” for and “output” of similar, standardized products.

Since the turn-of-the-century era of what Henry Holt—founder of Holt, Rinehart & Winston—called “the commercialization of literature,”45 modern publishing houses have operated on the basis of a tension between the maximization of profits and editors’ perceived cultural and social responsibilities: “Operations are characterized by a mixture of modern mass-production methods and craft-like procedures.”46 Book making itself gradually has evolved into, in the words of Williamson, “an industrial craft.”47 Textbook authors and editors remain, however, members of rhetorical and interpretive communities, which in turn share knowledge and values, political ideologies, and economic interests. The development of books is most certainly dictated by editorial behavior, which reflects market and economic interests, as well as the cultural values and editorial perception of the needs of the market shared by a particular class of modern professionals. In the case of the textbook, editorial behavior and authorial conception are also influenced by dominant trends in educational research and regional educational policy—both of which historically have been far from ideologically and economically disinterested enterprises.


By the end of the war, Scott Foresman and Company had become the largest publisher of elementary school, high school, and college textbooks in the United States, having captured nearly one-fifth of the educational market. Of their total sales, some $20,407,000, elementary school textbooks accounted for 80 percent.48 This success was due largely to a series of elementary textbooks under the head editorship of William S. Gray, professor of education at the University of Chicago and perhaps the preeminent reading psychologist of the inter- and postwar period.

The connection between Scott Foresman and Gray’s best-selling Curriculum Foundation textbooks can be traced back to the early twentieth century. In 1896, E. H. Scott, W. C. Foresman, and H. Foresman founded a publishing house that within two years was the only American publisher printing both high school and elementary textbooks. This was accomplished largely through the purchase of catalogs from other companies.49 The buying out of financially troubled competitors was an early form of corporate consolidation.50 Within a year of beginning operation, the company landed the first in a series of statewide adoptions: Kansas, then Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and other states. Then as now, U.S. textbook adoption was largely decentralized: Local and state officials selected texts. As a result, sales to those states and large metropolitan school districts that did pursue centralized adoption policies were (and remain) crucial for competing companies like Scott Foresman, Ginn, and the American Book Company.51

The increased competition and frequent mergers were not without effects. During this period, several firms were taken to court for corrupt dealings with state officials. Of the effects on the quality of trade and textbooks, Holt wrote in 1905 that “the more publishers bid against each other as stock brokers do, and the more they market their wares as the soulless articles of ordinary commerce are marketed, the more books become soulless things.”52

Among Scott Foresman’s first successful series was William H. Elson’s Grammar School Readers,53 which quickly became known as “the modern McGuffey.” This series—from primer to fourth reader—was an exemplar of the emergent new synthesis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century orientations to literacy instruction. Elson saw himself as the bearer of a longstanding tradition in the development of readers, a tradition that emphasized “literary values enriched by familiarity with the classics of our literature.”54 Like E. B. Huey55 and other early reading experts, Elson believed that moral and cultural edification was an essential element of early literacy training. Primers and readers, he argued, should elevate the “taste and judgment” of youth. Nevertheless, Elson agreed with Progressive-era educators like Gray that “interesting material is the most important factor in learning to read.“56

The selection of literature for the readers indeed reflected this dual conception of the role of the text. Some stories covered topics traditionally included in primers and readers: traditional folk tales and history, nature and science, history and biography, and industrial invention. Others evinced the more “civic” concerns of Progressive education, including transportation and communication, citizenship, industry, adventure, humor, travel, and world friendship. In Elson’s early readers, then, stories of modern life were set beside more traditional Mother Goose and folk tales. By modern standards, they were sparsely illustrated: About a third of the primer consisted of large two-color pictures. The fourth reader, for the intermediate grades, comprised printed text, with only thirteen pictures in 320 pages. It included stories by American authors about home and country, fairyland and adventure, nature, and American and world heroes.57

Elson’s Grammar School Readers were transitional textbooks between two historical types: the traditional literary texts favored by the likes of McGuffey, Elson, and Huey, and the later, more lexically and syntactically controlled, more brilliantly illustrated and packaged basal readers of the mid and late twentieth century. Canadian publisher Ryerson Press’s Highroads to Reading58 series, used in western Canada from the 1930s until the 1950s, was a similar transitional type, linking the nineteenth-century British Columbia Readers and Ontario Readers with the modern basal series.

Yet while a text like McGuffey’s was used with minor revisions for over a hundred years,59 rapid developments in the fields of curriculum and educational psychology in the early twentieth century accelerated cycles of obsolescence, revision, and replacement of textbooks. In an attempt to keep up with near continuous changes in educational theory and research, publishers competed for liaisons with university-based academics. For Scott Foresman, the modernization of the Elson readers began nine years after Elson’s own 1920 revision, when educational psychologist Gray was brought in “for the purpose of taking advantage of later developments in the field of reading instruction.“60 The product of this editorial merger of two distinct and in some ways divergent approaches to children’s reading texts was The Elson-Gray Readers.61 This series foreshadowed the development of a more scientific, psychologically derived approach to reading instruction, Additionally, it introduced American students and others to Dick, Jane, Sally, Father, Mother, Spot, Fluff, and an array of what would become archetypes for basal characters. Its publication, moreover, marked the expansion of firms like Scott Foresman into a growing international market: The 1930 edition was copyrighted in, among other English-speaking nations and American colonies, the Philippines. The series subsequently was licensed to publishers in Canada.

The Elson-Gray Readers were part of an integrated editorial strategy and pedagogical conceptualization on the part of the remaining Foresman partner and Gray himself. By 1933 Hugh Foresman’s publishing company—E. H. Scott had died in 1928—was able to offer a striking and comprehensive array of state-of-the-art educational texts, including E. L. Thorndike’s Thorndike-Century Junior Dictionary,62 adopted in both the United States and Canada. Reflecting the Progressive preoccupation with the integration of language and literacy across a range of curricular subjects, the Elson-Gray Life Reading texts were linked under Gray’s editorial direction with other existing series. This unified curricular package was marketed as the Curriculum Foundation Series. Under various editors the series carried on for over forty years.

This was a major development in modern curricular design and in the marketing of educational textbooks: the provision of books in different curricular fields—all structured for readability and developmental appropriateness under Gray’s watchful eye—that correlated with an extremely popular basal reader series. They promised teachers a unified, up-to-date approach to the total elementary curriculum, designed by preeminent curriculum experts and psychologists. Moreover, with state adoptions and an emergent international market, this was a brilliant stroke of marketing. The “piggybacking” of products by publishers under a similar brand name can lead to the development of mass “product loyalty.“63 Children, teachers, and administrators would feel that they were dealing with a familiar product of proven quality. During the 1930s, Scott Foresman augmented the series with texts in social studies, arithmetic, health, art, and science.

The basal series, then, became part of a total cross-curricular package. The readers themselves—two pre-primers, a primer, a first reader, and a reader for each of grades two through six—were highly innovative. Frequent multiple-colored pictures marked a major advance over Elson’s Grammar School Readers. Other innovations followed suit: Along with the already common teacher’s guide, Gray introduced workbooks and a junior dictionary for the readers; these were later augmented by an administrator’s handbook. Also available was the Literature and Life series, supplemental secondary reading materials that extended from and complemented the basic series.64 Sustained sales enabled Scott Foresman to achieve a new standard in production and format: The new series was set in the Century Schoolbook typeface, a specialized type introduced in 1927. Its letters were strongly drawn, with emphatic serifs, aiming at maximal clarity for young readers.65

The development of a range of other basals authored by prominent reading psychologists like A. I. Gates and M. Huber66 marked increased competition between publishers for the basal reader market, which alone constituted a sizable portion of textbook sales. Few, however, demonstrated the mass appeal and consistent market strength of the Scott Foresman series, which stands as one of the most successful textbook series of the mid twentieth century.

In the 1940s, Elson and Runkle were replaced by May Arbuthnot, who would go on to author a well-known book on reading and children’s literature, also published by Scott Foresman.67 Illustrator M. S. Hurford was replaced by E. Campbell and K. Ward, and the modernization of beginning reading texts was complete. Under Gray’s supervision, primers and readers like Fun with Dick and Jane and Our New Friends were total curricular creations: All stories were written specifically for the textbook.

What emerged was an altogether unprecedented genre of literature: The short literary passages consisting of fables and tales of the nineteenth century had been superseded by the lexically, syntactically, and semantically controlled texts about modern postwar life in an industrial democracy. These tales were fabricated solely for the purposes of teaching the “skills and habits” of reading. The application of scientific theories of reading and linguistic development to the engineering of basal readers completed the shift from overtly traditional literary content. While narrative remained the primary discursive structure of primers and early readers, “old,, tales and poetry were replaced with modern fanciful tales. In the Fourth Readers (about grade three level), myths and fables were supplanted by informational reading, stories of everyday life, civic socialization, and, of course, silent reading exercises.

Certainly the Curriculum Foundation Series led the way for many of the postwar generation of readers: D. C. Heath’s Reading for Interest series, the Ginn Basic Readers, Silver Burdett’s Learning to Read, and the American Book Company’s Betts Basic Readers.68 Although varying in approach, these series retained many of the structural characteristics of Gray’s readers: teachers’ guides, workbooks, related and supplementary series of texts. The scientifically designed and packaged reading series had come of age. In both conception and content these books were and could only have been the products of an inter- and postwar United States that believed that social institutions (e.g., the family, the school, the workplace) were progressing thanks to the application of modern science.

The traditional cultural orientation of nineteenth-century readers had given way to Deweyan concerns of civic relevance and adaptability to environment. Gray spoke of the need for children to judge “the value and significance of the ideas acquired and, in many cases, the beauty and quality of the language used.“69 In fact, Gray and other reading psychologists were committed overtly to early reading as a process for the transmission of values and cultural knowledge. As to the nature of those values, their position diverged considerably from that of McGuffey and Elson, who had inherited an understanding of literacy training as moral instruction from the eighteenth-century Protestant Reader and New England Primer tradition. The emergent sense of the normative goals of education fit closely with Progressive rhetoric: The aim was, in Gray’s words, for “children . . . to mature into efficient citizens, and to cultivate and preserve the democratic heritage which we prize so highly today.“70 Reading fitted squarely within this normative agenda of social adaptation. In an interview for teachers, Gray argued that “there was never a time when reading was more useful in promoting personal development, school progress, and social understanding.“71 In other words, the postwar educational scientists’ sense of the end product of this modern instruction was an “efficient” citizenry, capable of “sound judgments” in “democratic” society. This goal—the creation of a new kind of literate—was to be achieved through a literacy pedagogy conceived as the “systematic” cultivation of “habits” and “skills” of oral and silent “work-type” and “recreational” reading.72

The interwar and postwar success of this modern version of the basal reading series and the emergence of reading psychology as the foundational basis for the educational practice of early literacy training are exemplified in Gray’s career. In the early part of the century, while other psychologists’ interest in reading came and went, Gray’s concern with research and the teaching of reading was constant. He became arguably the single most influential academic expert on reading in the United States and Canada. Gray personally dominated reading research for a period of nearly forty years, from his initial published experiments in the 1910s until his death in 1960.

Gray, who had studied educational psychology under E. L. Thorndike at Teachers College from 1912 to 1914 before returning to Chicago to complete his doctorate, influenced the development of every phase of reading research: experimental design, pedagogy, curriculum development, testing, and in the 1950s, functional literacy and language planning. Gray’s work on reading with G. Buswell and C. Judd at the University of Chicago was highlighted by publication in the 1910s and 1920s of major research on silent and oral reading.73 His standardized paragraphs for the assessment of oral reading remained benchmarks for over forty years. Gray’s influence on trends and developments in reading research is also evident in his editorial work: Between 1925 and 1932 he contributed a regular column, “Summary of Reading Investigations,” to the Elementary School Journal; between 1932 and 1960 his widely cited summaries appeared in the Journal of Educational Research. He is considered a pioneer in research on oral reading; the use of prose passages for the testing of silent reading; the “diagnosis” and “treatment” of “remedial cases in reading”; developmental stage theory of reading acquisition; the extension of systematic reading instruction into the secondary schools; the definition of “functional literacy”; and, the pre- and in-service training of teachers of literacy.74 He edited three of the live National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) yearbooks on reading between 1912 and 1960 and he wrote one of the first UNESCO postwar reports on literacy.75

Gray’s first published works on reading appeared in the 1910s concurrently with research by Thorndike on silent reading, and shortly after work by Cattell, Huey, Dearborn, and others on eye movements and “reading hygiene.“76 By the early 1920s, many of his fellow psychologists had moved away from a concentration on reading as an object of study. Gray’s and Gates’s mentor was Thorndike, whose early empirical research on recall, recognition in silent reading, and lexical usage had generated the first silent reading tests. Both the Thorndike-McCall reading test and the Gray Standardized Oral Reading Paragraphs were used throughout the United States and Canada during the inter-war period. Through lexicographical studies and the development of “word books,” Thorndike, Gates, and others had succeeded in defining the core vocabulary of basal readers as well.77 In the post-Elson period virtually every children’s reader was constructed according to these word lists. By the 1920s when Thorndike had established himself as the most prolific and influential educational psychologist since James and Hall, his research and publication interests ran far a field to include IQ testing and the expanding range of social and educational applications of psychology.78 Many other early reading researchers like Huey, Terman, and Pintner had begun to concentrate on more general issues of mental measurement. At Chicago, Judd, whose 1920s work on reading as social experience was often quoted by Gray, had begun to move into the field of general social psychology pioneered by Mead and Tufts.

This left the field more or less in the hands of two psychologists: Gates of Teachers College and Gray at Chicago. Both authored basal reading series, developed a range of tests of silent and oral reading, and provided guidelines and suggestions for teachers. Articles by both were published in various American and Canadian teachers’ journals,79 their contributions to National Society for the Study of Education yearbooks were quoted in curriculum guides, their work and that of other reading psychologists was referenced in these same journals and guides, and, most importantly, their texts and tests were used in elementary reading instruction. Certainly, in the field of reading education—as well as administration, curriculum design, and so forth—trends and developments begun at Teachers College, Chicago, Stanford, and other American universities80 spread across the United States and Canada to remake basic instruction in reading and the language arts for several generations of children.

Gray and Gates oversaw the application of reading research to all aspects of the teaching of reading—and by extension but to a lesser extent, writing, oral language, and spelling—in the period from the 1920s through the 1950s. The 1937 NSSE yearbook on reading, The Teaching of Reading, highlighted findings of a committee chaired by Gray. This framing of “desirable trends in reading” set the stage for the postwar modernization of reading instruction that would follow a wartime hiatus in research, development, and implementation. These trends included increased interest in reading problems; greater recognition of every teacher’s responsibility for the teaching of reading; allocation of more time to guidance of reading in different subject areas; a greater concern for reading “readiness”; increased use of better curricular materials; progress in the organization of reading pedagogy into “units” that reflected areas of interest; greater emphasis on comprehension; increased recognition of children’s varied motives and interests; greater provision for “individual differences”; wider use of standardized reading tests; and the systematic diagnosis and remediation of problem readers.81

This was, in all, a description of the new paradigm of reading and language arts instruction advocated by reading psychologists. It called for an admixture of identifiably humane, “child-centered” practices (e.g., units or projects, teaching for individual difference, early childhood intervention, curricular integration) and scientific approaches to pedagogy (e.g., use of tests, clinical diagnostics and remediation, the use of modern systematic curricula). The extent to which many of these prewar recommendations remained throughout subsequent decades and indeed constitute the matrix of basic assumptions about the teaching of reading today testifies to the significance of this particular paradigm shift toward more scientific, research-based approaches to curriculum and instruction.

At the center of this scientific approach to literacy was the use of modern curricula like Gray’s reading series, which provided the teacher with (textual) guidance in all of the aforementioned areas. On what assumptions did Gray and his colleagues develop and design the Dick and Jane series? Gray’s was not a wholly mechanistic reading psychology by any means, for he was basically in agreement with Thorndike that reading is “clear, vigorous and carefully directed thinking.” Citing Thorndike, Gray argued that “in effective reading, the mind selects, softens, emphasises, correlates, and organizes information” according to “mental set or purpose or demand.“82 Nor, as noted, was Gray strictly opposed to literary merit per se. However, his sense of the kind of literary content that could stimulate such thinking (conceived with Thorndike as a “reaction” to textual/experiential stimulus) remained acritical. He noted a truism shared by reading researchers: “As psychologists pointed out long ago, it is not what is presented to a child that promotes growth, but rather his reactions to the ideas acquired.“83 Far from being a blanket dismissal of the importance of content, Gray’s statement reflects the Deweyan concern with teaching “the child not the subject.” He saw in an overriding concern with literary quality a failure to consider the validity and value of student “reactions.” Moreover, while the “formal” and traditional classroom had stressed “oral interpretation” with “little adaptation of instruction to meet the varying needs of the pupils,’ the modern classroom depended on “flexible” yet “carefully planned” and “systematic” approaches.84

Yet Gray’s concern with student “reaction” led to a relativist position on the selection of content for children’s texts. In his skepticism of the traditional cultural approaches to reading, Gray, like many of his contemporaries, had developed a critical blind spot on the matter of literary quality and ideological content. This is not to say, though, that Gray had neglected altogether the specification of criteria for selection and development of children’s stories. On the contrary, appropriateness could be ascertained according to how text enhanced the development of reading and general linguistic competence. Drawing from Judd’s work in the 1910s at the University of Chicago, Gray believed that “reading was experiencing’: The vividness of image and the range of possible meanings showed how text was both “a process of reexperiencing” and potentially a unique experience itself.85 To this end, he noted that “as pupils grow in ability to use familiar experiences in interpreting what they read, they also increase in ability to acquire new experiences through reading.“86 However mundane by traditional standards, everyday experiences—“various purposes and needs . . . both in and out of school”—were posited as both the basis for the selection of educational knowledge and the end of successful pedagogy.

Hence Gray advocated an initial reading experience that reflected “familiar experience,” gradually moving forward to works by “the author who combines familiar concepts in a form that presents new ideas.“87 Accordingly, reading was to be taught in conjunction with pedagogically constructed language experiences: field trips, unit study, activities, simulations, role playing, and so forth. Reading texts were conceived as authentic representations of children’s lived experiences. By extension, the representation of social reality therein was completely in line with his experiential theories of reading. The aim was to generate in the reader “a focus, or radix, of interest to which much of his reading relates and which serves as an inner drive or motivating force.“88 Texts were to be experientially based on the everyday, until the child had the ability to confront through text “new experiences,” tales for instance of “Eskimo land” and “Niagara Falls,” to cite Gray’s own examples.89

This concern with the textual representation of the known, the familiar, and the everyday was linked to his particular approach to teaching reading. In a 1955 Reading Teacher response to Flesch’s popular crusade for phonics, Gray argued that “contrasting methods” differed mostly in that they “secured most growth in different aspects of reading.“90 He contraposed those methods that concentrated on smaller linguistic units (e.g., the “alphabetic or spelling method,” the “syllabic method”) with those models that concentrated on meaning (e.g., “the word,” the “sentence method,” the “story method and the experience method”). Like Chall twenty years later, he noted that “the results of studies of the relative merits of teaching beginning reading do not show conclusively which is best.“91

Gray clearly had his preference, however. Citing Buswell’s research, Gray argued that “word recognition” would lead to “word reading”: “an ability to follow the printed lines, to pronounce all the words but to display no vital concern for the content.“92 What he argued for was a mixture of “word recognition” (e.g., both whole word and phonics) with other pedagogies that “cultivate a vital concern for the content and a clear grasp of meaning.“93 Far from avoiding consideration of content, then, Gray clearly believed in its importance. For “effective progress would only result from parallel emphasis on meaning and word recognition.“94 While not against phonics per se, he, like many of his contemporaries, saw it as only “means to broader ends” of word recognition and language experience.

Accordingly, we can surmise that the Gray-Arbuthnot readers reflected several basic principles of construction. First, Gray’s concern for the representation of the actual language and experiences of beginning readers led him to write and edit texts according to strict controls on lexical selection and syntactic complexity. Each reader, following strict readability guidelines, introduced a limited amount of new words and syntactic structures; the readers for grades l-2 were pitched almost exclusively in dialogue intended to simulate children’s oral language.95 These new words were gleaned from the beginning reader’s vocabulary as represented in word lists by Thorndike, Gates, Dolch, and others. The Dick and Jane narratives, then, were to be recognizable texts; these texts required of children the recognition of words already in their oral lexicon. Once established, commonly occurring words were repeated in simplified sentences, versions of direct speech.

Second, Gray and his contemporaries extolled the virtues of high-interest “populist” texts that provoked thinking and meaning in a wide audience of students. The semantic possibilities of the text, the interpretations and meanings enabled by Dick and Jane narratives, were those that Gray thought children could easily relate to: The texts were not about fairy queens or princes, but about what he and his colleagues considered typical and shared childhood experiences in a nonspecific locale that resembled Lynd and Lynd’s Middletown (or, for that matter, the midwestern American community described by Lewis in Babbitt). The setting and construction of stories, then, was not intended to be “biased” or overtly ideological. Rather Gray set out with a stated concern for “average” and “slow” children, to ease the transition from preliteracy to literacy by offering texts that were lexically, syntactically, and semantically accessible to all. The design of a redundant, recognizable, and predictable text was intentional.

The 1960 NSSE yearbook on reading solemnly noted Gray’s death. In that same year Hugh Foresman, the last of the remaining founders of Scott Foresman, died as well. Yet their shared legacy remained. There was nothing Machiavellian about the standardization of literacy instruction: Gray operated from the best of intents. Regardless of whatever qualms he may have had over Deweyanism,96 he believed in the egalitarian ends of Progressive education: the advancement of every child’s opportunity to participate “efficiently” in “democratic” society. While the Scott brothers and Hugh Foresman set as their goal the profitable development and marketing of the comprehensive educational product, Gray and his contemporaries had sought to supplant the inflexibility of traditional rote instruction with the teaching of reading and linguistic competences, which they hoped would “exert an equally potent influence on the understanding, outlook, thinking, and behavior of the child.“97

There was, he wrote shortly before his death, an increasing recognition among educators of the “expanding role of independent, critical reading on the part of all citizens if they are to understand the problems faced in a rapidly changing world, to participate intelligently in the duties of citizenship and to lead rich well-rounded personal lives.“98 For this the compulsive, habituated ways of nineteenth-century pedagogy and curricula would not suffice. In its place, a thoroughly scientific approach to literacy teaching was needed, one that emphasized “psychological background for teaching, including known facts and their implications about human development, individual differences, learning theories, emotional problems, motivation, and the psychology of school subjects including the psychology of reading.“99 As well, he noted that teachers needed to be aware of “the social purposes and foundations of education; the role of reading and other mass media in current life; the nature and diversity of the cultural background, personal characteristics, and capabilities of children and youth.“100

The Dick and Jane reading series was indeed a mass-produced and standardized product distributed internationally on a near monopoly scale. It became an archetype, a model for dozens of imitators and would-be sales leaders,101 and it was the product of a series of overlapping educational sciences. This particular exemplary modern basal series is indicative of a central shift in assumptions about children’s reading and the teaching of reading toward a systems approach, featuring “diagnosis” and “clinical” intervention.102 The educational psychology of Thorndike, Gates, Gray, Pinter, Terman, and others was an applied science, and the remaking of pedagogy and the experience of schooling was an extension of the application of that science. Enhanced by Charters and Bobbit’s interwar assembly-line model of curriculum development, and the subsequent needs-assessment model of Tyler in the postwar period, a wholly scientific orientation to curriculum development and instruction and assessment had been born. A principal ramification in terms of reading pedagogy was that reading texts should be and could be so designed, and, moreover, that the efficacy of curriculum, pedagogy, and actual learning could be verified through the use of standardized tests.

Gray, like many Progressive-era educators, would have teachers be reading “experts,” knowledgeable in the ways of instructional psychology. Certainly, the grounds had shifted from the previous century. Literary merit, cultural tradition, and Protestant morality no longer stood as central criteria in the development of children’s readers. It was now a matter of selecting and adopting appropriate literature on the surface of the curriculum-development process only. The development of a reading textbook depended, in this new administrative and institutional regime, on the possession of a theory of reading (e.g., phonics, word recognition, developmental stages, readiness), on the intentional construction of specialized, standardized texts to enhance assessible skills, and, of course, on a significant capital investment by the publisher to provide a total curriculum package. Related, moreover, was a prescriptive sense that the aim of literacy, of the “personal and social development of youth,“103 was more efficient adaptation to existing social knowledges and organization.


The text as an observable artifact is indeed the interface between historical authors and readers.104 As such, it is the recoverable trace of practice and policy that remains long after historical authors and readers are deceased. We can read more in historical curricular texts than simply recordings of ideological content, for they stand as reconstructions of everyday communicative transactions between writers and readers, teachers and students. Additionally, the text is a recoverable record of those authorial, pedagogic, and interpretive codes that its use presupposed and projected. That is to say that its particular words and relationships between words express particular historical cases of dominant (and quite possibly ideological) rules of writing and reading, teaching and learning—what Heath calls the socially constructed and stipulated “norms” of literacy and the norms governing “methods for learning those norms.“105

It is, however, essential to consider that the text is an actual made product, conceived of, authored, and published by historical individuals operating within paradigmatic assumptions about the nature and function of the pedagogical text, and the nature of the knowledges and competences to be taught by and through that text.

The development of Gray and Arbuthnot’s multinational basal reader is an exemplary case of how dominant conceptual suppositions of textbook authorship and the fiscal intentions of text publishing and marketing stamped a distinctive technicist/scientific character on the literacy text. Gray’s assumptions about the reading process—dominant in the inter- and postwar periods—were reflected in the content and structure of his reading series. The texts’ literary content expressed what he and his coauthors considered universal, accessible childhood experiences, while their linguistic structure—lexical selection and syntactic complexity, narrative style, and story grammars—stemmed from the belief that children should begin with simplified, highly controlled texts and should progress incrementally toward mature prose forms. The acquisition of reading literacy so conceived-as a universal process of linear skill development enhanced by teaching strategies generalizable across pedagogical contexts—made the ideological content of basal series a moot point. This technical approach to curriculum development dovetailed with Scott Foresman’s ambitious plans for marketing a comprehensive curricular package internationally. Based on allegedly universal principles of the psychologies of teaching/learning and reading, the resultant textbooks were context-neutral, mass-produced educational products, marketable and consumable in a wide range of English-speaking countries.106

Eco observes that “in every century the way artistic forms are structured reflects the way in which science or contemporary culture views reality."107 Curious here is Eco’S use of the conjunction “or,” for the period examined in this discussion marked a conjunction between the prescriptive means and ends of science and of contemporary culture. Textbooks for the teaching of literacy both embodied and were based on dominant scientific assumptions. In their literary content and structure, their marketing and consumption, they were indeed generic products of postwar educational culture, standing in a complementary relationship with other mass-produced and distributed popular texts.

It would be erroneous, however, to assign some sort of conspiratorial intent to the makers of these texts. It is not as if the likes of Gray and Arbuthnot, Gates, Russell, and Witty set out to act against any children’s interests. If anything, reading researchers and curriculum developers were surprisingly naive regarding their role as participants in an ideologically selective tradition. With their colleagues in universities and schools, they were riding a wave of postwar optimism based on the belief in “social progress” through scientific and industrial expansion. Gray and Arbuthnot—in their commitment to make reading failure virtually impossible—were unabashedly idealistic in their intents.

Yet they were to varying degrees blinded by the same putatively neutral scientific discourse that guided and constrained their endeavors. They operated on the basis of the historical collusion of two rationales for text-making. First and foremost was the “competitive compulsion to increase sales” of textbook publishers. Carpenter points out that the finite longevity, “high mortality,” and obsolescence of schoolbooks is “a phenomenon that the textbook publisher accepts as part of his business.“108 The profit motive clearly led to the continual marketing, sales, development, and replacement of such texts. This economic force was rationalized and buttressed, however, by an ethic of progress, for “the constant need for improvement” of educational materials. The technocratic rationale—that all modern products and modes of human labor can be ordered on a linear scale of progress and development—imbued both the positivist sciences of educational research and the business of modern textbook publishing with a perpetual tradition of the new.

Second, Gray and his contemporaries—like their modern counterparts in reading research—saw the histories of reading and its teaching as tales of unilinear growth and development within which more technically precise, quantifiable approaches would yield higher success levels in early literacy. Hence, while they were naive and idealistic regarding ideological content, they shared a fundamental belief in the scientific design of early literacy texts. It was this belief that qualified and ultimately may have undermined their efforts to produce relevant and meaningful textbooks.

In turn, the role of scientific approaches to curriculum and instruction as the appropriate means for the further evolution of effective pedagogy was lodged within the democratic doctrines of Progressivism, for both American and Canadian textbooks relied on and taught variations of Deweyan ideology. The purpose of education was at once to enable the social adaptation of individuals into an evolving and expanding social order and to enhance their capacity to contribute to that evolution: to adapt and if need be to make adaptations to that order. This version of Deweyanism did not embrace the twentieth-century capitalist state as a static entity that required simple conformism, but rather envisaged progress as requiring scientific innovation and social adaptation to the civic and industrial changes concomitant with scientific progress.

Yet the industrial conditions of textbook generation and the resultant structure and content of the textbooks tacitly sanctioned the training and domestication of students: work-type and recreational reading indeed. What was omitted from this comprehensive postwar educational schema was due consideration of reading as a truly critical, interpretive, and speculative act, and of literature as a morally edifying, aesthetic, and politically relevant entity. The resultant norms of literacy are ample evidence of Gray’s avowed commitment to social adaptation but not to a parallel concern with social transformation. Gray and Arbuthnot’s series—the texts themselves and the instructional regimes they embodied—taught a practical and technical consciousness, specifying through both overt ideological content and story grammars what was ontologically true within and existentially possible for human subjects. The reader subsequently was led by a teacher, who followed an institutionally enforced textual script (the teacher’s manual), to a highly constricted body of interpretive codes and literate behaviors.

Assessing the modern legacy of the early- and mid-century modernization of curriculum development and pedagogy by educational scientists like Charters and Bobbitt, Gates and Gray, Apple comments that

systems approaches are not essentially neutral, nor are they performing a “scientific” function. By tending to cause its users and other publics involved to ignore certain possible fundamental problems with schools as institutions, systems management also acts to generate and channel political sentiments supportive of the existing modes of access to knowledge and power. 109

These were consensus texts on several levels. Certainly they represented what Gray and Arbuthnot construed as the shared images and messages of democratic life in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but they represented as well an emergent scientific and professional consensus, an agreement among publishers and researchers that psychologically based pedagogies and readable, mass-produced and consumed texts would be more “efficient” at the transmission of literacy (and the accumulation of capital) than the previous generation of traditional literary readers. Gray, Gates, Russell, and others professed to be concerned with literary content, with humane social values, and highly motivational pedagogy. Yet their texts remained the products of Thorndike’s conception of reading as a “sarbond” activity, as “response,” and of Watson’s Madison Avenue (or Scott Foresman’s Madison Avenue, to be more precise). The rules of capital expansion, as well as the science of Teachers College and the University of Chicago, helped shape what would count as children’s readers, and what would count as reading and language arts instruction, Gray and Arbuthnot’s texts dominated the market for over three decades. The New McGuffey indeed.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 1, 1987, p. 91-116
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 537, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:11:23 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue