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Skewed views, past and present

December 23, 2011

The fictitious Peter Parley suffers from gout and welcomes children, thus earning the reader’s sympathy.

What can we learn from an old geography textbook printed in Boston in 1832 for young children, “Peter Parley’s Geography for Children”? A surprising amount, not necessarily about geography, but about the default assumptions prevalent at that time in history.

I do not intend to mock the author or his culture, for they lacked the educational and scientific resources that we take for granted today; but this battered little 180-year-old book made me think about the unexamined default assumptions that lurk within our own modern textbooks. [Click on any illustration to enlarge.] 

Following are the core concepts underlying “Peter Parley.” Some we retain today; some are thankfully extinct as teaching aids.

1. Illustrations engage the readers. “Peter Parley’s Geography” contains seventy-five quaint engravings that begin with Peter himself, sitting in an armchair with a gouty leg resting on an ottoman before him, warning the children not to jostle his painful limb.

A few of the engravings were carefully tinted with colored pencils by a long-ago child.

2. Stereotypes reinforce ideas of foreign lands. Other illustrations depict American Indians wearing feathers, a Norwegian engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a polar bear, a crosslegged Turk drinking coffee, Laplanders being pulled in a sleigh by a reindeer, Indians riding an elephant, a Chinese meat vendor selling rats, and a pair of  scantily-clad Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians).

3. Superlatives aid memorization. Europe is described in one sentence: “The most extensive country in Europe is Russia; the most wealthy and powerful is Great Britain; the most polite nation is the French; the coldest and poorest place is Lapland; the pleasantest climate is that of Italy; the most cruel and despotic government is that of Turkey; the most mountainous country is Switzerland; the flattest is Holland.”

That Norseman is quite a warrior! But note the implicit assumption that Nature exists to be mastered.

4. Sense of place is important; there’s no place like home. Written by a Massachusetts Yankee, the book contains questions like “Which way is Boston from the place you live in?” “Which way is Hartford?” “Which way is New-York?” “Which way is Philadelphia?” Peter Parley, the imaginary author of this work, tells the children whom this book was written for, “It is a delightful thing to travel about and see different places. Every town and city presents something new and interesting. But I recommend it to people not to travel about, till they can well afford it, and not to go away and neglect their proper business.”

5. When in doubt about the facts, throw in a confident whopper. “In South-America there are great serpents or snakes, called Anacondas. Some of them are large enough to crush a house.”

Click on this illustration to enlarge and read the uncharitable Protestant bias.

6. One’s own belief system automatically trumps that of foreigners, who are obviously wrong. “Nothing can be more absurd than some of the religious notions and ceremonies of pagan nations.” — “This history [of the Bible] is all true. A great part of the early history of almost all other nations is a great part of it false; but the Bible tells us nothing but what is worthy of belief.” —  “About 600 years after Christ, Mahomet…pretended to be inspired with a revelation from Heaven. He wrote a book called the Koran, which contained this pretended revelation. This book is the bible of the Mahometans. They believe it as we do our Scriptures, though it is no doubt wholly false.”

7. The Protestant work ethic is best. “The people [of South America]… are not industrious; and no nation is happy or rich without industry.”

Questions follow each section of text. The book is small, and the tiny typeface must have been difficult to read by lamplight.

8. Repetition is the hammer, memorization is the nail.  Lists of questions following each particular section of the book emphasize points that were viewed as important: for instance, that Africans love to dance, that Mahomet was wrong, that the Russians are unhappy. Harnessed to the text in this manner, the questions allow no opportunity for creative inquiry and no chance to ask questions  not covered by the text. Memorization was stressed at the expense of independent thinking.

Obviously, the authors of modern texts write for ethnically diverse audiences and would never disdain the belief systems of other peoples as “Peter Parley” did. But all creations inevitably carry the stamp of their time and place, and given the passage of enough time, our texts will in turn look old and dated. Pop quiz: Carefully examine your own child’s modern geography or history texts. Odds are that you will indeed find at least a few different examples of default assumptions, stereotyping, repetitive exercises to aid memory, and/or the failure to present materials in a way that fosters critical thinking skills. It’s easy to smirk at “Peter Parley” because we look back at it from the distance of 180 years. It’s quite another thing to examine our own culture in an objective way. Seven generations from now, will our own textbooks appear quaint and risible to those who will follow us? Are our sleek and modern texts really written in a way that educates and enlightens the mind, or are they simply mechanisms to help children pass standardized tests?

[Note: Peter Parley was the nom de plume of Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who wrote more than a hundred works for young children during the early 1800s. See]

The Chinese meatmonger.

The Chinese meatmonger selling rats and puppies.

From → books, paper ephemera

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