Tattered Guides


THINGS familiar in daily use never seem queer or odd. Only a retrospect of time or distance can make them so. Thus it is with the tattered schoolbooks that each generation throws around in the classrooms. The torn leaves and the worn backs and the well-thumbed insides are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But after a generation or so they take on an oddity all their own.

There flourished both in England and in America, about a hundred years ago, a type of schoolbook that was all made up of questions and answers. In such books as Mrs. Magnall’s Questions, and Peter Parley’s Treasury, the history of all the world and the manners and customs of all its people were thus set forth in question and answer, in searching inquiry and reassuring fact. Thus Mrs. Magnall would ask, ‘Did not the Roman people claim to descend from Romulus and Remus?’ And the answer (written Ans. ) echoed back: ‘They did.’ Mrs. Magnall continued: ‘Was not the first Roman King of whom we have authentic account Numa Pompilius?’ And the answer reassured her: ‘He was.’

Progress under this system was far more rapid than under the slower methods of to-day. An intelligent child could scoop up the whole of ancient history almost without effort. The form of the instruction reminds me of the old story of the dialogue carried on, through a speaking tube, between the bartender down below stairs and his boss above. ‘Is O’Rourke good for two drinks?’ ‘Has he had them?’ ‘He has.’ ‘He is.’

But behind these books themselves, both for England and for America, there are forgotten chapters of history. Those were the days when Queen Victoria was young, the days before democratic education, when schooling cost money and was beyond the reach — very properly, it seemed — of the poor. Even for many ‘gentlefolk’ the cost of sending children away to school was too high. Many mothers must gather the little flock around their knees and ask, in the words of Mrs. Magnall, ‘Did not the battle of Salamis put an end to the power of Persia at sea?’ and receive the reassuring chorus of assent, ‘It did.’

More even than that. Those were the days when countless English families, of better birth than means, went out to the uttermost ends of the earth, to the ‘colonies,’ to build up the British Empire. With them went Mrs. Magnall and Peter Parley. In the backwoods of Upper Canada, in the upcountry of Natal, and in the newer England of New Zealand, the mothers asked their children, ‘Was not the Assyrian Empire the first of the great Oriental monarchies?’ and the children admitted, ‘It was.’

There is something appealing in the naïveté of the yes-and-no system. ‘Did not the ancient Britons stain themselves with woad?’ ‘They did.’ No court of law would admit the validity of this as evidence. Any judge would rule it out as a leading question. But the devoted mothers were not a court of law. If there was anything wrong with Mrs. Magnall’s method, they never saw it. Indeed, at times the situation was reversed and the pupil in the dialogue, having been content with ‘yes, yes, yes,’ for a whole series of questions, suddenly broke out with a perfect coruscation of brilliance, erupting dates, names, and facts with an effulgence that would have dazzled Macaulay. Mrs. Magnall: ‘What great event happened next in Greece?’ Ans. ‘The Peloponnesian War, in which Athens, together with Attica, Bœotia, Locris, Doris, Phocis, Ætolia, and Acharnaria, was leagued against Sparta, Megara, Corinth, together with the Islands of Chios, Romnos, and Samos.’

‘Was the war of long duration?’

Ans. ‘This internecine struggle lasted from B.C. 431 till B.C. 404 and witnessed a carnage second only to that of the ravages of the Persians in Cappadocia. In Corinth no less than 2882 houses, 4 temples, and 17 stadii, or open playgrounds of the discoboli, were destroyed in one single assault of the Bœotians.’

‘Name some of the chief figures of the contest.’

‘Pericles, Praxiteles, Proxenes, Lysander, Aneximander, Timocles, Themistoles.’

After which Mrs. Magnall, completely knocked out, says, ‘You have answered well. That concludes the history of Greece.’

It ought to.


Are those questions, you ask, really out of Mrs. Magnall’s books? Surely, you say, they were not quite like that? Perhaps not. But that at least is the idea of them. Personally I have not seen them since I was instructed out of them, in the wilds of Upper Canada, sixty years ago.

In the United States, books like Mrs. Magnall’s Questions had a certain vogue. But the competition of the ‘little red schoolhouse’ and the ‘grammar school’ ran them hard. The question system could only flourish when it got on to a higher ground and into a rarer air than the atmosphere of ordinary education. Exactly this atmosphere and environment were supplied by the newest science of the day, Political Economy. In the era of the middle forties, political economy ranked in authority and certainty second only to divine revelation. To place it within the reach of all the people, little manuals of questions and answers were prepared, of which the most deservedly famous is the one called Mrs. Marcett’s Conversations in Political Economy, and published in Philadelphia, somewhere about 1840.

Mrs. Marcett, as I recall the little book, did n’t take part in the conversation herself. She just inspired the book. The dialogue was carried on between a very didactic lady called ‘Mrs. B’ and an infant prodigy called ‘ Caroline.’ Even a person who has never seen the illustration in the text can picture the two: Mrs. B, in flowing silk and apokebonnet, seated, an open book in her hand; Caroline, in pantalettes, standing, her hair parted to a nicety, her face calm and radiant with intelligence. Not Adam Smith nor Ricardo had anything on Caroline.

The dialogue ran along after this fashion: —

Mrs. B: ‘Is not political economy an important branch of human knowledge?’

Caroline: ‘It is.‘

Mrs. B: ‘Does it not treat of the production of wealth and of its distribution among mankind in the form of rents, profits, interest, and wages?’

Caroline: ‘It does.’

The dialogue so far — Round One — has been all in Mrs. B’s favor. But in the next round little Caroline gets back at her in the same way as Mrs. Magnall’s inspired child.

Mrs. B: ‘On what, then, do wages depend?’

Caroline: ‘On the ratio between population and subsistence—that is to say, on the proportions which the whole number of the workers hold towards the means of subsistence available for their support.’

Mrs. B: ‘Right.’

This is pretty feeble of Mrs. B, but she rallies and tries again.

‘On what principle of political economy is agriculture governed?’

Caroline has her again.

‘By the law of diminishing returns, according to which, after a certain point is passed, any further increment of capital or labor gives a proportionately less return in produce.’

This is a knockout. All Mrs. B can say is ‘Correct.’


The more you look at it, the more you see how easy it would be to extend this Caroline and Mrs. B stuff into a sort of form or mode application to a thousand kinds of guides and books of instruction. Take an example at random: Mrs. Marcett’s Complete Guide to Harvard.

Mrs. B: ‘Is not Harvard a very ancient and honored University?’

Caroline: ‘It is.’

Mrs. B: ‘Are not some of the lectures given the same as were given 200 years ago?’

Caroline: ‘They are.’

Mrs. B: ‘May not Harvard, therefore, be compared with the University of Timbuctoo, the College of the Grand Khan at Khiva, the Mosque of El Ashir at Cairo, and the Buried Cities of Yucatan?’

Caroline: ‘It may.’

Compare similarly Mrs. Marcett’s Guide to the New Deal, Mrs. Marcett’s Guide to New York, and opportunities that open up like a field of flowers.