Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book Review: Elementary Community Civics

Title: Elementary Community Civics


Author: R.O. Hughes

Date: 1922, 1931

Publisher: Allyn & Bacon

ISBN: none

Length: 449 pages plus 25-page appendix/index and 81-page state-specific supplement sections

Quote: “It is no less important for the pupil to learn that his life must be lived in close association with his fellow men and to profit by the experience of human beings in regard to these relations.”

Hughes' introduction goes on to state that “the great majority of school children never get beyond the grammar grades,” so “we must be sure that those below high school age have a chance to think and study about their social relationships.”

Allyn & Bacon was a “progressive” publisher...and this thick little book, although it contains some solid facts and some historically interesting documents, is basically a junior high school level catechism manual for the Prog religion. Does your community take advantage of this or that “benefit” of bigger government, the seventh grade student is asked, and how would you go about extending (then active) Prohibition to cover cigarettes?

It's always interesting for booksellers to consider the past lives of secondhand books. Though the copy of Elementary Community Civics in my hand came to me via the same source as a copy of Burch's Problems of American Democracy, the books were not used by the same student, or at the same school. Probably at some point they were bought by the same collector, or researcher...not because they're a particularly well matched pair (the cloth bindings never were the same color, and Elementary Community Civics has led a harder life), and so, possibly, because the purchaser was comparing the material in the junior high school and high school textbooks.

They are the trunk and limb of the same tree. Hughes writes in a much more engaging style, with discussion questions in between sections, lots of then-new black-and-white photos, and more concrete language, for younger children. Nevertheless, here are the same infamous ideas in kid-friendly guise:

“During the war women undertook numerous activities which they had never before tried.” [False.] “Here you see them engaged in some of the processes connected with ship building.” [All but one of the laborers in the photograph are sitting down, apparently working with small pieces of hardware.] “Do you think it is wise for them to continue permanently in employment of this kind?”

“Since some boys and girls do not realize the need of going to school, and some parents are ignorant or careless, the states have laws requiring pupils to attend school....No matter how good our laws about schools may be...the schools will be far less helpful than they ought to be, if we do not have teachers who can conduct them properly. One of the most serious problems...has been that...The salaries paid have been so low that no person with brains enough to earn fair pay would accept a position in a country school.”

“There are three grades in the class of the feeble minded: the idiot...the imbecile...and the moron, who may advance to the mental age of twelve years...They can do certain kinds of work, and, under proper supervision, can be of a little use...these people need to be separated from others.”

“The fact that colored people made up a considerable part of the population was another handicap” (page 33 of the Virginia-specific supplement).

Yes, children, the Progressives were racists, sexists, elitists, “ableists,” and just generally quintessential snobs. The early twentieth century was a snobbish period in these United States. Nevertheless. Ick.

The Virginia-specific supplement may be especially interesting to local lurkers. Allyn & Bacon craftily marketed this book to the smaller, poorer schools Hughes so deplored by printing state-specific versions that played up to those very schools. Copies of Elementary Community Civics were printed separately from, but bound together with, quick reviews of facts about the history, geography, and government for each state where the book was sold. Hughes wrote from Pennsylvania but he didn't mind adding 81 pages about Virginia, or wherever.

It is possible that never before, and never since, has a list of “the important cities” of Virginia consisted of: Richmond, Newport News, Portsmouth, Hampton, Suffolk, Fort Monroe, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Hopewell, Fredericksburg, Alexandria (in the 1920s “important as a railroad and steamship center”), Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Winchester, Staunton (“birthplace of President Wilson”), Luray, Harrisburg, Hot Springs, Roanoke, Bristol, Norton, Appalachia, Big Stone Gap, Tazewell, Marion, and Wytheville—with “the important cities” appearing within an inch of that list of coal towns.

Norton, Big Stone Gap, and Wytheville are cities, as defined in Virginia law, with populations above five thousand; Big Stone Gap has a claim to fame as Virginia's westernmost city. Appalachia and Tazewell are towns. This web site here imposes an arbitrary moratorium on traditional pre-game jokes about the population of Marion, on the grounds that those jokes appeal to the inner middle school brats, or “morons,” of people in Gate City, and we don't want Hughes' ghost thinking that we “need to be separated from others.” (Marion is both an actual town, in Hughes' time the home of celebrity author and newspaper publisher Sherwood Anderson, and the location of a state-tax-funded mental hospital.) Let's just say that it is still a bit of a novelty for students in the Point of Virginia to hear anyone's list of our state's “important cities” mention even one place where they've been. We learn not to expect any town or city west of Roanoke to appear on the mental maps even of fellow Virginians. Seven of them, in a row...more “important” than Manassas, Virginia Beach, even money-loaded Fairfax?

Not only that, but a high school in Bristol was chosen as an illustration of a sleek new “modern” school! Hughes must have calculated that this focus on the Point would sell copies in a region with a low Prog population. The ploy worked; the copy I have was used in Wise.

What may really interest the local lurkers is that the original user of my copy signed himself “Little Al Smith formally known as Gilbert Alfred Smith.” Whether that person was noticeably related to our late Coach Gilbert Smith, I have no idea. I don't remember Coach Smith, who also taught sixth grade social studies, looking or acting like one of the group of teachers who were students in the 1920s, but I do remember his particular interest in making sure we all knew the difference between statements of fact and statements of opinion. Coach Smith wanted his students to be able to read a book like Elementary Community Civics and recognize that it contains a high percentage of opinions in places where students are entitled to expect facts.

Obviously Elementary Community Civics is not a Fair Trade Book. It's a collectible, vintage book, and those who want it need to snap up copies while they can for $10 per book, $5 per package, plus $1 per online payment. Four books of this size will fit into one package. Please resist the temptation to inflate prices by ordering editions from four different years (this book went through several reprintings).


It's possible to buy the "supplements" for several states separately, either from this web site or directly from Amazon. Though slim, and produced as inserts to be tucked into the hardcover book rather than bound as separate books, each one will count as a separate book for ordering and shipping purposes.