26 May 2009

Literature & Education: Once Upon a Time About the Old West

By Anna C. Bowling

When I think of education and historicals, a lot of things come to mind. There's the one room schoolhouse in Bedford, NY, that fascinated me as a child and I still insist on at least walking by when we're in town. And I won't leave Old Sturbridge Village without a conversation with whoever is interpreting the role of schoolmaster/mistress there. Also fascinating is the life of the colonial schoolteacher, but colonial education has already been well covered here. There could be the case of private tutors in some of the periods I write in, and the world of British public (private, to us Americans) schools could be a universe of its own. I considered using friends' experience as homeschooling parents to explore how many pioneers taught their own children with whatever was at hand.

What comes most vividly to mind is one session of my own elementary education (which was not, I hasten to add, in a one room schoolhouse; we're only going back as far as the 1970s here). We were in a reading circle, and the topic of this unit was cowboys. Our teacher would read through the selection with us and then ask each student a question from her teacher's edition, which had the expected answers given in red. When it was my turn, the question was, "Did cowboys read a lot (for entertainment)?"

I said, "No."

This was not the answer in the teacher's edition. The teacher's edition quoted a passage that books were passed around until they fell apart. I did not contest that. What happened next is part of what sealed my fate as a lover of unusual historicals.

While the passage we'd read did say that about the books, it also said that a good number of men employed in that particular profession were black, Native American, Mexican or Chinese. Since at that time it was illegal to teach slaves to read, that eliminated a number of black cowboys from the ranks of readers. Next, assume that non-English speakers, or those for whom English is a second language, would be more likely to read in their own language, then that takes even more from the pool of readers, or at least divides it into smaller pools. Also factor that the work a cowboy was required to perform did not require a high level of education, so it can be assumed that a portion of the remaining pool of potential English-readers was not literate.

Working from the reduced pool of potential readers, I then took a look at the typical workday as outlined in our passage. If the cowboys rose as early as they did, were engaged in manual labor for much of the day and ended work after sundown, that wouldn't leave much time for reading. Plus it would be dark. Taking all that into account, I told the teacher, it could be true that some cowboys did read for pleasure, but probably not most. There was a moment of silence, a few "umm"s from the teacher, and she did call my parents later on, but the image of those hypothetical cowboys and their reading material stuck with me. Maybe one of them will make it into a story someday.

Yes, I know there are holes in the logic; I was nine. (Western fans, please feel free to chime in.) There were, of course, cowboys of many national origins and ethnicities who might be devoted to Dickens, or who gobbled any newspaper they could get their hands on, and we have letters and diaries written by cowboys to give us valuable insight into how these hardworking men really lived. The passage in that long-ago fifth grade reading group dealt with trail rides, so if I can read while walking, I'm sure there were cowboys who had a book in their saddlebags and could read a novel, text or Bible on the trail as well.

Until someone perfects time travel, we'll have to keep supposing, but who knows? Maybe a few of them had a romance novel stashed in their saddlebags as well.