Family & Education

Highlights Magazine and the Patriotism It Once Instilled

For over 75 years, Highlights has been delighting children—but its topics today are quite different from those at its inception
BY Annie Holmquist TIMEMarch 14, 2023 PRINT

Last summer, news broke that Highlights, the classic children’s magazine probably best known for its hidden picture puzzles and “Goofus and Gallant” comics, had joined the ranks of the “woke.” The magazine capitulated to those demanding depictions of gay families, syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin wrote, while its booklist began featuring transgender-friendly titles such as “I Am Jazz.”

Such topics were completely contrary to some of the features in the original Highlights, Malkin explained.

It seemed almost unbelievable to think that a secular children’s magazine could feature the Bible stories and American traditions that Malkin claimed Highlights originally offered. But then an opportunity to test Malkin’s statement unexpectedly presented itself. A friend of mine uncovered an old stack of Highlights magazines, their dates ranging between 1951 and 1960, and asked if I would be interested in looking at them.

Cracking open the February 1952 edition of Highlights, I discovered that Malkin wasn’t joking. And as I paged through the faded and fragile pages, I began to realize that these magazines offered an education far more in line with the idea our nation’s founders had than the one that schools seem to offer today.

Healthy Americana

One of the first things I noticed was the heavy presence of patriotic themes in the magazines. The February issue featured stories on both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that recounted their histories and extolled their virtues, quoted from the Declaration of Independence, and gave instructions on how to host a patriotic party. Even the hidden picture puzzle was full of Americana references, instructing children to look for the heads of Washington, Lincoln, and Thomas Edison, along with images of Valley Forge, the Liberty Bell, and an eagle.

It wasn’t just the February issue that featured patriotic themes. Other issues recounted tales of the Pilgrims, featured Thomas Jefferson, and even discussed the freedom of assembly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Such lessons on history and heroes seem to fit the bill for education that Noah Webster laid out in his essay, “On the Education of Youth in America.” A good education recounting the history of the American revolution and “the most remarkable characters and events that distinguished it” should be a primary part of American education, Webster explained.

“But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country,” he wrote. “He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.”

Love of Virtue

Epoch Times Photo
The comic strip Goofus and Gallant appeared monthly in Highlights. (Annie Holmquist)

But the old editions of Highlights don’t just cover history and American heroes; they’re also heavy on lessons of virtue. The opening editorial in the February issue, for example, encourages children to love their parents and be open and honest with them, recognizing that they want what’s best for their children. The same issue features an adapted story from the biblical book of Exodus, recounting the Israelites complaining in the wilderness because of a lack of food. And of course, the famous Goofus and Gallant always contrast the difference between virtuous and nonvirtuous living!

Webster also highlighted virtue as one of the chief components of education, noting that “an acquaintance with ethics … is necessary for the yeomanry of a republican state.” He also recommended that children be taught “submission to superiors and to laws,” explaining that “the virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”

Benjamin Franklin, although far less religious than his contemporary Webster, agreed.

“The general natural Tendency of Reading good History,” he wrote, “must be, to fix in the Minds of Youth deep Impressions of the Beauty and Usefulness of Virtue of all Kinds.”

Franklin even went so far as to recommend Christianity, leaving little question that he would have approved of the inclusion of the Exodus adaptation in Highlights.

Industry and Perseverance

Epoch Times Photo
(Annie Holmquist)

A final thing I noticed was the independent and industrious nature on display throughout the old issues of Highlights. One story talked about children saving money for a desired item and then giving up that money for another in need. Another story featured two brothers heading out on their own for the day to make some money at the nearby train station.

The crafts section gave step-by-step instructions on how children could build their own stepstool, encouraging them to gather “a crosscut saw, a square, a file, a hammer, and sandpaper,” as well as nails. Imagine telling today’s bubble-wrapped children to grab those items without adult supervision! Some people would throw a fit!

But such caution isn’t what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he laid out his plan for education in “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania.” Instead, he encouraged Americans to fix such qualities as “industry” and “perseverance” in the minds of young people.

Many may look at these old issues of Highlights and be aroused by waves of nostalgia from their childhoods. Others may look at them and come away with thoughts of “quaint” and “out-of-touch.”

But I come away from them challenged, because the individuals who created them were far more faithful than today’s institutions in inculcating history and patriotism, virtue, and independence into the minds of young Americans. These elements are critical to our nation’s health, and if we want to see America thrive once more, then we, too, must follow the example set forward in the early editions of Highlights magazine.

Annie Holmquist is a cultural commentator hailing from America's heartland who loves classic books, architecture, music, and values. Her writings can be found at Annie's Attic on Substack.
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