Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#2)

From the Liberal Curriculum to Mass Education (cont. from here)

Before the 1870s, in America, higher education looked pretty homogenous:

students and faculty were of the same sex, race, religion and, for the most part, of the same social class (p.35)

Moreover, this homogeneity was maintained by a religious ruling class because most of the faculty staff were clergymen. These clergymen ensured the values of ‘religion’ and ‘family’ were at the heart of academic practices (cf. loco in parentis – in place of the parents).


Needless to say, discipline was high on the educational agenda. According to Russell (p. 36), ‘discipline’ did not mean what it has come to mean now: i.e. a way of dividing knowledge and activity (not sure what he means by this, though). What ‘discipline’ meant in late 19th century America was twofold, and referred to the unifying aims of the institution, not to its organisation:

1) Moral and religious discipline, namely instilling the values of Christianity. This stifled originality, in the modern sense of overturning  or modifying accepted knowledge, values and forms (p. 43).

2) Mental discipline, which the American college borrowed from Scottish faculty psychology and educational practice (p. 36)

But with widening participation came challenges to this notion of ‘discipline’ (p. 37)

The old curriculum

This consisted of Latin, Greek, maths and rhetoric; moreover, the ‘truths’ of Protestant Christianity were omnipresent. One single member of Faculty staff taught this plurality of knowledge, rather than several specialised members. Linguistic homogeniety was maintained through the teachings on rhetoric and recitation. In the 1870s, this would suffer wide attack for its sterility, routine, and lack of motivation. This is when more personal topics began appearing and teaching began to rely on anectodes, tales, wise sayings and pithy quotations (p. 43). Because of this rhetorical knowledge:

students were not expected to analyse sources critically, to compare them rigorously, to interpret them in the context of a growing body of disciplinary knowledge, as later scholariship would dictate (p. 43)

Extracurricular activites began to emerge post-1870s and student societies began to allow speakers to address the student body when colleges had refused to allow them (the speakers) on campus (p.44).

Why go to uni? From discipline to disciplines

Between 1865 and 1875, ten years after the Civil war, the liberal college system did not suit the needs of the new America and it was hard to justify sending the young generation into higher education when they could get trained and employed elsewhere (reminds me of discussions on current UK HE fee-paying generation!). Pre-war technical institutions such as MIT became part of a new trend to attract young people into higher education by offering specialised courses.

This specialisation affected writing instruction because the sudden increase in the number of students now being encouraged to join the academic community brought with it the challenges that come with widening participation. These include dealing with different literacy backgrounds.

The curriculum thus became divided, fragmented, as it became more specialised. It also had different agendas: one was to serve research; the other was to serve industry, i.e. the ‘practicalities’, the applied aspects of higher education (p. 47). In order for these agendas to be pursued, much writing had to take place, be printed and be distributed to various stakeholders:

the hallmark of higher learning was that specialisation of discourse which is only possible in writing and only being capable of being widely distributed in print (p. 48 cf. the onset of the publish-or-perish generation)

Written entrance exams were introduced in 1873 (p.49) – (cf introduction of written papers in 1820s in Cambridge, UK (Leedham-Green, p. 125). Despite this:

Writing was not part of the process of learning a subject but rather a separate accomplishment, independent of content. It was one course among many, albeit an important one (p.50)

The forensic system

This was introduced in 1869 and as its name implies, (it) continued the old tradition of debate (…) but it was a written adaptation of oral debate (p.52; cf. p. 125 in Leedham-Green). The transition to the the written form was problematic because of the plurality of disciplinary debates which necessitated a plurality of written forms. The forensic system began to fade in the 1890s because of tension between college-mandated  writing requirements and writing in specific departmental courses (p. 55).

Little by little, the business of writing became the business of everybody, and in reality the business of nobody (p. 58), especially in large, differentiated institutions. Between 1880 and 1910, the values of the university shifted towards research, graduate teaching, and scientific and professional instruction in such a way that ‘writing’ – which had hitherto been the business of everybody – was relocated within English departments. However, even English departments had their own specialisations that did not include the teaching of composition studies, per se, but rather, they were interested in philology and belles lettres (p. 63).

Russell also discusses the roles and the dilemmas of secondary schools in post-bellum education (i.e. after the American Civil War). He claims that school teachers became ‘representatives’ of a discipline, not ‘masters’ of it (p. 67). This had an impact of how writing was taught at secondary level: specifically, writing became a means of testing knowledge (content), not a means of attaining it:

students wrote to show learning, not to learn (p. 67)


One thought on “Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#2)

  1. Pingback: What makes writing ‘academic’? Part I | Academic Emergence

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