Apr 20, 2016
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, Jacob is in the booth and the Humanities Media Project is making this all possible.
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We’ve spent this month talking about the villains of rhetoric, but since mere rhetoric isn’t just abtout rhetoric, today we’re going to talk about one of the villains of composition. But first
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Today’s villain is not one mustache-twirler, but the very most villainous type of villain: the committee. And even worse than a committee is a report written by a committee. The villans of compositions are often reports written by committee, and the first major villainous report in question goes all the way back to the 19th century Harvard Reports.
Harvard, the site of the very first frist- year composition classes, was also the place where complaints about those freshman were most acutely embattled. Because Harvard was, you know, Haaahvaaad, it pioneered an entrance exam for its applicants. Soon, preparatory schools were gleefully teaching to the test, a test which, however well it kept out the riff raff, was woefully inadequate in, well, helping students learn how to write. Soon these students entered actual classes at Harvard or any of the copycat schools that required an entrance exam, these students having learned only the minutia of grammatical correctness, pedantary and the art of the all-night cram-fest, were dismayed to discover they couldn’t in fact write.
Their instructors were the more distraught by the realization, not least because there were dreadful lot of terrible writers to be taught. The late 19th century saw a boom in educational enrollment, the likes of which are inadequately compared to increases post-WWII or in the 70s. Albert Kitzhaber reports that in 1894, more than a thousand students at Univeristy of Michage were served by a staff of 4 full time teachers and 2 part-time graduate instructors. That means not only was the writing often awful, but there was an awful lot of awful writing. So there was a crisis—Quick! To a committee!
The report that Harvard’s committee wrote compained “It is obciously absurd that the College—the institution of higher education-should be called upon to turn aside from its proper functions [those are left un specified by the way] and deovte its means ad the time of its instructors to the task of imparting elementary instruction which should be given even in ordinary grammar schools, much more in those higher academic instituions intended to prepare slect youth for a university ocourse” (44) According to Kitzhaber, it goes on in that same tone and he reports drily that “there was a good deal of sarcasm in the Report. (45).
“It is little less tha absurd to suggest ath any human being who can be taught to talk cannot likewise be taught to compose,” fumed the report “writing is merely the bait of talk with the pen instead of which the tongue!” The report grumpily pointed the finger at the lower schools for not preparing students better, and suggested raising the standard for admissions even higher. In total, three reports were issued from Harvard: 1892, 1895 and 1897. The three castigated the lower schools for “the growing illiteracy of American boys” and urged more mechanicall correctness from preparatory schools.
There’s nothing new about complaining about the awful writing of freshmen. Complaining about lazy, illiterate students is one of the oldest and most time-honored traditions of teachers, alongside wearing silly hats for official ceremonies and calling people you hate “my esteemed colleague.” What made the Harvard Reports so villainous was the immese influence they had in 19th century America.
These reports spread all over America, creating a sense of crisis in the popular press. Eventually the US government took not and in response to this crisis—wait for it—appointed a committee. This committee saught to standardize entrance exams and require more writing in the secondary schools. In the end, the Harvard reports had succeeded in creating a sense of crisis and creating action to address the crisis, lifting standards “by the hair of the head” as Fred Newton Scott said. Still, all they had done was ensure that the superficial complaints that these teachers and administrators had were the only complaints to be addressed.
A focus on mechanical correctness has dogged composition ever since. Every few decades, newspapers and magazines will find that some percentage of college graduates are dangling their participles and the education world will find itself again playing the blame game. It happened again in 1975 with NEwseeek’s incidenary article “Why Johnny can’t Write” which again highlighted “the illiuteracy of American boys” (why don’t these reports ever concern themselves with girls’ inability to diagram a sentence, I leave to the audience to deduce). “Why Johnny can’t write” led to further committes, further reports and further books all declaring a “back to bascis” curriculum, where basics meant the identification of linguistics terms. This coninutes today. While searching for a copy of the original “why Johnny can’t write” I found an article published on the nbc website in 2013 that starts with the sentence:
Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?
If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.
Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and to write clearly.
The reporter seems to have made a sudden slip—can you spot it? She’s jumped from the skills of identitying a pronoun or punctuating a possessive to the “inablitiy to speak and write clearly”. Sadly, I do not believe this will be the last article to make a similar leap and for that matter, we don’t see the end of that sort of reasoning in books or committee reports.
We can’t blame the Hardard reports of the 1890s specifically—maybe these complaints are just eh easiest writing errors to identify and castigate—but whenever an English major is confronted with a horrified acquaintance who says “I better watch my grammar in front of you” we’re dealing with some of the popular fall out from the 19th Century Harvard reports.