I’m about 852.6% positive no one who reads through The Joyous Life of Jess lived during the 1800s (if I am wrong, 117+ year old person you are a rock star!) so this post will hopefully provide you with some enlightening information. As aforementioned, I am currently enrolled in a course entitled “The Theory and Principles of Teaching Writing.” Naturally, this is why my past two posts have centered upon concepts of writing and rhetoric. This week is no different. Taking another big bite out of the history, I’ve been conducting research these past few days on what rhetoric and teaching writing looked like in 19th century America (no small task, let me tell you). Without further ado, here is a super niche post, just for you. 🙂
On this blog, I am a fan of fancy words that can be thrown around at parties to impress others. During the course of my research I learned two new words that are not only fun to say, but are critical to understanding rhetoric in 19th century America. According to the web article, Nineteenth Century Rhetoric, “. . . research into the theoretical foundations of nineteenth-century rhetoric points to three overt influences: ‘firm classical foundations,’ belletristic interests in ‘criticism and literary taste,’ and epistemological approaches to rhetoric as a ‘science’ closely related to the study of the mental faculties.”
Let’s break this down. First (before the two fancy words), the reference of firm classical foundations in this case refers specifically to the rhetorical theories of Cicero. This fellow WordPress blog does an excellent job outlining Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. The 19th century went back to its roots for the foundation, but as the previously stated article writes, “Even the most persistent critics of the ‘dispersed’ state of nineteenth-century rhetoric conclude that nineteenth-century rhetoric extended traditional praxis beyond oratory and public speaking to include the arts of prose composition and critical analysis.” Although 19th century rhetoric was defined by its staunch support of past rhetoric ideals, it was a distinct time of growth in the sense that the focus of rhetoric was no longer just public speaking, but also the written word as well.
Okay, now we can get down and nerdy. The word “belletristic” according to Dictionary.com refers to literature that is regarded as fine art, especially having a purely aesthetic function. What this means in the context of the 19th century is that rhetoric no longer had to be used purely for the purpose of persuading on a large scale, but rather it could be used to make sense of that which is pleasurable. The 19th century set the stage for rhetoric and literature as it has become popularized today, used for both scholarly endeavors as well as (my personal preference) entertaining ones.
Finally, the definition of “epistemological” is relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. Whereas rhetoric of the past had been more of an activity, something that could be bettered with practice, the 19th century saw rhetoric as something that instead was determined by intelligence. They reached this conclusion by taking Cicero’s canons and combining it with the psychology determined by epistemological study. It was a movement that eventually gave rise to great thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who ultimately challenged everything the 19th century (and past centuries, for that matter) defined as rhetoric.
Once I gathered the information that defined 19th century rhetoric, it only felt natural to look into what teaching writing consisted of during that time as well. The two go hand in hand. What I found is that what defined rhetoric also defined the concepts of teaching writing. One major player behind the foundation of schooling in 19th century America is “The Scottish Commonsense Philosophy.” This philosophy in layman’s terms was all about thinking of the mind as an “anatomy” that consisted of multiple faculties that cataloged the ways in which individuals experienced the world. As is stated by the article “Psychology and the Teaching of Writing” by William F. Woods, at the time this psychology gained widespread acceptance by educators and the public alike.
The Scottish Commonsense Philosophy led to schooling being taught as a discipline. With English in particular, spelling and grammar students were expected to take up rote memorization of rules and practices. This directly affected the way writing was taught, as well. Instead of giving students the freedom to write in their own voices, “written exercises asked them to imitate sentences which contained the principles of grammar.” This led to importance being placed upon correct conventions, as opposed to the ideas behind the writing.
This would prove to be somewhat detrimental, as was demonstrated in a man named Adams Sherman Hill. In 1879, Adams Sherman Hill was named the assistant professor of rhetoric at Harvard, as is stated in my professor’s history of writing. During his time at Harvard, Hill worked hard to keep writing focused upon correct conventions. Although he truly cared about the subject of English and fought to have English composition taught more at every level in University, when it came to the writing of potential students the importance was placed upon the likes of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. After seeing that half of the incoming freshman class failed the newly instated writing portion of the entrance exam due to “utter ignorance of punctuation and spelling” he wrote an essay directed towards to primary, grammar, and high school educators and administrators. He titled it, “An Answer to the Cry for More English” and within he urged for English to be taught more properly in schools before the public took to criticizing the colleges for not teaching English enough. While one can certainly admire his goals, it unfortunately led to a more shallow view of English. Hill’s focus was on the surface, not always on the ideas that the writing conveyed. Years later, rhetoric scholar Sharon Crowley took aim at Hill’s view on rhetoric by saying his stance and the Harvard written exam served no purpose other than alienating English speakers from their written language by creating an exam that is extremely difficult to pass with the only goal being to create more classes that could then attempt to pick up the pieces of the destruction of rhetoric left in its wake. While I do not necessarily completely agree with Crowley or with Hill, in the 21st century, educators and students alike are still feeling the aftermath of these past ways of thinking.
On this fine Friday, I hope that you learned all that you never knew you wanted to learn about rhetoric and the teaching of writing in 19th century America. It was a time defined by firm characteristics of the past, as well as unsound philosophies of its present. The result was a cookie-cutter way of writing that this country is still in the process of breaking the mold from. That being said, it is important to understand history so that we can learn from it. Without having known about rhetoric and teaching writing in the 19th century, I would not have had a definite guide of what I do and don’t want my students’ rhetoric and my teaching of writing to look like a few years from now. So in that case, thank you to all those 117+ year olds who defined writing as they knew it so that we could eventually keep making it better. I have now shared all that I know to be true in this super niche post, just for you. 😉