In my continuing research for my dissertation, I came across the first issue of The English Journal (1912) – publication information at the end of this post. Let me say that first, it’s fascinating to read articles and essays from over a hundred years ago; and second, it’s disturbing to learn that the issues teachers and professors were going through then are exactly the same (with a few minor details changed) today!
Haven’t we learned anything?
By 1895, the subject of educational values was ubiquitous in academia. You might ask why this was important. Well, before the mass influx of immigrants and the massive increase in America’s workforce, the idea of education was for those who didn’t have to work for a living. Yet by the turn of the 19th century, there was a growing need for literate workers, not only in professional fields but in ALL fields. The need to convey thoughts in a concise and clear way was crucial if businesses expected to thrive.
The Dial, a literary journal founded in 1890, recognized that the tide was turning, claiming that “the very fact that educational values [were] being everywhere earnestly discussed [was] itself of the highest significance” (229). And yet, as late as 1910, despite the ever-increasing demand for a literate workforce, scholars worried about the implications of an educated society. They wondered who would do the “rough work” (American Educational Review XXXI 4). At this point in time, college was a relatively new concept for the middle classes, and parents would often send their kids to college if they were perceived as being lazy.
By the early twentieth century, however, educators knew that they had to dispel this myth and sell “college” to the masses in order to prepare the next generation for the demands of science and technology: “By turning to the rhetorical texts of Scottish theologian George Campbell during the American Revolution, then to those of the Presbyterian author Hugh Blair and British theologian and political philosopher Richard Whately, educators at universities such as Harvard could instill a frame of reference in students that urged them to see language as a vehicle for action” (Elliot 2). This brings to mind writing for a purpose, not just for the sake of writing. Over a hundred years ago, the specific needs of a culture demanded a certain kind of writing – much of it technical and all of it concise and correct – and if we examine civilization throughout the 20th century and into the 2000’s, we will see that shifts in belief systems, work ethic, economics, and technology regularly called for a constantly evolving method of communication, writing, and of course writing assessment. And yet, our systems of standardized testing, especially on high-stakes tests, have changed very little in the past 65 years. Why is this?
As the teaching of composition became increasingly important in the early twentieth century, the problems that arose grew as well. Teaching writing was difficult in an age of uneducated students who came from a myriad of backgrounds and cultures. Adding to the problems were professors who were overworked, under qualified and underpaid. In 1912, the very first issue of English Journal discusses the problems inherent in teaching composition. In his essay titled “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?” Edwin M. Hopkins, from the University of Kansas, answered his own question and claimed that it could not:
“A single statement will explain the fundamental trouble. Not very many years ago, when effort was made to apply the principle that pupils should learn to write by writing, English composition, previously known as rhetoric, became ostensibly a laboratory subject, but without any material addition to the personnel of its teaching force; there was merely a gratuitous increase in the labor of teachers who were already doing full duty” (xviii).
It’s amazing to note that over a hundred years ago, teachers of composition were lamenting their situation, which was the same then as it is now, and begging for improvements. One of the primary problems with teaching composition in the early 20th century was the uneven ratio between composition students and teachers. Because there were so many new students learning how to read and write and so few composition teachers, those teachers were overworked, tired, underpaid, and frustrated. Hopkins also noted that although the need for composition classes had in fact skyrocketed, the hiring of new teachers to fill that need had not occurred, leaving the already overbooked literature teachers struggling to take on a second job. To make matters worse, in most instances all other teachers in different departments were well funded and were able to actually go home when the day was done, whereas composition teachers were expected to grade papers 24/7. The inequities of teaching composition led of course to the failure of students to adequately write, and thus the need for change grew. It is no wonder that the United States began to search for standardized assessments that wouldn’t kill teachers and that would also – in at least a superficial way – measure students’ writing ability.
Today, students are pressured to achieve so much more than even 20 years ago. I mean, just getting accepted into UGA now is highly competitive, when in the 1990′s it was “state school” and pretty much a sure thing if you were able to follow directions and pass your high school classes. Now, students have to rank at the top of their class, take multiple AP courses, be leaders in clubs, and contribute to their community through extra service. Wow! No wonder we can see evidence of high blood pressure and anxiety in students now more than ever before. My son’s stressed out and he’s 11. That’s NOT acceptable.
What do you think? Do you have a child in school or are you going through it now? I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Hopkins, Edwin M. “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?” The English Journal 1.1 (1912): 1-8. JSTOR. Web. 30 Jan. 2014.