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The Formation of College English

The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces

Thomas P. Miller
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    The Formation of College English
    Book Description:

    In the middle of the eighteenth century, English literature, composition, and rhetoric were introduced almost simultaneously into colleges throughout the British cultural provinces. Professorships of rhetoric and belles lettres were established just as print was reaching a growing reading public and efforts were being made to standardize educated taste and usage. The provinces saw English studies as a means to upward social mobility through cultural assimilation. In the educational centers of England, however, the introduction of English represented a literacy crisis brought on by provincial institutions that had failed to maintain classical texts and learned languages.

    Today, as rhetoric and composition have become reestablished in the humanities in American colleges, English studies are being broadly transformed by cultural studies, community literacies, and political controversies. Once again, English departments that are primarily departments of literature see these basic writing courses as a sign of a literacy crisis that is undermining the classics of literature.The Formation of College Englishreexamines the civic concerns of rhetoric and the politics that have shaped and continue to shape college English.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-9050-5
    Subjects: Education, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction The Teaching of English in the British Cultural Provinces
    (pp. 1-29)

    In the middle of the eighteenth century, the first professorships were founded to teach composition, rhetoric, and literature in English at the same time the first concerted efforts were being made to establish standards for English usage and taste. Over four hundred editions of English grammars and some two hundred and fifteen editions of English dictionaries were published in the eighteenth century, with five times more new dictionaries and grammars appearing after 1750 than had been published in the first half of the century (see Alston; Tompson, “English and English Education”). As the reading public expanded to include broader classes...

  2. 1 The Expansion of the Reading Public, the Standardization of Educated Taste and Usage, and the Essay as Blurred Genre
    (pp. 30-61)

    Early in the eighteenth century, neoclassical writers like Dryden and Swift complained that English was a language without a grammar, but by the end of the century no one could complain about a shortage of English grammars. While only two had been published in the sixteenth century and seventeen in the seventeenth century, thirty-five were published in the first half of the eighteenth century, with over five times more in the latter half of the century.¹ These works formalized the conventions of educated usage and established “the unity of the reigning conversational and literary language, ‘correct language.’” With the publication...

  3. 2 The Antiquarianism of the English Universities
    (pp. 62-85)

    The eighteenth century has long been noted as one of the most decadent eras in the history of Oxford and Cambridge. Classicism had become mere antiquarianism.¹ Aristotelianism continued to define both what was studied and how it was taught, with the emphasis on syllogistic disputations paralleled by a Ciceronian rhetoric more concerned with stylistic elaborations of commonplaces than with Cicero’s civic ideals. These highly formalized modes of reasoning and expression were transmitted through an uncritical method of instruction that worked to prevent their being called into question against the contemporary experience. This moribund classicism apparently suited the narrow student population....

  4. 3 Liberal Education in the Dissenting Academies
    (pp. 86-116)

    After being dislocated from the English universities by the imposition of religious tests in 1662, the dissenters reformed liberal education according to their understanding of an enlightened age. They taught the “natural laws” of science, politics, and history, and they took a more critical and less didactic approach to received traditions. In the comparative method of instruction, conflicting views of controversial issues were presented, and then students researched and composed essays arguing their positions. This method was consistent with the dissenters’ belief that free inquiry would advance political reform and economic and moral improvement. The dissenting academy tradition provides some...

  5. 4 The King’s English and the Classical Tradition in Ireland
    (pp. 117-143)

    In the dissenting academies English studies served the utilitarian needs of the middle classes, but in Ireland the teaching of English was part of the colonial project of suppressing the indigenous language, culture, and religion. Irish Catholics had paid the price for defending an English king at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. For supporting James II, many of the Catholic gentry who had survived Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland were dispossessed. In 1695 Catholic schools were outlawed, and restrictions were imposed on Catholics’ abilities to buy or inherit land, with any son able to convert and claim all of a...

  6. 5 English Studies Enter the University Curriculum in Scotland
    (pp. 144-177)

    While the dissenters were the first to teach English to college students, the Scots were the first to introduce formal studies of English literature, composition, and rhetoric into the university curriculum. The first university professors to teach English were often rhetoricians, and the translation of rhetoric into English transformed its traditional relations with the ethical and political concerns of moral philosophy. At the same time that rhetoricians began to teach English, moral philosophers started to lecture on modern economics, social relations, and cultural morés. The introduction of the modern culture marks the juncture where moral philosophy began to evolve toward...

  7. 6 Adam Smith and the Rhetoric of a Commercial Society
    (pp. 178-204)

    Moral philosophy was the field of study where “philosophic theories of knowledge” appealed to the logic of the individual experience to formalize the “sciences” of psychology and political economy, with both assuming the vantage point of the autonomous individual that they had themselves established as their “scientific foundation.” In the age of science, rhetoric was left with little to do but manage the flow of information between isolated individuals and help them refine their private tastes. Before they began speaking as social scientists, moral philosophers often played the role of popular moralists, preaching and teaching the values of the educated...

  8. 7 Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric and the “Science of Man”
    (pp. 205-226)

    The introduction to Hume’sTreatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects(1739–1740) set out his project to conquer “human nature itself” and use it as a base for new systems of “Logic, Morals, Criticism and Politics” (43). In the introduction toAn Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding(1751), Hume explicitly distinguished his approach to “moral philosophy or the science of human nature” from those that treat “man chiefly as born for action” and enlist the arts of “poetry and eloquence” in moving audiences with scenes drawn from “common life” (15–...

  9. 8 Hugh Blair and the Rhetoric of Belles Lettres
    (pp. 227-252)

    Scientism had the most influence on the formation of college English through Campbell’s effort to define the “new” rhetoric according to the “science of human nature,” but it was Blair who instituted the emphasis on belletristic criticism that would characterize college English studies. Campbell’sPhilosophy of Rhetoric(1776) went through twenty-one editions through the next century, while Blair’sLectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres(1783) went through over five times that many (Golden and Corbett 140). Like Turnbull, Reid, and other advocates of the “science of man” at Aberdeen, Campbell wrote a systematic treatise that did not adopt the appealing...

  10. 9 “‘Rhetoric’ in Modern Times Really Means ‘Criticism’”
    (pp. 253-276)

    My account of the introduction of college English studies in Britain concludes where most histories begin, with the establishment of the first professorships of English literature. The first was established with the founding of the London University in 1828, and then in the 1860s, a century after English first entered the university curriculum, professorships were created in Scotland and America, and finally even at Oxford and Cambridge in the last decade of the century. One of those professors at Edinburgh, George Saintsbury, looked back to the founder of his professorship, Hugh Blair, and praised him for “accepting to the full...

  11. Conclusion Is the History of Classics a Model for the Future of English Departments?
    (pp. 277-290)

    The departure from classicism that shaped the formation of college English may seem rather quaint today, for ancient languages are now the business of small departments at the periphery of the curriculum—a stark contrast with less than a century ago, when classical languages and literature dominated the centers of higher education. The literacy crisis that culminated in the delatinization of higher education can be dated from the introduction of English in the eighteenth-century British cultural provinces. The history of classics should be a powerful historical example for those who have defined English departments as departments of literary classics. In...