and the Market

by James Ray Watkins

[Author’s Note: This is a largely unedited version of the second chapter of A Taste for Language: Class, the Teaching of Composition and Literature, and the Modernist English Department in the American Century, currently under consideration at Southern Illinois Press’ Studies in Writing and Rhetoric series, edited by Robert Brooke.  In TFL I use artifacts from my father’s education, as well as samples of the writing he did as a CPA in Texas, to argue that class, rather than national identity, has been the crucial factor in shaping the discipline we now often call English Studies.  In this chapter, I focus on a close reading of my father’s college composition textbook, The Unified College Composition, drawing on a variety of writers’ work, particularly James Berlin, Pierre Bourdieu, and Clyde W. Barrow.  I chose this chapter for Agora because I believe the issues it raises—the meaning of grammar, progressive education and our meritocracy, corporate influence on the university and accountability—will be familiar to anyone employed at EIU or, indeed, at any US university.  The early years of this century, like the start of the last, witnessed increased calls for administrative efficiency and a back to basics approach to education. Then, as now, many felt that students were entering college unprepared and worried about the rising cost of tuition and books.  At the same time, this text touches on less familiar themes, particularly the relationships among socioeconomic class, marketplace ideologies, and writing pedagogy, which I feel deserve increased attention.  What is the purpose of an education in English Language and Literature, and how can we best serve our students’ desires for upward mobility without abandoning our intellectual and aesthetic ideals? —JRW]


Unsightly and slovenly papers on the whole are like people with dirty necks and uncombed hair.  No person of good taste and intelligence would appear in public without having given attention to his appearance.  But a person’s writing is certainly as important as his outward appearance.  It is a part of him, is an ambassador which appears for him when he is absent….
               —The Unified English Composition, 1948

rederick S. Crofts, the publisher of my father’s college textbook, Unified English Composition, began his career in publishing as a sales representative at The Century Company just after the turn of the century, and was promoted to manager of its educational department by 1910.  In 1919, he moved to Harper’s, where he specialized in educational textbooks.  In the mid 1920s he founded F.S. Crofts and Co., which by the Second World War had grown into one of the largest academic publishers in the United States.  In the early 1940s, Crofts spoke at the annual Bowker Lectures on Book Publishing, sponsored by the New York Public Library. His speech, “Textbooks Are Not Absolutely Dead Things,” was published in 1943 as part of that organization’s Typophile Chapbook Series (79-104) edited by Frederick G. Melcher. In a brief introduction, Crofts is described by the editors as “known and respected on every college and university campus across the country…  Crofts’ books, always particularly well designed, now include 500 titles covering every field of college study” (78).

In his speech, Crofts argues that the expansion of the university and the resulting intensified competition among publishers has changed the industry in fundamental ways, encouraging publishers to focus on the presentation of their product, at times at the expense of its content.  “In the formal educational period of most of us,” Crofts says, “there was little or no attempt made by authors or publishers to appeal ... to the emotions and ... the aesthetic tastes of the reader.” Crofts’ talk illustrates these changes demographically:

At that time [the early part of the century] there were less than 350,000 college students (today the number exceeds 1,300,000).  A publisher’s salesman of that day, when visiting a college, would be greeted with the statement that he was the first representative who had called in many months.  In contrast today, fifteen or more are not infrequently found on one campus in a single day (81)

Crofts notes that this period saw the creation of the first publishing departments dedicated to the acquisition and marketing of college textbooks (81).  More importantly, Crofts issues a warning about a trend towards “subjective” treatments of knowledge, especially in sociological textbooks. Crofts describes this shift in terms of a move away from “the traditional weighing of evidence without personal bias to a subjective treatment generally towards the liberal and, not infrequently, the extreme left” (89). The publisher’s task, Crofts believes, is to balance market sensitivity with attention to quality, which he associates with attractive but not overwhelming packaging on the one hand, and with an objective treatment of the subject matter on the other.  For Crofts, objectivity is outside of politics, neither left nor right, and the appeal to “emotion” represented by more attractive packaging are simply a matter of creating a more effective appeal in the market.

As a publisher, then, Croft is himself concerned with the relationship between ethos and aesthetics, apprehensive that the latter will overcome the former.  Crofts’ formulation of the proper place of the popular ethos, as well as his suspicion of aesthetics and persuasion, also shapes the pedagogy he advocates.  What’s more, any discourse that formulates this relationship differently is by definition ethically suspect. In an era crossing both war and economic depression, any non-objective treatment of content seemingly tends towards the left, and by implication represents a threat to the system of property on which the market rests. Crofts stresses that attractive packaging is important, and that academic trends may come and go, but objective standards are a “duty [that] cannot be escaped.” While he laments the “subjective” bias of these newer texts, Crofts’ worries are allayed by his belief that market influences have created a conservative inertia in college textbooks that resists intellectual fashion. In addition, while the market shapes textbooks, the textbook publishers must also shape the market, insofar as they can resist this “subjective” bias.  “Popular reading tastes influenced the trade,” Donald Sheehan wrote in 1952, “as much as the trade influenced popular reading tastes” (22). 

Crofts’ sense of the duty of the publisher recalls James Berlin’s description of the “objectivist rhetoric,” that underwrote what he terms “the most pervasive of objective rhetorics in the last hundred years and… the dominant rhetoric overall” (Rhetoric 9).  Berlin believes this epistemology of language rests on the naïve scientific faith that the “economical and political interests of the new professional middle-class were... inherent features of the universe” (Rhetoric 37).   Even more, Berlin writes,

Since all truth was considered to be external to the individual, to be discovered through correct perception, the doctors or lawyers or engineers or business managers ... felt that they were surely correct in discovering that economic and political arrangements that benefited them were indeed in the nature of things (Rhetoric 37)

For Berlin, objectivity, in the form embodied in composition textbooks, was as much a matter of scientific method as of political and social self-justification.  As a professional himself and a “trained observer,” Crofts “sees” in the market a demand for textbooks whose assumptions reproduce a belief in the necessity and validity of his own class position.  The professional textbook publisher produces textbooks that reiterate the objective validity of the social status of professionals, and Crofts’ “duty,” put bluntly, is to the reproduction and maintenance of his own class.  What Crofts’ speech illustrates, moreover, is a powerful concordance between an objectivist pedagogy of writing and an astute marketing sense. 

At about the same time that Crofts was publishing his textbooks, universities in the United States underwent an extensive, if not often noted institutional transformation, led by educational foundations and supported by the federal government.  These reforms, as Clyde W. Barrows has shown, were achieved in a political climate in which pressures for increasing access warred with concern about costs and the aims of higher education more generally:

Public college administrators and state legislatures were subjected to conflicting demands for the expansion of public higher educational opportunities and a hostile reaction to its costs. For instance, Samuel Gompers, in speaking for the AFL, called for “universal higher education” and at the same time, suggested that “the vast majority would profit far more by some other kind of education than that given in the traditional American college” (96).

The result of these “progressive campaigns for greater economy and accountability,” Barrows writes, was that “colleges and universities became susceptible to the same kinds of judgments about their “value” as any other institution” (97).  And, Barrow says,

The rise of the corporate ideal as a public image of the university was a significant ideological victory for business.  It not only displaced traditional metaphors and myths with a new one, but structured debate under the leadership of business expertise (97)

Universities, like business, had to justify their work through a system of accountability judged by corporate standards:

The progressive emphasis on the role of the expert meant that once educational questions were reformulated as problems of business organization and the investment of public capital, then presumably experienced businessmen—and not farmers, workers, students, or the general public—could rightly claim to be the experts. This created a scenario… in which not only did appointing businessmen to boards of trustees or educational reform commissions seem legitimate, but in which doing the contrary would seem like mere “politics” instead of good public administration (97) 

Barrow illustrates in detail how the managerial expertise presumed necessary was developed by “corporate intellectuals” and funded through organizations such as the Carnegie foundation. The end result of these reforms included an administrative cadre more distant both from academic concerns and from standardized methods of measuring institutional efficacy.  Importantly, for the purposes of my analysis, Barrows also shows how Crofts’ marketing strategies, as well as his pedagogy, found such sympathetic ears in education.

Writing of these “corporate reformers” Barrow also notes:

By linking the availability of increased financial resources for higher education to the adaptation of a corporate reform program, the foundations could use material pressures to reinforce the appeal of their proposed policy.  They could, to quote Marx, represent their class interest “as the common interest of all society,” and thereby plausibly claim that their ideas were “the only rational, universally valid ones”(75) 
Similarly, publishers such as Crofts, drawing on the financial resources newly made available to universities, reinforced the foundations’ goals and rhetoric through a marketing and educational ideology that, perhaps not surprisingly, relied on the progressive ideals of neutral objectivity.

Crofts “sees” in the market a demand for textbooks whose assumptions reproduce a belief in the necessity and validity of his own class position.

The high status of the research institutions
encouraged the propagation of these ideas throughout the higher education system, a process reinforced by what John Hagge calls “scientific optimism.” Seeking to eliminate what were thought to  be inefficient institutions, organizations such as the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board promoted a distinction between the university and the college, “on the basis of graduate research and professional training leading to a post-baccalaureate degree”(84). This rationalization, of course, makes Crofts’ task all the easier.

The subsequent rapid increases in the demand for education and the perennial lack of adequate public funding—then, as now—further reinforced the foundations’ power to effect change.  In effect, objectivity as an educational philosophy is imposed not simply as a pedagogical necessity, given the increase in what were thought to be ill-prepared students, but also as a political project consistent across different sectors of the professional middle classes.  “Presidents [of universities] with populist loyalties,” Barrows writes, “or those who too strongly defended the claims of faculty members against governing boards, littered the decade of the 1890s” (78).

In this context, Berlin’s description of the pedagogical aims of  “objectivist rhetoric” is worth quoting at length:

Since language is arbitrary and enters into meaning only after the truth is discovered, the writer must take pains that language not distort ... Since it is to reproduce in the reader the experiences of the original observer, it must possess energy and vivacity.  Finally, since language is to demonstrate the individual’s qualifications as a reputable observer ... it must conform to certain standards of usage, thereby demonstrating the appropriate class affiliation (Rhetoric 9)

Language is a problem if used incorrectly, and the technicalities of grammar and syntax are taught in hopes of avoiding an inaccurate reproduction of the author’s originating perception. Moreover, the ability to spell correctly, to be precise yet vivid and so to faithfully reproduce pre-existing knowledge, is itself evidence of an educated, middle-class sensibility.  One aim of the UEC, then, is the reproduction and maintenance of the class that profits most by its success, both economically and culturally; epistemology shapes the market as much as the textbook.

The UEC opens with an “Orientation,” in which students are given the fundamentals of college writing, beginning with the “Form and Appearance” of the manuscript, and ending with a section on reading. The next four sections—Grammar, The Word, The Sentence, and The Paragraph—introduce students to an analytic approach to language, and work up to increasing levels of linguistic complexity.  “The Whole Composition,” next focuses on what Berlin calls the “modes of discourse,” which included chapters on Exposition, The Research Paper, The Feature Article, Biography, The Book Review, The Informal Essay,

The writer does not invent or design meaning, he or she transmits it.
If you come to see that learning to use your language correctly, effectively, and beautifully is important to you,  you will face the drudgery and labor which in some part such a course entails. 
Description, Narrative, and The Letter.  Each section emphasizes exposition, and persuasion is considered suspect, at the least. Discussing the difficulties of understanding the intended meaning of abstract words, for example, the authors polemicize against behavior unbecoming to a professional.  “Professional publicity writers and propaganda experts,” the UEC cautions readers, “find it easy to influence the opinions and arouse the emotions of those who are not aware of the dangers [of] abstract terminology” (22).  Words that refer directly to things in nature, or to simple experience with nature, are the least likely to be misunderstood and so the least litigious choice. Thus, “a chair is a piece of furniture, usually with four legs, designed to be sat in; we would all agree with that” (22). Persuasion is associated with the tribulations of miscommunication and subjectivity, if not the willful abuse of discursive power, and exposition with consensual understanding and objectivity.

The chapter on exposition offers an ethos of writing arising out of the assumed common experiences of educated professionals:

At every turn an educated person is called on to define, to explain, or to interpret something.  Even if he would, he cannot escape answering such questions as: How is that made?  What is such and such a thing or term?  What are the facts about something?  What are the aims of this book or that organization?  (271)

Educated people must learn to write, in other words, because, once you know the answer you cannot help but try to communicate this knowledge.  As Crofts might say, it is a duty that cannot be escaped.  This knowledge imposes an ethical obligation, in that it is wrong to withhold your expertise.  The necessity of exposition is underlined in the introduction to the Research paper:

A glance at professional journals in the library or on the desks of such people as physicians, lawyers, teachers and engineers, will show that the research paper is not merely a contrivance to plague undergraduates.  It is the standard method of communication in any field of activity where the organizing of accurate information is important (457)

Imagine, the authors imply, a doctor who sloppily researches the possible medical remedies for your affliction, or an engineer who skips over the arduous chores of calculating metal fatigue.

The popular aesthetic or ethos, as Bourdieu says, is rooted in both moral obligation and necessity, and extends even into what might be seen as the subjective realm of biography. In the words of the UEC:

One means to success is the ability to see people as they really are, to judge their words, and to determine how much confidence can be placed in them.  Only after years of careful observation of human nature can this ability be acquired, but one can be assisted in the effort by a study of biographical sketches of different kinds (540)

Exposition is at the heart of the enterprise of learning to write in college and of the student’s professional and moral obligations, because concise communication is the purpose of knowledge as such.  Once you know, you have an obligation to tell.  We learn not in order to persuade but in order to understand.  To paraphrase Marx, the purpose of composition is to describe the world, not to change it.

This emphasis on understanding (and explication) over persuasion (and argumentation) is important because whereas persuasion implies a degree of individual bias, understanding reinforces the ideal of an objective reality captured in language. Discovery, as Berlin notes in Rhetoric and Reality, is essential: meaning is found and then expressed, not created in process (6-8).  The writer does not invent or design meaning, he or she transmits it, and the expression of this truth is the central problem of the student as professional-to-be. The UEC contends that, “A body of knowledge is never brought to its most concise and valuable form until it is transmitted into writing” (3).  Thus, the UEC authors argue, even if you come to school fluent in English, precise grammatical knowledge is crucial:

Even the person who has always heard perfect grammar from those with whom he has associated, and who can usually distinguish a correct from an incorrect form merely by deciding what sounds right, needs to learn grammar.  For all of us, the study of grammar, the systematic description of the ways of the English language, is necessary before we can be sure that what we speak or write is correct.  “Grammar … is a set of tools for shaping one’s language into a correct and logically sound medium of expression” (50).

Intuition is not enough, any more than it is for the scientist who must do more than simply sense that something is true.  Science must provide evidence that can be shared. Effective exposition based on objective standards can itself do the work of persuasion; scientists know because they have seen the facts.  Grammar, arising out of the scientific study of the ways of the English language, provides objective proof of the propriety of Standard English.  Science has demonstrated the importance of learning to write in college, the authors argue, and investigation after investigation, each carried on with scientific objectivity, proves the truth of it (10).

As in any profession, the writer must undergo a difficult apprenticeship, learning the value of hard work, efficiency, and dedication:

If you come to see that learning to use your language correctly, effectively, and beautifully is important to you, you will face the drudgery and labor which in some part such a course entails.  If you make the course [in Freshman English] what it is intended to be—a foundation for all your work—you will find that it will do you service during all your years as a student and afterwards as long as you live (5)

The order of the list of adjectives expresses the hierarchy of values: one aims to write correctly and thus beautifully.  In addition, effective writing requires the widest familiarity with the available tools of the trade, as it were, and so vocabulary is indispensable.  The authors quote Johnson O’Connor, on the efficacy of the acquisition of a wide vocabulary:

An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success more often that any other single characteristic which the Human Engineering Laboratories have been able to isolate and measure.  The balance of the evidence at the moment suggests that such a consciously, even laboriously, achieved vocabulary is an active asset (2). 

Again, it is science, here of Human Engineering, which warrants this ideology of language acquisition, and so justifies the work of learning vocabulary.  Science, in turn, as I have argued, is itself warranted by the ideals of merit in a democratic society.

A rhetoric of persuasion, in contrast, must recognize that language is always at least potentially guided by subjective bias, and that meaning is co-created in a complex interaction between writer, audience, and text.  In Rhetoric and Reality, Berlin calls this view a transactional theory of language.  Berlin argues that, while non-objective rhetorics have always been present in composition theory, they did not reach a position of real influence until well after the 1940s. 

The three major forms of the transactional rhetoric in the twentieth-century writing class have been the classical, the cognitive, and the epistemic.  The classical, seen early in the century … underwent a renaissance in the fifties and sixties.  The cognitive did not appear until the sixties and seventies …  The epistemic got a start in the first two decades of the century, reappeared in attenuated form in the thirties, and then came into its own in the seventies and eighties … (15).

An objective rhetoric, however, rationalizes communication as a more or less simple matter of understanding what tools are available, which are necessary given the task at hand, and then employing them to accomplish factual communication. If students are defined as co-producers of meaning, an entire array of complexity arises, not least of which is the formal properties of language.  As professionals in the making, however, who must locate and employ objective knowledge, the task is simpler if no less arduous, and the student can remain a fundamentally passive recipient—and transmitter-to-be—of received knowledge.

The knowledge represented by the UEC can be described as a hyper-rationalized model of the English language. The extensive use of lists, rules and schematics reinforces the conflation of fluency and professional expertise.  Grammar is relentlessly divided and then subdivided again, in what seems an infinite series.  The sections describing nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and infinitives all include instructions for diagramming.  Words are broken down into three main categories of meaning (not exclusive of prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections). Usage has six levels (The Common, Literary, Technical, Colloquial, Slang, and Illiteracy).  Prose discourse has four forms, again, perhaps in order of importance
A rhetoric of persuasion must recognize that meaning is co-created in a complex interaction between writer, audience, and text.
(exposition, argumentation, description, and narration). Essay types include formal and informal; biography entails character and biographical sketches, as well as autobiography; letters include friendly letters and formal notes (and formal notes are divided into Business, Claim Letters and the Letter of Application). The UEC offers a plethora of lists and rules, the latter presumably to be memorized. These include, among others, Suggestions for Writing (128, 187, 292, 643) and for Research Papers (484); Rules Governing Prefixes (142), Suffixes (143), and the Spelling of the Plurals of Nouns (143); a List of Spelling Words (144); a Glossary of Trite Phrases to be Avoided (172), and a Glossary of Faulty Usage (175); a List of Common Abbreviations (483); and Fifty ideas for Newspaper Features (508).  The lists, of course, are a part of the rhetoric of expertise and objectivity, a knowledge too exhaustive, if not exhausting, to be acquired by the amateur.

The notion of hard work implicit in the rationalization of language plays an important ideological role in the UEC’s description of the work of learning to write.  In a meritocracy social status is just insofar as it is earned.  The harder you work, the more you earn, and an investment of time and effort into the accumulation of cultural capital yields the profits of increased status. The laborious work of language requires, too, that the UEC offer frequent warnings about the necessity for vigilance; improper grammar can have disastrous personal, professional, social, and even economic effects.  Many definition problems, the writers explain, can be resolved with a dictionary.  As might be expected, the UEC offers advice on buying and using this important tool, advising students that a good dictionary is one that is written accurately and scientifically (130).  In the end, however, the meaning of words is arbitrary, even if assigned through a variety of objectively valid historical and social processes, rather than by individual decision or whim. This is a particularly acute problem with abstract terminology:

If someone disagrees with us as to what hospitality means, or has never heard of the word and wants to know about it, we cannot go and point to hospitality and say, ’This is what we mean.”  Since we cannot refer to any concrete experience to check out the meaning of … [abstract] words, but are dependant on a kind of gentleman’s agreement concerning them, they are the source of much grief (21-22; italics in original).

This gentleman’s agreement on the meaning of words extends to the choices of specific terms—decisions which the UEC argues depend especially on social circumstances—and demands a precise understanding of slight nuances of meaning.

Here the authors discuss the coloration of synonyms of the word walk, emphasizing that nuance reflects precision:

In choosing a synonym … one can choose from plod, trudge, tread, stride, saunter, meander, hike, tramp, stroll, march, ramble, prowl, hobble, and sneak.  Looking over this list, one realizes how general is the meaning of walk, and much care must be taken in selecting a suitable synonym.  Some of the words suggest leisurely movement (saunter, meander, stroll); others, furtive movement (sneak, prowl).  Still others are suggestive of people’s personalities: an effeminate person minces, a military man marches, a conceited individual struts (134)

The meanings of words are based in the gentleman’s agreement of social convention and the assigning of meaning is as logical as the gentleman scholars themselves.  The existence of an objective world—measured, defined, expressed—means that mistakes, misrepresentations of fact, are possible.  Language, in short, is a human institution (unlike the objective world), and like all human institutions is subject to errors that the student, and the professional, must avoid.  There is, in short, an objective world out there, and the struggle for an accurate representation of it is central to the human enterprise. 

If the popular ethos dominates the UEC in every way, the beautiful nevertheless has its place. The beautiful, or what might be more accurately called the non-useful, is associated not simply with the formalist aesthetics of style, but with social, non-quantifiable knowledge generally.  As with Crofts, aesthetics is held under a kind of suspicion closely related to an overly subjective epistemology. The study of rhetoric, the authors contend, while grounded in the necessity for precision and efficiency in communication, also embraces what I have called the genteel tradition, of the educated middle-class:

Practicing engineers, for example, are increasingly demanding that the engineering college provide more and better training in English, even at the expense of technical training.  President Day of Cornell University, in addressing the engineering body of this institution, made the following statement: “I should like to see them masters of the mother tongue, understanding the nature of human relationships, aware of what is going on in the social world, and sensitive to their cultural heritage.”  He has expressed the feelings of countless leaders of prominence and foresight (4)

Again, the mastery of the mother tongue, must come before both specialized technical knowledge, and the students’ understanding of human relationships, the social world, and their cultural heritage.  The useful is the foundation on which the beautiful—the non-useful, but still unavoidable—is constructed.

The UEC’s lists, schematics, and rules provide a framework into which the authors have inserted a variety of texts that serve to illustrate and to reinforce the social and linguistic values of a prescriptive grammar. Each text is introduced briefly in the context of the lesson under discussion, and many are followed by exercises. The section on verbals is illustrated with the essay Some Participles I Have Met, by Eugene S. McCarthy, and concludes with a series of seven Suggestions for Study (123).  Although some belles lettres selections are included (Twain, Macaulay, De Maupassant, and the like), the texts are said to be chosen primarily for their professional relevance:

No effort has been made to select purple patches or to represent only the best that has been written.  Many selections are from contemporary periodicals, and are the sort of writing which students may well hope to equal in their own work.  We are not among those, however, who believe nothing old is good; hence we have tried to make a judicious selection from the older writers as well as contemporary ones (v).

The purple patches of (literary) prose are to be avoided both because they represent texts or desires with other than expository purposes, and because they are unrelated to the narrowly defined goals of professional education.  In addition, as elsewhere, the standards of students’ writing are defined in terms of objective processes of validation; the order of adjectives suggests the hierarchy of values:

Few who study freshman composition will ever be professional writers; hence such a course does not aim primarily at training students to become creative artists, but to use their language effectively in the ordinary affairs of life … The rules and practices employed in all forms of writing are not the result of some individual’s idiosyncrasies, but have been accepted for reasons of logic, convenience, common sense, or good taste (5)

Interestingly, creativity is equated with the professionalization of writing, and with a level of craft that the student is unlikely to find necessary or to achieve.  This too, reflects a curriculum in which writing in particular, and communication in American English generally, comes first and more often than literary studies.  Here, as elsewhere, the progressive emphasis on professional expertise, defined as an ethos rather than an aesthetic, takes precedence.

This is not to say, however, that the UEC completely ignores issues of style, or the necessity of understanding your audience:

The research paper need not be dry as dust, a dull mosaic of quotations.  If the student is interested in the topic which is chosen, there is no reason why he should not write as entertainingly as he does in any other assignment (457)

As Berlin notes, current-traditionalist rhetorics recognize that objective knowledge, if presented in the wrong way, can lose its audience to boredom.  Crofts too, emphasized the importance of aesthetics, properly contained, in marketing his textbook. Writing can best reach its audience if it reflects the writer’s original engagement through drawing on emotions associated with a pleasurable activity.  Interest, moreover, is closely associated with efficiency and with social propriety.  In a selection titled “Dr. Johnson on Tediousness,” James Boswell tells the story of Johnson’s reaction to an overly long narrative whose simple point was that “the Counsel upon Shrewsbury were much bitten by fleas” (661).

Johnson sat in great impatience till the gentleman had finished his tedious narrative, and then burst out (playfully, however), “It is a pity, Sir, that you have not seen a lion; for a flea has taken you such a time, that a lion must have served you a twelvemonth.” (662).

The counsel could have more simply and efficiently communicated his point; his slip undermines the transmission of fact, which ought to be his goal, and distorts the importance of his message, reflecting poorly on his character and status.

In every way, then, the UEC embodies the genteel traditions of the American professional middle-class, stressing Lynn Z. Bloom’s baker’s dozen of social values (self-reliance, responsibility; respectability; decorum, propriety; moderation and temperance; thrift; efficiency; order; cleanliness; punctuality; delayed gratification; and critical thinking).  In the UEC’s representation of the struggle for cultural nobility, the useful would contain the beautiful; the authors assume, of course, that this struggle has already been won.  As Crofts suggests, this containment of beauty is at the same time an encasement of what were thought to be dangerously subjective political aspirations. As an objective rhetoric, the UEC contends that the concise communication of the external world is a moral and ethical

Also in AGORA:

The Unbearable Strangeness of Acronyms: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Electronic Writing Portfolio

by James Ray Watkins

necessity of the educated citizen.  As a form of rationalized learning in a meritocratic system, it emphasizes hard work, reiterating that anyone can earn social status. Finally, it tacitly justifies the unequal distribution of cultural capital.  Yet, as we have seen, it can only provide the common language of professionalism, a set of refined objective standards, which the middle-class is said to share. The UEC says little about a formalist aesthetic or about its efficacy, potential or otherwise, as cultural capital. Here, aesthetics is presented as emblematic of the potential for human excess and associated with a loss of social control, if not error.  Objectivity contains and shapes the whims of individual desire, and of aspirations that seek the dangerous territory beyond necessity.

Crofts’ notions of the market and Berlin’s ideas of the theory of language that underlies a current-traditional rhetoric can each be seen as reinforcing a pedagogy of composition rooted in a self-justifying professional methodology.  Put another way, as professionals each promoted the very forms of cultural capital they had successfully invested in professional occupations. Here, as I have noted, a pragmatic educational philosophy prevailed over a traditional liberal arts approach, and the useful came to encompass the beautiful.  Barrow’s detailed analysis of the “industrialization of the U.S. university” illustrates that this ideological and epistemological formulation would have found a ready audience in the corporate reformers of the day.  Language, in the UEC, is as fundamentally rationalized as the institutions in which it was to be taught. Ironically, of course, both in institutional arrangement and in disciplinary discourse this relationship is turned on its head: literature is the “higher” pursuit, and professors of English are better paid than adjuncts in composition.  Yet, the popular aesthetic, in itself, can provide only the rudimentary means of distinguishing between the kinds of cultural capital that mark significant differences within the middle-class. All professionals are supposed to share a proper grammar, but other forms of cultural capital are distributed unequally, even among the middle class.  This helps to explain why within English departments instruction in those distinctions of what Bourdieu calls the formalist aesthetics was left largely to (later) literary pedagogy.  Freshman composition also served as the opening gambit in the sorting processes that, for example, would eventually produce English majors.  Mastery of its ethos, assessed in every college course, helps shape students’ professional destinies.

In the logic of the traditional curricular sequence, the popular ethos was first refined through composition pedagogy, and then transformed through literary instruction.  The degree of exposure to the latter is determined by success or failure in the former. Not all of the middle class, in other words, in a system of specialized knowledge, shares similar forms of linguistic cultural capital more generally, and the hierarchy of economic capital more or less accurately reflects the hierarchy of cultural capital.  Literature, as many writers have noted, is a more prestigious subject than composition, and professors are better compensated than adjuncts and graduate students.  The study of literature is also more difficult, and so fewer students are likely to be capable of its intellectual rigors. The economic game of class mobility, in fact, entails more than mere technical competence in linguistic cultural capital; it demands an aesthetic sensibility.  In this sense, these narratives of freshman English and composition cannot tell the entire story of the cultural capital of a university education, or of the corresponding system of status gradations and academic values.

The UEC, in Hagge’s terms, is anthropologically complex in that it is linguistically prescriptive and concerned with the preservation—if not creation—of a learned and genteel professional image. [i]   In A Foreword to Students, the authors contend that good writing must prioritize accurate communication, but that what is communicated is not simply thought:

Bad grammar, faulty sentence construction, and incorrect diction are to be avoided because they may hinder precise transmission of thought from one mind to the other, but perhaps even more particularly because they possess a bad connotation.  The college graduate who uses such expressions as I ain’t, he don’t, or I can’t hardly is frowned upon not because he cannot be understood, but simply because educated men and women do not employ such expressions.  To use them makes you as suspect as if you were to wear high yellow shoes to a formal ball (3)

The genteel tradition that would avoid the bad connotations of improper usage is important insofar as it is useful in effective (accurate) communication.  In this sense, a useful grammatical knowledge said to facilitate the precise transmission of thought is given pedagogical dominion over the genteel tradition, which justifies the importance of avoiding bad grammar, faulty sentence construction, and incorrect diction.  The student’s first concern ought to be linguistic propriety, and the social effects necessarily follow.  What is most beautiful socially is what is most useful linguistically: the clear expression of ideas (and of social status) through a proper grammar.  The aesthetic pleasure of a professional report or official letter, as well as its social efficacy, lies in its crisp conveyance of thought and adherence to grammatical propriety.

The foundation of all communication—even of the precise transmission of social status itself—is grammatical accuracy:

No person of good taste and intelligence would appear in public without having given attention to his appearance.  But a person’s writing is certainly as important as his outward appearance.  It is a part of him, is an ambassador which appears for him when he is absent: it should therefore be in appearance what the writer would like to be in appearance himself (11)

In writing, the authors warn, the writer creates a social calling card if not a Döppelganger, and its appearance can reflect badly on its creator. One might consider here the professional and social impact if my father’s professional writing had presented an incoherent or incomplete analysis to the city council.  My father, too, seemed to believe that a vivid account of the powerful social and economic pre-determinations of his childhood was either inappropriate or unnecessary in his letter to the Veteran’s Administration. Again, the writing and the writer are invisible and the facts do the talking.

            Along with the personal and professional costs of bad grammar, the UEC authors contend, grammatical imprecision can have economic effects, illustrated through a characteristically over-literal, if not apocryphal, anecdote:

Errors by those in important positions may be costly.  It is said that a misplaced comma once cost the United States government about $2,000,000.  A clerk inserted a comma instead of a hyphen between the words fruit and plant in the Congressional bill reading, All foreign fruit-plants are free from duty.  Thereby both fruits and plants could enter without duty upon them (3).

Socially, bad grammar and the resulting miscommunication—in ideas or in status—may be embarrassing and awkward, like wearing high yellow shoes at a formal ball, but economically and professionally, they can lead to substantial, that is, to economic disaster. [ii]  Class stability is predicated on the successful acquisition of a proper grammar; it’s no exaggeration to say that my father’s job and his social capital as a professional depended on this investment of time and energy.

The overall structure of the UEC further emphasizes the importance of proper grammar over its social significance as a marker of an educated, middle-class status.  Here, as in Crofts’ description of his marketing strategies, aesthetic considerations must not overwhelm the ethic of objectivity.  An understanding of the genteel tradition of social status is a less important goal in learning, this implies, than technical knowledge as such.  If the latter is mastered, the former will come as a matter of course.  The UEC for example has two major sections, Orientation and Grammar.  The opening chapter of the first section, A Forward to Students, frames the student’s work in terms of the pedagogical aims of the course.  The second chapter, The Manuscript, discusses the basics of academic writing, including detailed instructions for everything from the folding of papers, to legibility, to plagiarism. 

Again, the authors use remarkably over-literal examples, often related to class. Here an analogy with a thieving servant makes their point: “The specific idea of another person … is his property, just as much as a piece of silverware he might own” (10). Ideas are equated with property, and despite the complexities of discourse in an academic community, use of these ideas reduced to theft.  The third chapter, “Reading,” argues for the importance of reading in a course devoted to writing.  Subsections include a description of types of reading, a discussion of reading speeds, and analysis of words, sentences and paragraphs as they relate to comprehension. Yet these initial sections, specifically related to knowledge associated with cultural status, only take up the first 50 of 733 pages (excluding the 126 page appendix of grammatical exercises).  The bulk of the textbook, as the section title “Grammar” indicates, emphasizes the acquisition of technical competence in language.  Individual learning, this implies, not socio-economic class, most decisively shapes linguistic competence.        

Here, Hagge’s “anthropological complexity” reflects a historical transformation of the (educational form of) cultural capital in which the beautiful is collapsed into the useful, the formalist aesthetic into a popular ethos.  The curricular dominance of the genteel tradition, once thought to be best learned on the job (or at home), is now to be the primary focus of composition instruction in school.  Although the UEC includes readings (texts that might be said to represent an effort at educating the student into a genteel tradition), these readings are structurally related back to the grammatical section in which they are placed. The authors explicitly reject Arnold’s famous dictate of the best that has been thought and written, in favor of more pragmatic, that is, professionally (and pedagogically) useful, texts.  Rather than choose a short story from Washington Irving, for example, in the section on Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis, the authors present a selection from The Author’s Account of Himself.  Presumably, students could find parallels between Irving’s education and travels and their own aspirations.  Other selections are even more explicitly related to undergraduate experience, as is the essay “Work Your Way Through College?” by N.E. Steele and R.C. Hutchinson (449).  Perhaps most literary of all in the traditional sense of the term is the section called Description, which includes short selections from Charles Dickens, Thomas Wolfe, O’Henry, and Herman Melville, among others (628).

In the UEC students are asked to study texts—both literary and otherwise—in order to further their understanding of language and grammar, not to study language and grammar in order to more fully understand texts.  Aesthetics is at the service of the useful, and the formal properties of any text are only important insofar as they either do or do not facilitate communication.  Similarly, a fully achieved proper grammar underwrites social status, rather than social status determining what is grammatically proper.  What’s more, the authority of this grammar is scientific, and so said to be independent of any particular individual, economic or social interest.  In this sense the grammatical is closely related to the democratic ideas of the progressive era, which held that anyone who is willing to work hard can succeed, no matter what his or her social status.  The first line of the UEC’s Orientation proclaims its confidence in these ideas in its typically chauvinist style: “Experience and evidence prove that a student with fair intelligence can master any subject in which he takes enough interest” (1).  With fair intelligence and enough interest, cultural capital can be earned rather than inherited. Bourdieu terms the idea that intelligence is no more than a gift of nature an ideology of charisma (Distinction 1).  Here, however, charisma can, at least in part, be earned.

The pedagogy of the UEC is best understood in terms of a running battle between a pragmatic, vocational educational philosophy and one that would accentuate the professional’s genteel image.  This configuration, as Bourdieu suggests, teaches a process of communication… an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code (Distinction 2). “One can say,” Bourdieu concludes, “to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, the code, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception (2).  Grammatically correct language, the UEC suggests, is the program for perception, a code though which we understand and enact writing and social status.  Here “we” refers, however idealistically and provisionally, to every member of the democratic state. As Barrow shows, this same epistemology was deployed in a successful effort to create a corporate model of the university where publishers such as Crofts could successfully market their products.

The pedagogy of the UEC also embodies what Bourdieu terms a definition of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore … the conditions of acquisition of which these dispositions are the product (Distinction 2).  Current-traditional rhetoric, as an objectivist epistemology, became the dominant form of cultural capital represented by composition studies at least partly because it was thought to be consistent with the popular ethos that governs professional discourse.  Progressive reform used a similar ideology of professional expertise and objectivity in order to create a modern, professionally managed educational institution. At the same time, as the UEC suggests, the popular ethos provided the framework on which aesthetic appreciation was built.  Objective rhetorics do not simply dismiss persuasion and aesthetics as irrelevant they suggest that, as subjective art, they are problematic at best, particularly in a professional context.  Students are to use the textbook, the authors of the UEC imply, not to develop their cultural sensitivities (that comes later in the curriculum), but to acquire the linguistic competence necessary (in their view) in middle-class professions. Aesthetics, this implies, plays only a small, dependent role in professional life, whatever its function in the larger society.

In this sense the UEC itself reflects the composition of cultural capital of the English department, a formation in which the popular ethos comes first in sequence, and yet second in status; writing is in this way defined as only the first stage of the inculcation of a habitus.  And, of course, successive stages are also processes of elimination as students pass through successive junctures of evaluation.  Professional writing does not attempt to persuade but to report facts; texts are aesthetically valued, if at all, only because they are objectively accurate.  In this sense, an objective rhetoric has to be understood as a kind of victory against the “genteel tradition” that had long limited access to the cultural capital represented by an education.  At the same time, it was a defeat for composition at the hands of literary professionals. The continuing dominance of this rhetoric reminds us that this is a victory that must be won time and time again; cultural capital can be acquired in the home, but unlike economic capital, it cannot be directly inherited.  Behind the class biases that so often accompany an uncritical approach to writing instruction lie profoundly democratic impulses of making cultural capital widely available. And beneath that ideal lies a pragmatic and arguably successful institutional strategy for dealing with the logistics and costs of rapid expansion.

[i] Hagge’s study is based on textbooks published between 1910 and 1925.  The UEC was first published in 1942, but as I hope will become evident, it represents no radical break in the traditions Hagge discusses.

[ii] The term High Yellow was a colloquialism in the American South for light-skinned mulatto women.  The racial and gender metaphor seems to overlap here with a class bias.  In any case, the metaphor recalls that, in some senses, the UEC was pedagogy of and for the white American male as much as of the middle class.  Clearly, race, gender, as well as class have always played an important ideological role in American society, especially in regards to access to higher education.  I would contend, however, that while racial and gender segregation helps to shape the distribution of cultural capital and the specific content of that capital, the meritocratic, professional ideal as such does not preclude the inclusion of non-white males.  Arguably, even in post-Jim Crow American society, this ideal shapes both the system of higher education generally, and multi-cultural curriculum of many Freshman English courses more specifically.

Works Cited

Barrow, Clyde W. Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of the American Higher Education, 1894-1928. History of American Thought and Culture. Ed. Paul S. Boyer. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Berlin, James A. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth Century American Colleges. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Freshman Composition as a Middle Class Enterprise.” College English 58: 6.October (1996): 654-675.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Nice, Richard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 241-258.

Croft, Frederick S. “Textbooks Are Not Absolutely Dead Things.” Melcher, Frederick G., ed. The Bowker Lecture on Book Publishing, First Series. New York: George Grady Press, 1943

Hagge, John. “The Spurious Paternity of Business Communication.” The Journal of business Communication 26:1.Winter (1989): 33-55.

Sanders, D. Gerald, Jordon, H. Hoover, Limpus, Robert M., and Magoon, Wallace H. Unified English Composition. New York: F.S. Crofts and Co., 1946.

Sheehan, Donald. This Was Publishing: A Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

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