After World War II, when a surge in prosperity brought an increasing proportion of high school graduates into institutions of higher education, it became evident that many of them were incapable of reading and writing their native language adequately for academic work. They were not illiterate; they knew their letters and could read documents that conveyed information or instructions of on a simple, one-dimensional level. They could write out their thoughts in a rudimentary, colloquial fashion.
What they could not usually manage was to grasp the nuances of a sophisticated work of literature or follow the logic of a complex argument. They were even more perplexed at the prospect of constructing a consistent, focused argument of their own expressing such understanding as they had attained of the subtleties of literary and intellectual discourse. Their high school English hadn’t taken them far enough.
English departments in colleges and universities were, therefore, assigned the task of raising students to a level of reading and writing adequate for serious academic work. They tried to accomplish that by means of an essentially remedial course, freshman composition.
The emphasis of the course, as the title indicates, was on writing; but reading was also a crucial feature, because of an implicit assumption that learning to read challenging works of literature would enhance a student’s writing skills. Freshman composition thus became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language.
Now it would be naïve to suggest that the 1950s through 1970s were a golden age of student enthusiasm and exalted educational attainment. Very few institutions of higher learning, in this country or any other, have even tried to embody Cardinal Newman’s ideal of liberal education as the cultivation of the mind for its own sake. Land grant universities, polytechnic institutes, schools of agriculture and technology—all proclaim by their names a commitment to providing students with job training and augmenting the local economy.
Nevertheless, almost all of those institutions, and certainly the most ambitious, usually sought to offer young men and women something beyond mere technical expertise. At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.
During the last three decades, this generally humanistic, even literary, understanding of freshman composition has been almost wholly displaced in the vast majority of state university campuses, along with many other institutions as well. The old vision of freshman composition has been pushed aside by a theoretical approach more in tune with the social sciences and the public education establishment.
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