Academic journal article College English

Theory in the Archives: Fred Newton Scott and John Dewey on Writing the Social Organism

Academic journal article College English

Theory in the Archives: Fred Newton Scott and John Dewey on Writing the Social Organism

Article excerpt

In April of 1892, the University of Michigan's Inlander student literary maga- zine published the following advertisement:

If you are studying by yourself,

If you are interested in the application of ideas to life,

If you are interested in the application of theory to practice,

YOU WILL BE INTERESTED

IN

THOUGHT NEWS, PRICE $1.50 A YEAR

(Thought )

Thought News, the advertised publication, was to have been "conducted" by John Dewey, then a young chair of the University of Michigan's philosophy department (Thought). Other press communications about Thought News also identified the future pragmatist philosopher as responsible for the publication, which they described as a "Journal of Inquiry" and a new kind of newspaper ( Thought ; for example, "He's Planned"). This periodical project was actually a collaborative undertaking, involv- ing not only Dewey but also a former journalist, newspaper editor, and entrepre- neur named Franklin Ford; Ford's brother Corydon; and a group of University of Michigan academics including George Herbert Mead, Robert Ezra Park, and Fred Newton Scott. Led partly by Dewey and partly by Franklin Ford, these Ann Arbor intellectuals imagined new possibilities for the writing infrastructures-telegraphs, cheap paper, and publication equipment-that subtended the late nineteenth-century newspaper. Their idea was to improve communication between the differing parts of their society, which they conceived as an organic entity poised on the verge of qualitative transformation. Their new newspaper would not only link those individuals who were studying by themselves, in the words of the advertisement; it would also help to fashion connections between the underdeveloped parts of a divine collective body. In the terms offered by these thinkers, Thought News's improved form of written communication was to have remade society itself.

Despite the advertisement and press reports, this periodical project came to nothing-not even one issue ever appeared. Nevertheless, surviving records, includ- ing correspondence, planning documents, and participants' publications, show the engrossing character of the group's preliminary efforts. Thought News was an event in Ann Arbor, and it drew together a circle of thinkers who were themselves interested in the application of "ideas to life" and of "theory to practice" (Thought). In addition, while the project lasted, this circle of thinkers was interested in writing. Writing activity served to ground the group's planning, promising for it an application in the world outside the university's boundaries. Moreover, writing was more than a conduit through which they hoped to share political, philosophical, scientific, and religious truths. For these thinkers, at this time, writing was an especially promising means for awakening readers' own perceptions of such truths-and for sharing these perceptions widely, democratically, and efficiently. "Society has become organized and demands an organized instrument for the reporting of its workings and the distributing of its intelligence," Scott once explained, alluding to the group's idea of civilization as an increasingly complex, evolving organism ("Christianity" 84). For the Thought News group, writing was the practical agency by which they hoped they could spur this social organism to greater self-consciousness.

As might be expected, Scott wrote most perspicuously of all the Thought News group's members on the importance of writing. In 1892, Scott was only beginning his career, but he later distinguished himself as one of the twentieth century's foremost rhetoric and composition specialists. As Albert Kitzhaber, James Berlin, and Donald Stewart have established, Scott's professional work anticipated late twentieth-century developments in rhetoric and composition. As an English and writing scholar, for instance, Scott founded the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Michigan, and he advocated for rhetoric and writing instruction as distinct from literary study. …

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