Freshman comp. Mention the phrase to anyone who’s been through the American system of higher education, and you’ll be greeted with a wan smile (or groan). Whether painful or ultimately productive, the one commonality is that the experience is nearly universal.
The story of how English composition became a requirement in the American college curriculum stands as a case study of the transition from writing as a durable record or re-presentation of speech, to writing as a mirror of spoken language. In this chapter, we’ll follow the emergence of English comp but also look at changing notions about appropriate subject matter for written composition and evolving definitions of what it means to be an author. In Chapter 6, we’ll revisit some of these same themes in a second case study: the history of English punctuation.
In just over a hundred years, American notions about the place, form, and purpose of composition in education underwent profound alteration. Between the 1870s and today, the ideas of two educational reformers— one a chemist, the other a philosopher—led Americans to abandon classical models of education, call for enhanced English composition skills, and emphasize self-expression as the raison d’être for writing.
Who was the audience for these educational transformations?