National Culture and the First-Year English Curriculum: A Historical Study of "Composition" in Canadian Universities

By Brooks, Kevin | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

National Culture and the First-Year English Curriculum: A Historical Study of "Composition" in Canadian Universities


Brooks, Kevin, American Review of Canadian Studies


The most frequently required course in American higher education is English composition. Although sometimes referred to as "dumbbell English" or "bonehead English" by Americans, the ubiquitous first-year English course, according to composition historian Sharon Crowley, is "a sentimental favorite in America, like big bands and Colin Powell" (1998, 228). Because the course is so prominent in American higher education, American academics from all disciplines are frequently surprised to learn that Canadian universities typically do not require first-year composition. Literature courses--survey courses or ABC courses (American, British, and Canadian literature)--are sometimes compulsory, and specific degree-programs within a university may require students to take either a literature or writing-intensive class. Some similarities notwithstanding, the nature of the first-year English curriculum in Canada is significantly different than the typical composition requirement in American colleges and universities.

The relevance of these curricular differences for a multidisciplinary audience interested in Canadian studies is both historical and future-directed. The primary goal of this essay is not to argue for or against composition in Canadian universities and colleges, but to tell the history of the powerful impact of national cultures on an activity as apparently mundane as the teaching of first-year university English. The secondary goal is to speculate on the usefulness of first-year English as a barometer of change in the relationship between higher education and national cultures. While the focus is on Canada's culture and curriculum, the parallel American history must be presented in order to give the Canadian story shape and significance. The different national cultures--which in this essay will mean the dominant national attitudes and biases of each country, particularly towards education (American pragmatism, Canadian philosophical idealism)--have had similarly deep impacts, but with very different results. A handful of books and articles have elucidated these national traditions and attitudes for scholars of English in Canada (Harris 1976; Hubert 1994 Harmonius, 1994 "A History," 1995; Graves 1994; Johnson 1988; 1991); this essay builds on this work, updates it, and stresses a broad cultural relevance in this history for a largely American, multidisciplinary audience.

This history is undertaken in the context of widespread concern about the future of higher education in North America. Bill Readings argues in his influential The University in Ruins, that "national cultures" are no longer a guiding factor in shaping curriculums and he employs the dramatic imagery of contemporary scholars "dwelling in the ruins of an institution that has lost its mission (1996, 16; 166-79). But late in his book he says: "I will cheerfully admit that in all probability far less will have changed in the daily life of professors and students [in the twenty-first century] than one might expect. Significant shifts, though, are taking place in the way in which everyday practices are organized and ascribed meaning" (166). Underneath the two distinct but stable curriculums is a rich history of economic, cultural, and disciplinary motives for shifting (Or attempting to shift) the meaning of the term "composition." This analysis draws heavily on the ways composition has been represented by scholars in Canada to one another and to the public, placing it within the changing economic and social environments that have influenced higher education in Canada over the past fifty years.

The meanings of composition established in Canada and the United States during the first half of the twentieth century will be briefly treated, then the focus shifts to the ways in which a highly developed sense of Canadian national culture was instrumental in keeping American composition located in a discursive field of practicality and popular culture and outside of Canadian higher education between 1957 and 1976. …

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