A relationship between rhetoric and poetics: English studies in secondary schools, a composition-literature paradigm (1874-1917)

Nancy Van Tuyle McCoy, Purdue University


This history identifies and describes a composition-literature paradigm that guided both the pedagogy and curricular design of high school English courses. Its institutional beginnings were associated with the 1874 Harvard Entrance Examinations and its dissolution with the reorganization of secondary schools in 1917. My study challenges a commonly accepted characterization of the beginnings of high school English study as "chaotic." Perhaps as a result of this characterization, few historians have written about the establishment of composition and literature in secondary schools; also, few have examined the relationship between these two subjects during this period. This history fills that gap. Many traditions and contemporary concerns shaped the paradigm: for example, belletristic rhetoric, which provided a theoretical foundation; grammar, mental discipline, and philology, which influenced its pedagogy. In addition, there was a pedagogy suggested by composition-literature dynamics--imitation. Paraphrases were common writing assignments. A comparison of nineteenth-century with classical imitation suggests, however, that the two pedagogies had little in common. Nineteenth-century practices reflected few of the purposes and none of the spirit of classical imitation. The paradigm is described in terms of each component--composition and literature--and in terms of their relationship to each other. In part, the composition component of the paradigm can be defined by its use of literature for composition subjects and content; its use of literary models to illustrate style, structure, and arrangement; and its reliance on exercises loosely based on imitation. The literature component can be defined by its emphasis on literary study for its own sake; its declaration of appreciation as its primary goal; its use of philology, reading aloud, and other methods of study. Binding the two together were model study, rhetorical analysis, and a discourse theory that conceived of criticism and construction as two sides of the same process.




Lauer, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Education history|Language|Rhetoric|Composition|Secondary education

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