Berlin’s 19th Century (in brief)

Berlin, James A. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: SIUP, 1984. Print.

Read this book today. Haven’t turned to it since 2003, I think. 19th century composition-rhetoric was my specialization and thesis area when I was at Tarleton (I wrote over Henry Noble Day–a figure that Berlin is just a little too dismissive of, in my opinion). Some of my early M.A. annotations of this text are laughable (when legible), but I remember this as being a Hugely Important Book the first time I read through it..

Berlin classifies in very broad term the kinds of rhetorics taught in the 19th century: classical, psychological epistemic, and romantic. The taxonomy isn’t super-important, he’ll come up with others in the future, and at this point he’s mostly interested in Current-Traditional managerial rhetoric and the road-not-taken of Fred Newton Scott’s curiously forward-looking constructionist approach to student writing–one that shares philosophical and rhetorical roots with Emerson’s romantic rhetoric.

Early in the text he defines noetic field as “a closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language” (2). Technically the centerpiece for his analysis as a set of un-percieved conceptions that deeply influence our thinking and teaching of rhetoric, this term will later give way (both in this text and in his future writings) to epistemology and ideology in his more critically-energized taxonomies in Rhetoric and Reality and “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.”

Influential and important as it is, this is (today) a pretty basic study of 19th century writing instruction–in that it’s a bit more generalized than it needs to be, treating cultural and historical knowledge as givens and leaving out a lot of primary material as he doles out his interpretations (like freshman composition being essentially technical writing). Other writers will do better history than Berlin, who seems more interested in getting to interpretations and arguments than analyzing data. Berlin’s pretty snotty towards technology and technical writing, happily pointing out (for example) that Scott and his cohort were using organic metaphors for writing that were often sadly colored by mechanistic and technological ways of seeing the world. He’ll emphasize materiality more later, but is fairly anti-techne here in the way that most anti-Current-Traditionalists were. Anything that smacks of skills-oriented instruction is taken with a big bag of rock salt.

He ends by describing three “contemporary appraoches to teaching writing that, consciously or unconsciously, reflect rhetorics of the nineteenth century” (86) and that are “extensions of the best the nineteenth century has to offer” (91).

  • classical (Corbett’s comprehensive rhetoric; Halloran’s rhetoric of citizenship)
  • expressionist (individualist Platonic; truth is private vision, Macrorie and others)
  • new rhetoric (epistemic rhetoric; Elbow, Berthoff, Young Becker & Pike; truth is product of dialectic interaction of elements; language at center of epistemology)

If my memory serves, this scheme shifts a bit in other texts. Rhetoric and Reality is next on my list, and it’s a more important book in a couple of ways. On to the future. Interpretations of the turn of the century literacy crises and what teacher-theorists did about changing students and changing technologies and modes of writing is the goal here. Also, I know the disciplinary acceptance of Berlin’s histories is a subject (at least in part) of both Paine and Hawk later. I don’t want to get sidetracked by historiography in terms of method, but as I wrote earlier today, interpretation and rich cultural/social description is everything in critical analysis. If that’s still where I’m going, then those ideas are definitely worth paying attention to as well.


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