Old New Ideas

Apropos of very little, I wanted to offer a few snippets from what has to be my favorite article of the last year or so. It took me a while to get around to it (it’s from the November 2011 issue of College English), but I am fascinated. The article is itself comprised of snippets from the 1920s and ‘30s, excerpts from the journal that eventually became College English. These selections provide only the smallest glimpse of university life in this period, but what we see is remarkable. See much more in the article itself, “College English’s Precursor: Excerpts from the College Edition of the English Journal”  (access may be restricted).




The reaction to the literature of the day is fascinating, as we might expect. Helene B. Bullock points to its ability to frustrate limited notions of what writing is supposed to do in her 1928 article: “Imagine, then, an intelligent young person, part and parcel of this age, taught in an excellent college composition course that unity and coherence are a sine qua non in the whole or any part of a work of art, picking up Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room” (159). In a review of the recently published A Farewell to Arms, this disconnect is even more powerfully rendered: “In every line and movement of the book there is an extraordinary impression of reality that labels the Victorian shibboleths, truth, justice, honor, not so much adolescent as senile dodderings. Life grips us; we dance and we die”(163).


The Coming Cataclysm

In many of the excerpts, a foreboding sense of coming war and struggles between communism and fascism and the rich and poor come into focus. Among the topics preferred by college students at the University of Louisville in 1937 are these initial three: “How the next war may come upon us,” “How nations are preparing for war,” and “How modern science has made war terrible” (184). Some pieces advocate for a Marxist literature, some for more emphasis on the humanities. More chastening and pertinent to us, perhaps, is the notice, in 1939, that the labor model used to teach FYC promotes inequality. “The truth is that one of the most distressing products of the Freshman English machine is the academic proletariat it has created” (190).


Freshman English

Harry Baker, in a 1928 article lamenting that “The Freshman course in writing is the standing joke of American universities,” writes:

Too many college professors teach by cold light; they illuminate, perhaps, but they do not warm. This is the academic temperament. It does not exist in such proportion as outsiders believe. More than 50 per cent of professors are human, and at least 25 per cent have a sense of humor. This leads them to discard, gradually but surely, a considerable part of the baggage with which they were loaded on the journey toward the Ph.D.

Several articles describe approaches to teaching that sound startlingly familiar, from WAC proposals: “instruction in English composition through the co-operation of all departments within the university” (166); critiques of the lecture: “Most students have minds of their own, in spite of the contrary idea seemingly prevalent with some professors” (163); and a focus on ideas: “writing is best taught as a thought process rather than as a matter of mere mechanics” (170).

And there’s more. There is an evaluation of Hitler’s program (from 1934), a consideration of the teacher as a “sort of intellectual geisha,” and an advertisement for summer trips to the Soviet Union (for $176).