The Formation of College English by Thomas Miller

Moving right along – I have a backlog of summaries – I recently worked my way through Miller’s account of the eighteenth-century rhetorics coming out of Scotland, Ireland, and the academies of the dissenters. Miller is at times a difficult read, but compared to Nan Johnson, whose book on the same period I found difficult to deal with, he’s a cakewalk.

Miller’s global argument is thus: with the rhetoric of Anglican-approved schools completely stagnant and classical, the real cutting-edge rhetorical theory appeared in the cultural provinces of the British empire – the Scots in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the Irish ala Sheridan, and the dissenters such as Priestley. Ironically enough, the men who wrote the new rhetorics, which served to establish the hegemony of “correct” English, were either not English or not Anglican – and their status as the ministers of culture between the high and low classes lead to an obsession over style (Hugh Blair, front and center) and correctness, with invention falling by the wayside as induction and Campbell’s scientific rhetoric took hold. Miller lies the blame fairly evenly – his chapter on Adam Smith is probably the highlight of the text, where Smith’s conservative economic concepts end up producing a rather flawed “spectatorical” rhetoric that Blair takes and runs with.

Furthermore, what we know today as literature studies does not originate in the 19th century, but with Blair in the 18th. The rhetoric and bellistristic chairs transformed into the professorships of literature as the trend toward making gentlemen of taste rather than civic agents continued. Less shockingly, what we today call composition can be traced to the mechanism of Bain, who had his head-start from Campbell and the whole tired faculty psychology mess.

Miller’s last chapter explores how this analogy could be continued even further – if the provinces are where change happens culturally, then the rapid spread of rhetoric and composition programs in land-grant universities (the new provincial areas), but not at Harvard and Yale or in Britain (the Oxford and Cambridges of the 18th), suggests a rather dire future for English literature, in that it could become what classics departments are now, if it does not do what rhetoric and composition is doing – defining itself in practical modern terms, rather than insisting on the old liberal arts mission. Blair, Campbell, Smith, Priestley, etc had their faults, but they gave the students what they wanted – instruction in style and correctness.

This is an extraordinarily pragmatic agrument. He seems to be saying that historical context drives trends in instruction and rhetoric, not the other way around, in a manner similiar to Conley; and futhermore, perhaps, he hints that English literature can choose to sink under the cultural waves of new media while rhetcomp succesfully separates itself from English, or cling to rhetoric as a kind of disciplinary life preserver.

Now I wouldn’t mind teaching in a Department of Rhetoric and Composition, but then again, I kind of like the big-tent English department here at Memphis, and I have nothing against English literature (well, maybe against an insistence on realism, but that’s another subject). I would certainly think it a serious loss if literature went the way that Miller describes, but I don’t think it will; something else strange and unpredictable, most likely – for all I know, some rhetcomp centers will flee and merge with communications, dissolve like Fred Newton Scott’s efforts, or break off and declare independence ala Speech, but the fate of the Oxford/Cambridge teaching of the 18th century seems, to me, to be dependent on Greek and Latin being foreign languages. English Lit doesn’t have that problem.

It does, however, have its Blair legacy of consumption of texts rather than composition. This could be repaired by some kind of peace treaty between rhetcomp and literature, an arrangement that would give more status not only to faculty but to the concept of invention, but I think the benefits of such a deal are more apparent to the first party than the second.

Another problem with Miller’s huge analogy is that history is happening a little more quickly now. The trends in instruction may change no more quickly (it’s astounding to me that Harvard has no rhetoric program, and a 100+ years of Bolyston professors of rhetoric and oratory that are all poets – not that I have anything against poets, but they should rename the endowment already, c’mon) but the media of five years ago is completely different than today’s. Creaky academia still takes forever to publish research that is obsolete before it is even greenlighted – the web’s collaborative, exponential efforts at knowledge-making continue to scare me. Past historical patterns of cultural and educational development, I fear, are not necessarily applicable. The old charts may only be curiosities compared to where we are going.

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