CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories · Rhetoric

Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985

Some things about reading for exams are wildly stressful—like trying to figure out how to cram all the books on the reading list into an unbelievably short period of time. Others, though, remind me of why I’m interested in this field. Re-reading Berlin was one of those reminders—not necessarily because I’m head over heels for Berlin and his work, but it was nice to sit back and leisurely read about comp history after my recovery from last week’s practice exam.


Literacy has always and everywhere been the center of the educational enterprise. No matter what else it expects of its schools, a culture insists that students learn to read, write, and speak in the officially sanctioned manner. (1)

Ordinarily, one particular rhetoric is dominant—the rhetoric embodying the ideology of a powerful group or class—but the exclusion of all other rhetorics is never completely achieved. (5)

Berlin opens Rhetoric and Reality with an overview of rhetoric’s role in the college curriculum, explaining that writing instruction was not considered remedial; rather, it was a necessary part of the college curriculum. This sets the precedent for his argument that writing instruction is still essential because as new students encounter new ideas and new ways of thinking in the university, they need rhetorical training to help them make sense of their new intellectual experiences (3). In the book, then, he’s interested in the historical manifestations of literacy within writing instruction, focusing on the multiple rhetorics that have existed and continue to influence rhetorical theory.

Objective, Subjective, and Transactional Theories of Rhetoric.

Cover of Rhetoric and RealityThe most important part of this overview is Berlin’s sketching of his approach to epistemology. He claims that “every rhetorical system is based on epistemological assumptions about the nature of reality, the nature of the knower, and the rules governing the discovery and communication of the known” (4), elements that all connect to the elements of the rhetorical triangle. He focuses on epistemology over ideology here because it offers a closer look at rhetorical properties (reality, interlocutor, audience, language) than the ideological elements—economic, social, political—that we usually consider (6). Specifically, he focuses on objective, subjective, and transactional theories of rhetoric:

  • Objective: reality exists in the external world and material objects of experience
  • Subjective: truth exists within the subject and is discovered internally
  • Transactional: reality exists within the interaction of subject and object

Objective rhetorics are those “based on a positivistic epistemology, asserting that the real is located in the material world. From this perspective, only that which is empirically verifiable or which can be grounded in empirically verifiable phenomena is real” (7). Within this system, language exists as a sign system that is intended only to transcribe the truth once it is discovered, which implies the objectivity of both language and truth. Truth, then, exists before language and is located in nature. Because of its objective and arbitrary nature, current-traditional rhetoric fits neatly within this system, because Berlin notes that the “writer must take pains that language not distort what is to be communicated” and should be focused on superficial correctness, a focus implicated with “appropriate” class affiliation (9).

Within objective rhetoric lies behaviorist (conditioning and positively reinforcing students for demonstrating appropriate writing behavior), semanticist (focusing on transfer and the distortions that occur through the misuse of language), and structural linguistic (focusing on empirical studies of language’s structure) theories of rhetoric (10-11).

Subjective rhetorics are those that “locate truth either within the individual or within a realm that is accessible only through the individual’s internal apprehension, apart from the empirically verifiable sensory world” (11). This approach has its roots in Plato’s ideas of Truth that transcends the material world and that can be known and shared but not communicated (12). What this means for writing, then, is that students can discover truth, but instructors can’t teach truth. That is, “the student can learn to write, but writing cannot be taught” (13).

Transactional rhetorics are those “based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object, audience, and language—operating simultaneously” (15). I feel like this one tends to be the one I find most useful and tend to identify most with because it acknowledges writing’s epistemic function.

Within transactional rhetoric lies classical, cognitive, and epistemic. Classical theories hold truth as a social construct and is perhaps the most interesting for considerations of public discourse because individuals work together within a discourse community to decide what is best both for the group and for themselves as individuals (15). The goal of classical theories is new knowledge and new truths that emerge from the interactions among the members of the community (16). Cognitive theories assume a relationship between the structures of mind and nature, emphasizing the student’s discovery of truth with material and social environments (16). Epistemic theories factor in all elements of the rhetorical situation and never separate experience and language (16). Here, truth emerges only as the material, social, and personal interact and are mediated through language (17).

(Historical) Chapter Breakdown.

Chapter 2, “The Nineteenth-Century Background” focuses on the development of writing instruction, beginning at Harvard. The English Department’s initial purpose was to provide instruction in writing, and studying literature was a “rare phenomenon” (20) even though lit was on the rise by the end of the 19th century. Because the focus of the “new” university was English—not Greek or Latin—there was a bias against classical rhetoric that fed the splitting of English instruction as language learning and literature (22). In 1874, Harvard created an English entrance exam requirement to test student ability and to make sure “the new open university would not become too open” (23). Another factor in this dynamic of the new university was the English department’s attempt to contribute to the scientific and meritocratic interests of the university, which we see in New Criticism and New Humanism, and which Berlin argues is why current-traditional rhetoric has so much staying power even today’s curriculum (27).

In Chapter 3, “The Growth of the Discipline: 1900-1920,” Berlin focuses on the formation of the NCTE and how the field’s attempts at professionalizing impacted his taxonomy. In 1883, The Modern Language Association secured English studies within the college curriculum and the emergence of the National Council of Teachers of English maintained a commitment to students. NCTE emerged as a response to the fact that colleges were controlling high school English curricula (choosing the books they would be read and be tested on for college admission), even though only a small percentage of these students actually went to college (33).

So here the taxonomy manifests within current-traditional, liberal culture, and transactional rhetorics. Current-traditional rhetoric—which was positivistic, practical, the “rhetoric of the meritocracy”—was intended to give middle-class professional students the tools they needed to avoid embarrassing themselves (35). In opposition to this was the rhetoric of liberal culture—an elitist, aristocratic rhetoric—intended to encourage the few who possessed “genius” (35). Because of its goal of self-realization and focus on embodiment of spiritual vision, the rhetoric of liberal culture was a setup for expressionistic rhetoric that valued the unique, individual voice of a “gifted and original personality at work” (45).

And finally, the transactional rhetoric for a democracy—highly influenced by the progressive education movement and John Dewey—emphasized writing as training for students’ ultimate participation in the democratic process. Berlin focuses most on Fred Newton Scott’s work here and his attention to a student’s right to her own language. Significantly predating SRTOL, Scott believed that denying a student’s language “is to deny her experience, forcing her to talk and write about what she does not know” (48)—an issue that we certainly see in curricula that value grammar and “correctness” over ideas and a concern that I have with content-less curricula that students can’t approach through their own experiences. Set apart from the individualism and class bias of the other two rhetorics dominant at this time, Scott offered a rhetoric of public service dedicated to the public good: “Good discourse is that which by disseminating truth creates a healthy public opinion and thus effects, in Plato’s world ‘a training and improvement in the souls of the citizens’” (415 qtd. in Berlin 49). I find this model most compelling, and it’s easy to see here how this would be a setup for exploring rhetoric’s epistemic function.

Chapter 4, “The Influence of Progressive Education: 1920-1940” extends the previous chapter’s introduction of progressive education: “an extension of political progressivism, the optimistic faith in the possibility that all institutions could be reshaped to better serve society, making it healthier, more prosperous, and happier” (68). This focus had an inherently quantitative nature as it was interested in how to apply science to human behavior, resulting in a number of studies, surveys, and tests. Also, expressionistic rhetoric gained popularity here, emphasizing process over product, nondirective methods, and the belief that the writing teacher must also be a writer who merely guides students.

After the Great Depression, though, there was a shift toward writing as a social activity that grows out of social contexts and carries social consequences (79). Here, too, there was an opposition to individualism and a focus on democracy—notably manifested in Warren Taylor’s 1938 article, “Rhetoric in a Democracy.” I’m drawn particularly to Taylor’s definition of rhetoric:

In this paper rhetoric is viewed as the art of making reasoned evaluations of public utterances, of discovering the worth of the means used to communicate instructive knowledge and to affect opinion. As such, it requires of its users a knowledge of the means by which lines of action designed to solve social problems may be presented to the people and of the ways in which they may respond to them (854 qtd. in Berlin 87)

This definition is useful for considering rhetoric’s (classical and contemporary) civic role, and the most important takeaway for me here is Taylor’s emphasis of rhetoric not as a persuasive tool but as a means of coming to understanding: “In a democracy, action should be the result of understanding, not of persuasion” (88). I don’t know if it’s last week’s practice or the civic writing class I’m teaching in the fall, but this quotation struck me the most of any other while reading this book. I still find these ideas really powerful, particularly when we consider how eager students are to argue and try to persuade without actually engaging their audience (and themselves) in understanding.

Chapter 5, “The Communication Emphasis: 1940-1960” focuses on the emergence and emphasis of the communications course, which combined writing instruction, speaking, reading, and listening and was well suited to the increasing post-WWII veteran population on campuses. Even though it declined in the 1960s, Berlin describes the success of the communications course as one that gave composition a number of fresh ideas. Importantly, CCCC emerged during this time, too (1949), which gave writing studies some grounding for its professional identity. It also reflects the discipline’s interest in communication and its “commitment to democracy to the welfare of students who had just suffered the horrors of war” (106).

The 1950s saw a renewed interest in rhetoric and the revival of Aristotelian humanism, which is the focus of Chapter 6, “The Renaissance of Rhetoric: 1960-1975.” Whereas WWI and WWII affected other periods of comp history, this period was affected by the Cold War, the space race, and later the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time, federal funds supported literature and composition, which also affected an emergence of graduate programs in rhetoric and composition and rhetoric’s place as “a respectable academic specialty” (121). A few people/ideas useful to note here are Bruner (who argued that [s]tudents should engage in the process of composing, not in the study of someone else’s process of composing” (123, emphasis added), Kitzhaber (who argued for a return to the rhetorical tradition) and Booth (who in the “Revival of Rhetoric” argued that English departments were not providing students with “guidance in the true art of transferring ideas, motives, intentions from his mind to other men’s minds” (10 qtd. in Berlin 130). A strange thing about this chapter is that Berlin references the publication of “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” in 1974 but doesn’t really say anything about it—maybe because he ends with 1975 and it hadn’t gained any steam at that point?

Chapter 7, “Major Rhetorical Approaches: 1960-1975” returns to Berlin’s taxonomy. He explores objective rhetoric in the form of behaviorism (particularly Bloom & Bloom’s attention to evaluation criteria and looking at the “scribal act” of students) and subjective rhetorics in the context of the expressivists (Ken Macrorie, Donald Murray, Peter Elbow). Expressivist ideas circulating here were that students must write regularly, that expressive writing is powerless and ineffective if separated from communicative, practical writing, and that personal and private writing is linked to political writing (147-49).

Transactional rhetoric was characterized by its commitment to rationality and influenced by Aristotle’s concern with discovery and locating material for effective arguments (156). Edward P.J. Corbett was a key figure here with his attention to the rational, emotional, and ethical—placing persuasion at the heart of communication and his articulation of the rhetoric of the open hand/closed fist, which reflected persuasion strategies of the 1960s. Janet Emig, Janice Lauer, and Ann Berthoff all contributed to cognitive psychology during this time, too.

Epistemic rhetoric emerged in response to a call for new rhetoric and was characterized by the notion “that rhetoric is a serious philosophical subject that involves not only the transmission, but also the generation of knowledge” (Leff 75 qtd. in Berlin 165). This position highlights the dialectical nature of knowledge, emphasizing that the social interactions among the elements of the communication process are what form knowledge. Berlin also highlights Ohmann (and his emphasis on cooperation, mutuality, and social harmony), Burkean identification (and its attention to knowledge construction and the dynamics of the text-audience relationship), and Bruffee (and his call for collaborative learning) here.

Concluding Thoughts.

Berlin closes his book with some attention to how his taxonomies played out post-1975, acknowledging that they are not as descriptive after this date because of the shifting of subjective and transactional theories toward epistemic rhetoric, “regarding rhetoric as principally a method of discovering and creating knowledge, frequently within socially defined discourse communities” (183). Despite various calls for abolishing required writing instruction, Berlin ends by offering some final thoughts about the state and value of the writing course:

We have begun to see that writing courses are not designed exclusively to prepare students for the workplace, although they certainly must do that. Writing courses prepare students for citizen ship in a democracy, for assuming their political responsibilities, whether as leaders or simply as active participants. Writing courses also enable students to learn something about themselves, about the often-unstated assumptions on which their lives are built. In short, the writing course empowers students as it advises in ways to experience themselves, others, and the material conditions of their existence—in methods of ordering and making sense of these relationships. It is encouraging to report that it is once again receiving the attention it deserves. (188-89)



Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. Print.



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