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

Chapter One: An Overview

B. id’s his mission statement: “I will examine the forms that rhetorical instruction in writing has taken in the 20th century classroom” and in doing so will also consider the poetic.  B. invokes the classical Western roots of education and notes that education had long considered rhetoric to be central to good preparation in post-secondary education (by highlighting the Scots).  B. then makes the case that the writing classroom has long served as the first encounter for students to engage new ideas and new ways of thinking: it is the first space for introductions/occupations with critical ideas and how to deal with them/say something about them (rhetoric).

On rhetoric(s) Berlin notes that the difference between different rhetorics isn’t a difference of method or rhetorical techne; rather, the difference is rooted in epistemology, or, in Berlin’s words, “the very nature of the known, the knower, and the discourse community involved in considering the known” (3).  In his work B. will be considering the rhetorical theories that underpin pedagogy in the 20th century and the ideological and epistemological frameworks/elements that underpin them.

B. divides the underlying epistemologies of rhetorics underpinning composition into three camps: 1) objective (locate reality in the external world, in materiality.  Usually positivistic, these theories rely on empirically quantifiables.  Language is a sign system used to transcribe reality; usually represented by current-traditional rhetoric rooted in Scottish common sense realism, proceeds on an inductive method [data provides generalizations], anti-sophistic, operates with language on the window-pane theory, ; 2) subjective (place truth within the subject, to be discovered through the act of internal apprehension, Platonic rhetoric, Romantic rhetoric, truth can be known but not communicated; hence, rhetoric must operate to dispel false truths on the path to individual visionary perception.  Used in jeremiads, pedagogically the teacher can only create an environment in which the individual can learn what cannot be taught, truth can be accessed through metaphor via dreams [Freud] or discourse [Plato]); and 3) transactional (locate reality at the point of intersection or interaction between object and subject with audience and language as mediating agencies.  In the 20th century these take the form of classical, cognitive, and epistemic rhetoric.  These have a civic component and concern the ethical and political dimensions of life.  Truth arrives through dialectical interaction/compromise.  The epistemic strain of transactional rhetoric recognizes that reality and the world are verbal constructs; hence, language structures reality.  The material world, the social world, and the personal world create reality and are all mediate through and by language).  How we conduct what kinds of rhetoric (because of their underlying epistemologies) affects how students will behave both inside and outside of our classrooms in personal, social, and political ways.

Chapter Two: The Nineteenth-Century Background

The English deparment was created at Harvard to provide instruction in writing.  Noting how the American university shifted during the 19th century to accommodate a new demographic increasingly identified by specialized professions and membership in a burgeoning middle class, Berlin notes that the “old model” that took up the work of classical rhetoric became out-of-style.  Instead, a new English department that distinguished itself away from communication toward the specialized province of literature needed to be developed.  Further, the use of English as the primary mode of instruction insured that immigrants couldn’t pass through the college curriculum and into the middle classes without a demonstration of appropriate linguistic capacity (23).

In his section on rhetoric and the poetic in English departments, B. demonstrates how both originally shared an epistemology; however, over time, rhetoric became locked into a positivistic configuration whereas poetic grew and developed (though both continued to influence each other).  Rhetoric was concerned with symbolic action in the material world whereas poetic was concerned with symbolic action for itself – contemplation of an artifact for itself (which seems impossible to me, but you know!).  Yet, literary studies eventually changed and developed whereas rhetoric stayed current-traditional.  Berlin claims that this is likely traced to the position of the writing class as a pain in the ass for lit profs.  Concerned that they would need to teach any of these classes, literature epistemologies characterized rhetorical epistemology as inferior, thereby exalting their own position in the university (and ensuring they didn’t have to teach composition).  This relegation to the scientistic, instrumental current-traditional rhetoric also depoliticized composition and diminishes it’s civic component (30).

Chapter Three: The Growth of the Discipline 1900-1920

B. begins the chapter by noting that the most important event marking the security of the English department in university curriculum was the establishment of the MLA in 1883; yet, the most important event for the discipline’s commitment to teaching was the founding of NCTE in 1911.  In this chapter Berlin considers the formation of the NCTE, 3 dominant approaches (and their ideology) to teaching writing in the period, the kinds of preparation students received for college writing in high schools, and the kinds of undergraduate teaching that occurred during the period.  Finally, Berlin will consider the effects of WWI on the discipline of English studies in high school and college (32-3).

B . notes that current-traditional rhetoric was the first form of writing instruction that appeared in the period.  It’s emphasis on clarity and grammar highlighted it’s practical, meritocratic, and positivistic spirit in addition to providing a model for middle-class professional writing.  In contrast, the rhetoric of liberal culture was elitist and aristrocratic and operated on the subjective epistemology.  Finally, the rhetoric of public discourse was a transactional rhetoric (a precursor to epistemic rhetoric rooted in the pragmatic educational theories of John Dewey) practiced by schools in the Midwest.  B. also highlights how the transactional “ideas” approach created the first anthologies of political and social issues while at the same time placing students in a social context to which they would respond (51).  The efficiency movement during the period argued that the number of students, not the number of teaching hours, should be the measure for enrollments.  WWI solidified the position of American literature as a public high school and university requirement as a way to move away from religious instruction and toward education as a nationalist enterprise.

Chapter Four:  The Influence of Progressive Education 1920-1940

Despite economic hardships this period say college enrollments increase throughout (with the exception of 32-34).  According to B., the kinds of writing instruction provided at the time was directly related to developments in the economy.  Though current-traditional rhetoric dominated the period, a subjective approach that celebrated the individual also flourished; further, the rhetoric of transaction rooted in progressive education (practiced primarily at the primary/secondary level) also directly affected college writing instruction.  Progressive education used the findings of science and applied them to human behavior; as such, psychology and sociology were used to shape curriculums.  This meant that progressive education sought to serve the society (WWI patriotism) and the individual (child-centered pedagogy).

The increase in enrollments during the period was usually dealt with by dividing students into ability levels (highest: literature, middle: rhetoric, bottom: mechanics).  Though we might consider this a bit problematic, it was a step toward democratizing the university.  This period also saw the development of the honors program as a way to counteract the meritocratic nature of current-traditional rhetoric.  Liberal humanism used the honors course to provide the elite access to the Platonic notion of education through the cultivation of genius.  Though elitist and aristocratic, this movement likely kept the humanistic tradition alive in the face of increasing technologization and instrumentalization of university curriculums.  Yet, these movements toward the procurement of genius also gave rise (when combined with child-centered education movements of progressives of the era) to the expressivist rhetoric that united the introspective search for creativity and genius with the goals of a prosperous society concerned with excellence (73-4).  This move also emphasized process over product and used journaling and editorial groups as ways to cultivate creativity and good, process-based writing.

The Great Depression created a backlash against the individualism of expressionism and current-traditional rhetoric by emphasizing the social nature of writing toward communal good.  This rhetoric/instruction typically took the entire rhetorical situation (writer, audience, context, exigencies) into account (especially in light of the social problems of the era: Depression and European fascism).  This sometimes took the shape of classes that asked students to compose writing that relied on multiple other subject specialties (history, economics, government, sociology,” etc. (86).    Some folks – like Taylor at Wisconsin – actually saw democratic language sue as essential for the establishment of an open community for free discourse, creating a populace responsible for themselves in a Democratic state.

Chapter Five: The Communications Emphasis 1940-1960

B. notes that the single largest curricular development in American college in this period was the explosion of the general education movement as a compromise to provide the breadth of a liberal education while at the same time offering professional specialization.  Typically, the most consistent feature of this new emphasis on general education was the communications course.  Composed of activities that emphasized speaking, reading, writing, and even listening, the communications course would influence the teaching of writing for decades to come and would also initiate the creation of CCCC in 1950.

Rooted in Korzybski’s work on general semantics in the 1930s, the communications course was used as a tool to rhetorically deconstruct propaganda; however, it soon became obvious that it had other uses in the post WWII era.  General semantics operated on three ideas: the ladder of abstraction (from sense to general), consciousness of abstraction (an awareness of abstraction to avoid confusion about abstraction and to deter inappropriate response to that confusion), and figures of speech (uses of language to express value instead of mere style)(94-5).  The semanticists also drew from other disciplines – notably cultural anthropology – to develop an awareness of the ways “in which language structures and defines reality.”

On a social level, the COMM class operated as an effective way to deal with the influx of non-traditional writing students in the post-WWII GI Bill era.  Typically practical and individualized, instruction in COMM focused on effective communication in multiple spheres of life (and, in the Denver case, operated as a psychoanalytic clinic for the reintegration of students into society).      B. traces the development of CCCC to: 1) large number of English teachers teaching composition; 2) a desire to improve the position of composition teachers in the academy; 3) a desire to legitimate the teaching of composition in the view of literature professors.

Considering literature studies, B. notes that New Criticism gave academics a rallying point to unify the discipline and offered an apolitical approach to criticism during the McCarthy era (107).  Literature also offered something for those convinced that Romantic individualism was the highest human achievement (which also made great sense in the anti-collectivism of post WWII Cold War politics).  Turning next to structural linguistics, B. highlights how the budding discipline offered a new set of scientistic views on language, offering a counterpart to the New Critical emphasis emerging in literature studies.

During the 1950s rhetoric also went through something of a revival in departments of writing/composition/rhetoric.  Characterized by a renewed interest in classical rhetoric – especially Aristotle – this provided a humanistic, liberal alternative to current-traditional rhetoric’s emphasis on common sense empiricism; however, this revival wasn’t constrained to writing classes as other sites across the academy also shared a renewed interest in the discipline.

Chapter Six: The Renaissance of Rhetoric 1960-1975

Chapter thesis:  “The most crucial events for the fate of writing instruction during the sixties and seventies were the intensification of the Cold War and changes in economic, social, and political arrangements that resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of students attending college” (121).  These reasons included the escalation of the Cold War (and investment because of perceived US inferiority), the civil rights movement, returning vets from Vietnam, the baby boomers reaching college age, and the unprecedented growth in the US economy.

The influence of Jerome Bruner’s process models of composing were strong during this period and emphasized that students should be involved in the process of composing and teachers should create an environment in which students can learn for themselves the behavior appropriate for successful writing (123).  In the same period Kitzhaber made huge leaps and strides in the legitimation of composition as a discipline.  In fact, he “proposed in place of the ‘service’ concept and the belletristic method an approach based on the rhetorical tradition, a heritage extended back over 2500 years to ancient Greece” (129).  Further, K. argued that this method needed to be extended to high school teachers as well in order to more fully meet the writing needs of incoming students.  Likewise, Wayne C. Booth’s speech “The Revival of Rhetoric” berated English departments for their marginalization of rhetorical study and argued for a New Rhetoric to accompany the New Criticism and New Grammar.  This wouldn’t be a mere recapitulation of classical and 18th century rhetoric, but a new field of study doing new things with new theories developed to deal with a life comprised of shifting persuasional encounters and dialectical exchanges.  Finally, the work of Christensen on generative grammar and linguistics did much to teach compositionists about the relationship between form and meaning (paragraph organization, sentence construction, and their related hermeneutical qualities).  B. notes that numerous rhetorics developed in this time period and that no one rhetoric would any longer occupy the position as the correct one (this despite occurring before poststructuralist theory for the most part).

Chapter Seven: Major Rhetorical Approaches 1960-1975

Chapter Plan:

a.       Objective rhetoric – positivistic theories that locate reality in the material world.  Carried out by behavioral approaches of Lynn, Bloom, and Zoellner.

b.      Subjective rhetoric – reality is in the individual as lone agent acting apart from the social and material realms.  Carried out by expressionistic approaches of Elbow, Macrorie, etc.

c.       Transactional rhetoric – reality is the product of observer and observed and the interaction of the two (plus context, history, etc.).  Carried out by Edward P.J. Corbett, Hughes and Duhamel.  Also, cognitivists like Emig, Lauer, Larson, and D’Angelo fall into this camp.  Most transactional rhetoric evolved as a response to widespread protests against war, racism, sexism, etc.

The objectivists took a couple of forms.  Bloom and Bloom developed reinforcement theory as a way for writing teachers to identify what stimuli and responses are effective in the writing process to encourage good writing.  This took the form of teacher observation of student composition.  They also developed a three-step process wherein students would generate ideas, construct papers, and evaluate their writing.  The subjectivists shared the epistemology that reality is a personal and private construct.  Characterized by Macrorie, Elbow, Murray, Wlecke, Gibson, Coles Jr., and Rohman.  Language is not only the vessel for the message, but also shapes it (but negates the intersubjective processes of the social in shaping reality).  This position was critiqued by Berhoff when she noted that expressionist pedagogy often bifurcates language into communicative (public, rational, and empirical) and expressive (private and emotional).  Expressionist pedagogy also attempted to de-emphasize the role of the instructor as authority.  Fixing this problem would be equivalent to allowing composition to “happen” in Deemer’s words.  Most expressionists consider writing an “art” that can be learned, but not taught.  Elbow’s interpretation is even political.  B. notes that his approach helps students find power; however, “This power is not political in any overt sense; it is instead conceived in personal terms – getting control over one’s life through getting control over words” (154).  Yet, this isn’t completely accurate either as expressionists recognized that the personal is political and the a better self-understanding will in turn lead to a better social order (b/c of harmony, right?).

The classical transactional rhetoric/comp teachers privileged rationality in the Aristotelian tradition.  Edward P.J. Corbett’s work in this area is exemplary (according to Berlin) because it not only considers the rational, but also the emotional, and ethical and places persuasion at the center of the communicative act.  Corbett’s work also considers invention, arrangement, and style as its central canons.  Corbett also recognized the importance of “closed-fist” antirational rhetorics and rhetorics of silence in his work (though he preferred rational debate!).

Lauer, Emig, and others were central in the development of cognitive approaches to composition that were prefaced on the idea that “Problems and solutions arise out of the inherently rational nature of both the external world and the mind perceiving it.  In this process, historical, social, or economic considerations are irrelevant; the individual responds to problems as objective situations to which objective responses must be made” (163).

Epistemic rhetoric arose as a response to the call mentioned earlier for a new rhetoric.  Operating on Leff’s definition of rhetoric as “a serious philosophical subject that involves not only the transmission, but also the generation of knowledge,” B. goes on to highlight how communication/dialectic is at the center of epistemic rhetoric because knowledge is formed in the intersubjective and language is constitutive or reality.  Obviously Burkean identification is central to this process as is a civic imperative (because of the social nature of knowledge construction) and pedagogies that emphasized collaborative learning (Bruffee 176).  In closing the chapter, Berlin highlights how all of the epistemic rhetorical approaches to composition were motivated by the social anxieties produced by a nexus of forces mentioned earlier in this summary and at the beginning of the chapter.

Chapter 8: Conclusion and Postscript on the Present

Despite numerous calls for the dismantling of the freshman composition course in the 60s and 70s (for budgetary/economic reasons or the age-old argument about irrelevancy due to better student preparation!), composition persists.  The ‘Why Johnny Can’t Write’ article in 1975 caused a renewed interest in the class as compulsory across the academy.  Graduate programs in rhetoric and composition have continued to grow (as of 85) as well as the journal culture of rhetoric and composition scholarship.  All of the approaches in the book are still alive and well (at the time of writing) and poststructuralist theory has now too waded into the fray.


1.        Rhetoric – the production of spoken and written texts and refers to a diverse discipline that historically has included a variety of incompatible systems (3).

2.       Poetic – the interpretation of texts

3.       Ideology – the pluralistic conceptions of social and political arrangements that are present in a society at any given time (4).  These are based on discursive (verbal) and non-discusive formations designating the shape of social and political structures, and the distribution of power in society.

4.       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 (58).

5.       Cognitive psychology: distinguished by the assertion that the mind is composed of a set of structures that develop in chorological sequence.


1.       Berlin makes the case that the shift away from the (what Thomas Miller has called) “antiquarian” model of education didn’t happen until the late 19th and early 20th centuries; however, Miller identified this shift far earlier . . . sometime around the early to mid 18th century.  Do we have a discrepancy here or is the “antiquarian” or “traditional” model a shifting target?


1.       “Nowadays full professors teach freshman composition, and while this may be a waste of talent (oftentimes I suspect it is), it does keep a teacher anchored for brief periods between his voyages to strange and distant intellectual lands” – Kenneth Eble – HA! 108

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