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Department of English History

History: Classical vs. Modern Education

By Rachel E. Tomcsik

Whitman

By 1906, Rutgers was no longer the classical college of yesteryear, but was still perched on the edge of becoming a center for modern education. Throughout the nation, institutions of higher learning were undergoing similar transitions, trying to define their roles for the new century.

 With his inauguration in 1906, William H. S. Demarest, who was the first alum to serve as president and was known as "the personification of Old Rutgers," worked to increase Rutgers' stature throughout the nation. He recruited more students and eventually increased the student body remarkably, from 235 in 1906 to 2477 in 1924. By 1908, Demarest had amended the Bachelor of Arts' admissions criteria to include a more rigorous exam on literature and writing, including questions on works from authors such as Samuel Coleridge and George Eliot, memorization of famous speeches and plays, and a full formal essay. Demarest thereby explicitly recognized the value of the curriculum being offered by the English Department.

The English Chair at the time, Reverend Henry Mulford, was a man divided between classical college principles and modern educational ideals. He had spent the previous six years campaigning for a traditional English Bible course, and was successful in restoring it to the curriculum. However, he also recognized the need for modernization. For example, other universities were now offering composition-centered courses that emphasized students' practical writing skills while still reading and discussing literature. Mulford believed that Rutgers English should implement courses in this style, classes that universities like Harvard did not offer because they seemed too remedial. Although the Department would continue to emphasize traditional elocution and rhetoric as essential requirements, the number and variety of literature and composition courses offered would steadily increase in the following years, with important new additions, like "Literary Criticism." However, the emphasis on elocution, rhetoric, and the reinstated English Bible course was still evident, showing Mulford's reluctance to let go of the principles of traditional classical education.

Alongside his efforts to expand the curriculum, Mulford sought the appointment of a new colleague after the English faculty had decreased to two. Princeton had eleven English professors; Columbia had sixteen. Why should Rutgers English struggle with only two? Mulford and Demarest appointed a professor from Lehigh University named Charles Whitman. Whitman was described by his recommenders as an expert translator of Old English, a foreign traveler, a track coach, an amateur photographer, and a fan of music. He was considered a "faithful, efficient, and successful teacher," with high morals, modesty, and tolerance. He had "conciliatory manners" and was respected by students, even those who were indifferent or hostile to literary studies. He was known for offering many hours of assistance outside of formal class time. On composition papers, an approach to modern English education that he endorsed, he always offered constructive criticism. Whitman was a dynamic choice; he would soon become Chair of the Department and would reshape Rutgers English for the next twenty-six years.

When Mulford resigned in 1911 for personal reasons, Whitman became Chair, guiding Rutgers English through a period of intense change. By that time, colleges everywhere were trying to become modern universities, and the traditional oratorical education was being replaced by new approaches. For the previous ten years, composition instruction had been tainted as remedial, as reviewing basic writing skills that students were assumed to possess already. Now, composition was increasingly being seen as a valid subject, as a way to use literature to improve and refine students' writing abilities. The discipline of literary study was recentering on appreciating, understanding, and analyzing the mechanics of a standard canon of texts, rather than on being able to read great literature, memorize it, and declaim its lessons.

The modern "vernacular literacy" that was defined by career-oriented and practical writing skills was replacing the traditional "classical literacy" that had been connected to the gentlemanly study of the great books for social and personal fulfillment. By 1915, the spirit of classical education struggled to survive modernization in the World War I era (1914-1918). Even so, modern literacy could not eradicate all the traditional values ingrained in many colleges and universities. In 1911, for example, the Elocution requirement received an abrupt name change to Public Speaking, a rhetorical maneuver showing that although Rutgers English realized the need for modernization, the Department was reluctant to let go of traditional values.

Whitman and Demarest both had strong opinions about the ideal content of English courses. Whitman argued that students could understand and master literature through modern composition courses focused on writing and thinking first, literary appreciation second. In 1915, he proposed abandoning Rutgers' traditional system of assigning formal essays on literature, unconnected with coursework, as graduation requirements. Instead, he wanted to use the usual themes of these essays as topics for courses in composition. Demarest, on the other hand, was uneasy about eliminating the traditional separation between literature and composition. He allowed the addition of "Advanced Composition" in 1916, but "the personification of Old Rutgers" also kept the "Essays" requirement, which was not eliminated until the late 1920s, after Demarest's resignation.

Rutgers as a whole continued to struggle with the project of reshaping classical education for modern needs. Although a course in the Bible and ethics would be listed as a liberal arts requirement until the mid-twenties, in 1917 Rutgers English signaled its move toward modernization by dropping the most traditional course it offered: Mulford's beloved English Bible course.

 

 


Sources Consulted: Rutgers College Course Catalogues, 1906-1945; Documents from the Office of the President, 1906-1945; William H.S. Demarest, A History of Rutgers College, 1766-1924; Richard P. McCormick, Rutgers: A Bicentennial History; Jo McMurtry, English Language, English Literacy; David R. Shumway and Craig Dionne, Disciplining English: Alternative Histories, Critical Perspectives; Mary Trachsel, Institutionalizing Literacy.

Many thanks to the staff of the Rutgers University Archives for their help in researching this article. The Archives preserve course catalogues, the administrative records of the President's office, and many other documents from the history of Rutgers.