Lessons from the Short History of Writing Instruction

Abbott, Don Paul

A Commentary on "Chapter 5: Rhetoric and Writing in the Renaissance" in A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

I find it difficult not to apply the “Lessons From The Short History of Writing Instruction to the current debates about how writing might best be taught in the university. At my own campus, like many before it, administrators have discovered (by means mysterious) that “our students don’t write very well.” Therefore, a task force has been assembled and charged, a report written, and deliberations begun about how best to “deliver” writing instruction to California undergraduates in the twenty-first century. Our particular task force has issued a report informed by two “guiding principles:”

  1. “Writing instruction and practice is the responsibility of the entire university, not a single department or set of departments.”
  2. “A university writing requirement should disperse writing instruction throughout the undergraduate years.”

While these premises seem entirely reasonable, they serve to underscore how far we have departed from Renaissance approaches to writing instruction. The sixteenth-century schoolmaster would be puzzled both by the departmentalization of learning and by the resultant need to “disperse” writing instruction across a departmentalized curriculum. The task force’s recommendations are reminiscent of “writing across the curriculum,” whereas, in the Renaissance writing (together with speaking) was the curriculum. The Renaissance classroom witnessed an intensive, even relentless, education in language. In contrast, dissatisfaction with the level of student writing is perhaps inevitable in a system that views writing instruction as module that can be inserted or deleted from the curriculum in response to pedagogical fashion or administrative anxiety. While it is not possible, nor even desirable, to return to Renaissance pedagogy, we should nevertheless attend carefully to the Renaissance commitment to the centrality of language, not only in writing courses, nor in humanities courses, but in (rather than across) the entire curriculum. In particular, two fundamental aspects of Renaissance education deserve careful contemplation. First: the belief in the efficacy of a progression of increasingly complex writing and speaking exercises from the earliest to the latest stages of the student’s career. Second: the conviction that speaking and writing are inextricably linked and must be perfected in concert, not departmentalized into discrete activities. Finally, we might remember that rhetoric in the Renaissance was not so much a course as an education. Likewise, if writing and speaking could be viewed not only as subjects, but also as essential elements of learning at every level, we might recapture something of the Renaissance spirit while mollifying a few administrators along the way. We cannot, and should not, recreate the sixteenth-century classroom, but the beginning of the twenty first century is an appropriate time to seriously consider the lessons of earlier centuries.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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