A Commentary on "Chapter 6: Writing Instruction in Great Britain: the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries" in A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America
In my formative years, nearly everything I learned about writing instruction in Great Britain I learned from Winifred Horner. When, years later, she asked me to revise her chapter for this new edition of Short History, I felt honored. Volume editor James Murphy gave his authors marching orders: study reviews of the first edition and answer criticisms raised. Horner’s chapter, on British writing instruction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, needed to be expanded in several directions. Wales and Ireland needed to be covered, for example, and the discussion of England required some elaboration (Scotland was well represented). Additionally, we needed to address the issue of female education.
Let me comment on two lessons of many that I learned from revising the chapter. First, two centuries and four countries provide a rich array of pedagogical practices that differed by region, economic class, grade level, and gender. Each deserves—each demands—particular representation that defies generalization. Yet, generalizations are the stock of the historian’s trade. Paradoxically, they’re also critical to understanding a period. I thus learned to negotiate between the general rule and the exception. That is, while attempting to offer valid generalizations, I was careful to underscore the dangers of doing so.
The second lesson follows from the first: readers new to a period require both broad statements about practices and concrete examples of exercises. It’s surprising how often we write about pedagogy without offering the reader detailed examples to help bring the lesson alive. But again, there’s a constant tension between the two—a healthy tension—that leaves us wondering if we’ve successfully achieved such a precarious balance.
Finally, and predictably I suppose, the more I examined this period, the more complex it seemed; the longer the chapter got, the less adequate it seemed. The rich variety of practices left me humbled—not a bad state of mind for a historian. Better to feel inadequate and admiring of another period than arrogant and dismissive. For as I learned not in kindergarten but from Win Horner, treat another historical period with the same care and close attention that I’d expect from a study of my own class.