Across the nineteenth century, school leaders at all levels were imagining the possibilities and promises of higher learning for a rapidly expanding audience of American students. The contours and limits of what that “higher learning” entailed was still very much up for discussion. That is, the divides between academies, high schools, colleges, normal schools, and the like were not clear—though the aspirations of all were high. For example, according to the principal of Louisville’s Female High School, high schools were going to transform the workforce, the teaching force, the general citizenry—no less than all of civilization. If schools with such a mission as this weren’t considered part of higher education, it would be difficult to articulate higher goals than these.
Recognizing that we do not, in fact, tend to think of high schools as part of the history of higher education, Composing the American High School explores the continually vexing, if often under-examined, connections between writing instruction in American high schools and colleges. The book analyzes archival evidence as diverse as school board reports, news publications, and faculty and student writing to demonstrate that high schools were a vital context for advanced writing instruction for individuals and communities, and not usefully distinguished from colleges in their early years. Instead, high schools are very clearly a part of the democratic impulse to increase access to higher learning to a broad array of students, and were sites of meaningful, theorized writing and rhetoric instruction that prepared students as teachers, writers, workers and community leaders. As such, they provide significant insights into the histories of writing teaching and learning for groups least represented by traditional histories in the field of rhetoric and composition: women, African American, and working class students, who were variously debarred or discouraged from nineteenth-century colleges proper.
Because A Shared History takes seriously the role of high schools in the history of college writing, it addresses a blind spot in the field of rhetoric and composition, which has tended to ignore the histories of high schools, and bridges a gap between the fields of rhetoric and composition and education, which too seldom collaborate around their shared histories and investments in writing studies. It provides a shared history for secondary and college teachers, as opposed to a narrative of division and distinctiveness that relies on the suppression of value of high schools in relation to colleges. With the strong emergence of dual credit and concurrent enrollment programs in recent years, these connections and the definitional question of “what is college-level writing” is taking on pressing relevance to teachers and students alike, and historically grounded perspectives will help us articulate purposes and definitions for college-level writing that will endure even as institutional landscapes and labor relations continue to shift. In providing this historical context, this research project offers relevant and valuable information to both historians and those invested in the schools of today and tomorrow.