Dissertation Research

“A Polished, Practical, or Profound Education: The Negotiation of (Gendered) Literacies and Higher Learning in Louisville’s First Free Public High Schools, 1856-1896” is an archival project that investigates the first public high schools in Louisville as they negotiated the means and ends of providing higher education to an increasingly diverse and expanding body of learners. Drawing on primary documents from the schools’ first four decades of operation, particularly school board reports, newspapers, and student writing, this project investigates an institutional site, geographic space and historical time period that is very much “on the margins” of most histories, often overlooked not only by our field, but even by most histories of American high schools. In attending to the Louisville high schools, I foreground the interplay and overlap between regional and institutional identities and histories, which contribute to a rich and complex picture of “higher education” in the nineteenth-century US.

My attention to the high schools follows on the work of David Gold, Jessica Enoch, and other historians who have looked increasingly at sites of rhetorical education outside of the elite college, particularly highlighting the ways historical high schools blur the boundaries between institutional designations in their provision of higher learning. Male High School of Louisville, for instance, was formally recognized by the state of Kentucky as a university in 1861, and conferred Bachelors and Masters degrees until 1911. This fact brings the historical high school fully into our disciplinary purview, highlighting the continued overlaps between various institutional missions and identities despite the persistently enforced disciplinary divide between them (which is particularly evidenced by the ongoing disjuncture between the field of education and that of rhetoric and composition). The uncertain position of the early high school in the educational landscape of the time reminds us of the contingency of our current institutional configurations, and encourages us to look across institutions and disciplines for insights into both where we have come from and where we are heading in higher education. The contribution of high schools to our understanding of rhetorical education is particularly important for recovering histories of women’s practices, as, according to educational historian Kathleen Davies, women remained underrepresented in colleges until 1978 but have been a majority of the graduates from high schools since at least 1870.

Each chapter of the dissertation explores a distinct but overlapping aspect of the curriculum—including “practical” education, women’s education, and manual or industrial education—that contributes to a rich ecological perspective of the political, social, economic, and gendered aspects of rhetorical education being negotiated for an increasingly diverse student body across the last half of the century. Together, the arguments forwarded in each chapter demonstrate the value of examining high schools as sites of pedagogical innovation, rhetorical opportunity, and citizenship training of significance both to our rhetorical histories and to the ways we address contemporary reform efforts in higher education today.

In “The Idea(l) of the High School,” I begin by providing an overview of historical scholarship from both rhetoric and composition and education that has informed this project, highlighting the productive intersections between these two bodies of scholarship for considering the history of rhetorical education. In this chapter, I also provide an introduction to the high schools themselves as collegiate institutions serving the higher education needs of the city’s students, outlining the general justifications for establishing these schools—which included, especially, providing teachers for the lower schools and providing access to higher education in the student’s home community to develop citizens and workers—and tracing the major developments that attended the first decades of their operation.

My second chapter, “The Practical and Practice: William N. Hailmann and the Louisville High Schools,” focuses on the first decade of the schools’ operation, during which European educational philosophies of the “new education” were introduced to Louisville’s schools by science professor William N. Hailmann. Under the influence of Hailmann, educational theories associated with the lower schools (particularly “object teaching”) were being applied to a collegiate learning context, replacing traditional disciplinary values of memorization and recitation with student-centered methods emphasizing self-activity, hands-on practice, and a “pedagogy of interest” as the basis for a “practical” education. Following Linda Adler-Kassner’s “Liberal Learning, Professional Training and Disciplinarity” and Min Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner’s “Composing Careers in Global-Local Context,” I argue that this notion of practical education, as grounded in meaningful student-centered practice and learning across one’s lifetime, provides an alternative definition and purpose for a “practical” liberal arts education that can be drawn on to counter reductively career-oriented appeals circulating in current educational reform discourse.

“The Flower of Democracy: Female High School” focuses specifically on the opportunities for young women. Building on the student-centered academic focus provided by the new education, women at Female High School were afforded remarkable opportunities to develop as rhetors and teachers, and to pursue both high academic standards and professionalization opportunities at a time when these two aims were seldom combined for women (Farnham). In this chapter, I argue that the construction of these young women as “high school girls” (even though they were as old as 21) alleviated concerns about their rhetorical participation, while their role as future teachers provided a frame for their civic participation and professionalization. In particular, I focus on the opportunities for women’s rhetorical engagement from within the seemingly contained but very much public school ceremonies. I analyze three student essays from the 1860 commencement ceremonies to demonstrate the ways students used this traditionally epideictic rhetorical context as a venue for deliberative rhetoric that commented on their own experiences as women and students. The perceived innocuousness of the “high school girl” and her public service role as a future teacher enabled remarkable opportunities for rhetorical development and civic participation that have been overlooked in our emphasis on colleges, and provides insights into how we might conceive of publicly engaged students and pedagogies today.

“The Mind and Body of Higher Learning” traces the constriction of opportunities for rhetorical education through the development of differentiated programs in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The differentiated programs were increasingly focused on preparing students for particular career outcomes, and led to the construction of students as gendered and classed learners. In particular, I argue that the emerging attention to students’ material needs and embodiment served as a warrant for developing curricular programs that confirmed rather than afforded opportunities for students to transcend their social class positions and available gender roles. This account helps us understand the ongoing devaluation of manual education and careers, and has explanatory power for understanding the eclipse of what Graves calls the “female scholar” by the “domesticated citizen” by the end of the century.

In my final chapter, I present a summary view of the historical and historiographic insights provided by a study of the Louisville high schools. Here, I link the account of Louisville to national educational trends and discourse to show how Louisville is representative of the national attempts to determine the means and ends of higher education for an expanding educational market, highlighting the resonances with current reform efforts in higher education.