For argument’s sake, I want to return to the reductive old liberal education versus vocational education binary. On the one side, we hear that higher education is credentialing and job training; that the mission of someone who teachers first-year writing in college is to prepare students for writing research reports in their future courses and for careers of memo-writing. Composition and the university exist to help the student serve the economy. On the other side, we hear that higher education is self-development, a fostering of critical consciousness, a preparation for individual political action and self-actualization; that the mission of someone who teaches first-year writing in college is to help students to realize their potential, to help students become better people, to help students understand how they might change the world around them.
Not bad for a prose caricature, right? It’s good fun to try to funnel disputes in composition into this hopper and see how they line up, even if we all know that It’s Not That Simple. But there are still important concerns to take from that reductive binary, and the most significant one is the structuring of economic activity as somehow societal versus cultural activity as somehow individual. The (largely structuralist) vocationalists tend to take an assimilationist view, asking how students might change themselves to fit into the hierarchies of the university and the job market, whereas the (largely romantic) liberal-education folks tend to take an accomodationist view, asking how students might better themselves in order to maximize what they get out of their surroundings. (Obviously, some citations here might serve to strengthen my argument, but I’m a lazy, lazy boy, dear reader, so let me offer you some names and ask you to peg them into the appropriate holes: David Bartholomae, Lisa Delpit, Janet Emig, Linda Brodkey, James Kinneavy, Kenneth Bruffee, Linda Flower. Responses / thoughts / observations?) If the student is to work for the world, she must first change herself according to its dictates; if the student is to change the world, she must first understand herself on her own terms within the world.
Such binaries may be why many composition teachers include both personal essays and research essays in their syllabi. But what I’m getting at is that there are hidden messages sent: many composition teachers want to say “Write for yourself” when they assign the personal essay, and “Write for the world” when they assign the research essay. The thing is, writing for the world is often the only assignment that is understood to have some future productive economic value. In the contemporary mainstream economic understanding, “being yourself” is a consumptive practice. Economic production (unless you’re a member of the celebrity class) requires an abnegation of self.