Jay Dolmage is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, where he teaches rhetoric and writing. His research interrogates rhetorical constructions of the body, bringing together disability studies and rhetorical theory. His scholarship has appeared in Rhetoric Review, Prose Studies, Journal of Advanced Composition, Disability Studies Quarterly, College English, Cultural Critique and several edited collections. Jay is Chair of the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition for the NCTE, and the Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.
In composition’s history as a remedial space (see Shaughnessy), or as a sorting gate (see Shor, Clark, Fox), from Harvard in the 1870s to CUNY in the 1970s, composition grew and contracted in reaction to diversity. The Harvard paradigm and the CUNY paradigm—which have been foundational in our histories of composition—offer interesting micro-histories that are worth exploring. We know that these two major “foundational moments” of composition were profoundly about diversity. They were also shaped by disability. In this blog post I am going to look at the Harvard moment and the CUNY moment from new angles, focusing on their relationship to disability. What’s the point? My suggestion is that in every discussion of diversity, disability can be found operating in myriad, nuanced, but often invisible ways. I want to look at two moments to reveal some of these operations, negative and positive.
Moment One: “Emergence”
Disability history in the West, unfortunately, is most powerfully defined by the eugenics era—a time when people with disabilities were sterilized, institutionalized, and when disability as a concept was used to stigmatize a wide range of non-whites and foreigners who might also be excluded or eradicated under the aegis of “better breeding.” For the greater part of Western history, people have imagined a universe with no people with disabilities in it. Every major North American institution holds this history in its bones. Eugenics has shaped attitudes about disability. What has been less fully explored is the way that the eugenic perspective on disability shaped the modern university.
The “birth” of composition in the late 19th century at Harvard represents a moment that has been extensively analyzed by others, most notably James Berlin. But I want to align this era with the attitudes about ability that the concurrent eugenic rhetoric was making popular, suggesting that these early days of composition in the U.S were shaped by eugenics and became an instrument that applied and accented eugenic ideology.
The Harvard model of education at the turn of the 20th century saw the university not as the place to elevate society based on the education of all of its citizens, but the university as a place to sort society based on the education of the “deserving” few. Ira Shor and James Berlin have written about the discipline of composition’s history as a “curricular cop and sorting machine” at Harvard, and Shor defines this as “composition for containment, control and capital growth” (“Our Apartheid” 92). For instance, in 1874 at Harvard, a test in English writing was instituted to “ensure that the new open university would not become too open, allowing new immigrants, for example, to earn degrees in science or math without demonstrating by their use of language that they belonged in the middle class” (Berlin 23).
As James W. Trent and others have shown, the history of eugenic research, testing, and promotion at Western institutions such as Stanford and Harvard shows us that universities have been the arbiter of ability in the United States. American academics have delineated and disciplined the border between able and disabled, an “us” and a “them.” The line-drawers were able to solidify their own positions as they closed the doors upon others. Charles Benedict Davenport, a Harvard Ph.D and instructor and David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, are recognized as the fathers of the American eugenics movement in the early 1900s. Davenport, perhaps the eugenics movement’s greatest proponent, defined the movement as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding” (1).
The eugenics movement resulted in the institutionalization of millions of Americans in asylums, “idiot schools,” and other warehousing institutions, where people were abused, neglected, and, often, forcibly sterilized. Many children from large immigrant families were shipped to these “asylum schools,” women were incarcerated as “hysterical,” and they housed a radically disproportionate number of African Americans, Eastern Europeans, and lower-class children, all expendable according to eugenic thinking.
Starr Jordan and Davenport also worked to apply ideas about the “natural” stratification of society at American universities, including their own. As Trent and others have pointed out, American academics systematically developed the means to segregate society based upon arbitrary ideas of ability—the university was the place for the most able, the mental institution the space for the “least.”
I want to suggest that when we study composition’s beginnings we also understand these historical contexts. There is a rhetorical history that provides a discourse and a power for this sorting—that is, the defining and stigmatizing of those excluded from the university and the justification of that move based on a eugenicist and racist “science.”
Moment Two: “Revolution”
In the 1970s, at CUNY, and specifically the City College of New York, following the explosion of open admissions, the philosophy of education shifted radically away from the Harvard paradigm. There was a movement in America towards “universal higher education” in the late 1960s, fueled by connected social movements that emphasized equity and equal opportunity.
At the time, this was a controversial move, of course. And problems arose. At CUNY, the response of the writing program was to create huge remedial basic writing classes. Ira Shor has argued that, following this advent of open admissions and the remediation of students, “basic writing added an extra sorting-out gate in front of the composition gate,” to “slow the output of college graduates” and “manage some disturbing economic and political conditions on campus and off” (“Our Apartheid” 92-93). In this way, although the push was towards universal higher education, the result at times simply added layers of stratification to the sorting function of the university.
At about the same time that CUNY was opening its doors, the disability rights movement was beginning to make substantial gains across the country. In San Francisco the very first Disabled Students Program, run by students with disabilities to provide self-advocacy, began at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970. Reacting to the history of the forced institutionalization of people with disabilities, the first Center for Independent Living was also created at Berkeley in 1972. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was then passed in 1975, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund offices were started in Berkeley and D.C in 1979, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally passed in 1990.
Throughout this time, boycotts, sit-ins, and civil disobedience became ways to draw attention to the barriers facing many people with disabilities.
CUNY and Berkeley were both part of a large ideological shift, as they were also part of a huge demographic shift. In some ways, it was the same students who were entering CUNY and organizing at Berkeley—many veterans of the Vietnam war, and many veterans of the political action against this war. These people now turned some attention to the class war that American universities had been complicit in and argued that higher education should be a civil right.
The central tenets of the disability rights movement have been pride in disability identity, collective self-representation, and a concentrated effort to remove barriers to access, perhaps most remarkably those barriers that have kept people with disabilities out of social institutions like universities. Central to this history has been the idea that disability is created in part by a social, physical, and educational environment shaped in ways that exclude. Eugenics works to strongly ground inferences about social worth in biological formulae, using science to suggest that differences between people are pre-determined, genetic and immutable.
But what if, instead of the idea that nature determines individual success, we saw the world as inequitably shaped and built, and believed instead, that the reform of society and culture would allow for a more equitable world? This view, applied to education, follows the hopeful CUNY model of “universal education”—believing that, given access, anyone can learn and, more broadly, suggesting that the university is the place to elevate society based on the education of all of its citizens, rather than a place to sort society based on the education of the “deserving” few.
As ideological compacts, as micro-historical snapshots, I want to align the CUNY moment and the Disability Rights Movement against the Harvard composition paradigm and its alliances with eugenic rhetoric. Doing so, I hope, gives us means to conceptualize broad trends in attitudes about disability as they map across histories of composition. Doing so, I also hope, helps us to better critically focus on our shared future.
What is this shared future? What will the next moments of emergence or revolution look like? And how will they bear on our discussions of diversity? Here are some ideas.
Online courses are growing at a rate of ten times the growth of on-site classes, and more than 20 percent of U.S. students took an online course in fall 2007. How can we ensure that these courses are going to be accessible to all students? How will we guard against an impulse that is the seeming inverse of this inaccessibility? That is, how will we make sure that students with disabilities are not going to be funneled away from on-site classes and into online classes as a method of exclusion?
Segregated colleges now exist for students with learning disabilities, and within regular colleges, many extra support programs for students now also come with huge price tags. If some doors are opening wider, what other doors are closing? If the ADA is providing minimal accommodations, and anything extra costs a lot, how are our colleges really responding to the diversity of learners?
An expanded understanding of a wider range of disabilities has also led to a rhetorical outpouring of troubling language: students with emotional and psychological disabilities are characterized according to their “warning signs”; students with PTSD are seen to be “ticking time bombs” and more segregated programs are being created for veterans within American colleges; autism is seen as a costly “epidemic” that is now hitting higher education. How do we respond to this stigmatization? How can we recognize the eugenic undercurrent in such discourse?
Each of these new developments may translate into a new moment for composition – an opportunity to shape or be shaped according to the diversity of the students we meet in our classrooms.