Something that rings through David Russell’s “Nineteenth Century Backgrounds” and Clay Spinuzzi’s All Edge and “Symmetry as Methodological Move” is the tension between specialization and openness.
For Russell, the changing demographic of students entering higher education and their educational needs and expectations created a conflict between more general education and the specialized training of a discipline. On the one extreme, outlines Russell, one has the elitist liberal arts curriculum, “a single required course, identical for all students, regardless of abilities, interests, or career paths” (37). In this model, departments were flexible, and each educator could change roles easily. Schools were small and communal.
This unified, homogeneous education broke down amid increased discipline-specific and technical needs, though vestiges sometimes remained–like Harvard’s “forensic system”–as a general writing requirement.
Often, this general requirement has seemed to gain power from serving some need, ranging from civic or moral formation in its early years to solving the 1970s literacy crisis more recently. Thus, a compromise often took place between the two extremes: a school empty of general requirements, and one with a substantial one. In Russell’s history discipline-specific training has seemed to push out much of the general requirement.