‘Remediation’ in the United States: A Brief History

‘Remediation’ in the United States: A Brief History
San José State University Academic Retreat
February 11, 2016

My area of research is the history of writing instruction in American higher education. More specifically, I study the functions that writing instruction plays in institutions of higher education. The organizers of today’s event invited me to talk today about the history of remediation in America, because, as it happens, writing instruction—often combined with reading instruction—is the commonest form of remedial education in American high education, and it has been for nearly two centuries.

Before I get into the history, I want to set out some basic parameters. First, remediation is a relatively specific term that refers to programs designed for quote/unquote “underprepared students.” The assumption, and often the accompanying assertion, is that remedial students did not get some key aspect of the education they were supposed to bring to college. Remediation, therefore, is commonly cast as the repetition of some fundamental training that students should already have mastered.

Second, in keeping with this definition, remedial education nearly always refers to “Basic Skills” —usually reading, writing, math, and/or study skills. It is worth noting that designating reading, writing, math, and studying as “basic skills” reinforces a pervasive belief that they are sub-collegiate. As I noted before, remediation refers to relearning fundamental skills, and those fundaments—reading, writing, math, and studying—are therefore designated as sub-collegiate.

The definition and domains I’ve sketched here are well understood and widely used, and they feed a long-standing belief that remediation is transitory—that we are in a period of uniquely underprepared students, and that we might one day reform education to the point where remediation is not necessary. However, what my historical work suggests is something like the opposite. In fact, what I plan to argue today is that remediation and American universities are, and have always been, mutually dependent.

There is no better place to start such a history than at the beginning. Harvard College was the first institution of higher education founded in what is now the United States. It was established by the Massachusetts legislature in 1636 as a sort of finishing school for future clergymen. Harvard’s earliest curriculum was a thoroughly classical one, conducted primarily in the so-called “learned languages.” As such, the entrance requirements were simply that students could read and speak Latin and Greek. Despite its reputation as a [QUOTE] “haven for the world’s most ambitious scholars,” matriculating students were not always fully prepared. Consequently, beginning in 1636, Harvard offered remedial Latin classes.

Harvard’s remedial Latin class offers us some useful points of consideration. For one, it suggests the omnipresent tension in remedial education between access on the one hand and standards on the other. Harvard offered remedial Latin because the school needed matriculants in order to stay solvent. There was not a ready supply of college bound youth in the American colonies, and Harvard’s survival literally depended on their ability to attract students who were geographically close enough to attend and pay tuition. Harvard educators made the college accessible to whomever they could and provided whatever education students needed.

Harvard’s Latin course also points to the aspirational nature of college standards. Harvard faculty and administrators wanted students to be fluent in Latin prior to entering college, but that was an unrealistic expectation under the circumstances. Hence the need for remedial Latin. In other words, Harvard’s early standards were actually goals, not standards. For the next two centuries or so, Harvard was exemplary where remediation was concerned. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as new colleges were founded throughout the colonies and states, faculty and administrators went to great lengths to attract enough students to stay in business. Despite explicit “standards” that required students to be prepared before entering, underprepared students seemed to proliferate. Consequently, remediation was a ubiquitous survival mechanism.

In the early 1800s, as colleges strengthened, remediation took on a new cast in American higher education. Specifically, it became a more overtly political tool. In 1828, for example, a faculty committee at Yale published a report designed to defend the classical curriculum against the encroachment of modern, elective curricula. Among the arguments for maintaining the classical curriculum was that Yale (and other colleges) could provide appropriate remediation in the classical subjects (which, by that point included, quote “VULGAR ARITHMETIC”), but faculty would be less capable of serving underprepared students if the fields were expanded too greatly.

One important aspect of this argument is that it conjures remediation in support of a distinctly political cause—defending the classical curriculum—by attempting to balance access for students with quote “deficient preparation” against the standards of the college, which the authors claimed were rising every year. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the assertion of rising standards. In fact, Yale’s standards had risen considerably in the century and a quarter between when it was opened and when the Yale report was produced. The defense of the classical curriculum belies the fact that the curriculum had changed a great deal over the years. What had been courses for graduating seniors in 1701 had gradually moved toward the first year or even down into the secondary schools by the early 19th century (Broome 35-37). Even more plainly, when the Yale report was published, what counted as “deficient preparation” was very different than it had been just decades earlier. This was the case at virtually every institution of higher education.

The importance of Yale’s ever-rising standards is important in a history of remediation because it indicates that standards are moving targets. Remember I noted earlier that standards are aspirational. Once they’re achieved to any meaningful degree, standards are reimagined. This process of raising standards, which is observable throughout the history of American education, undermines one of the important claims made by the Yale authors, which is that remediation is temporary. As the argument went, if the classical curriculum was maintained, the lower schools would eventually get up to speed, and students eventually wouldn’t need remedial education. But the persistently rising standards suggests that remediation is absolutely necessary, and in fact, the need for remediation is indispensible for balancing the goals of access and standards because institutions can claim to be holding standards high enough that they’re rigorous enough to need remedial education as a bridge to underprepared students.

Through the course of the 19th century, the argument that remediation was transitory took on new dimensions, usually in keeping with evolving political goals. In 1848, the University of Wisconsin opened, and the next year, despite their dismay at having to do so, they opened a preparatory department to bridge the gap between secondary and post-secondary. The department lasted 31 years, and it was replaced with remedial classes, rather than a department, soon after. The University of Wisconsin was hardly unique in this regard.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Harvard sought attract public high school students by offering an elective curriculum. Although the goal was to boost enrollments, Harvard’s efforts were predicated on arguments bemoaning the woeful underpreparation of students. When the elective curriculum was fully in place, several courses were required in the first year, all but one of which Harvard’s president called [QUOTE] “obviously matters which properly belong to the secondary schools” [END QUOTE]. In other words, they were remedial. The notion was that they would eventually be returned to secondary schools, once the high schools got up to speed. One of the remedial courses Harvard introduced at that point was the original first-year composition course, English A, which became a model for first-year composition nationally. First-year composition has been attacked routinely and viciously over the years as belonging in high schools, and yet, it has enrolled more students than any other course in the past century.

To read through the history of remediation is to discover that on the one hand, administrators, faculty, trustees, legislators, and commentators have been complaining about the need for remedial education for centuries. But the goal, as I’ve been arguing, is tied to the moving target of standards and the unfortunate albatross of access. The results of this situation—in which standards move, access must be maintained, and remediation persists—are complicated. Burgeoning numbers of students with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds have attended colleges and universities over the past two centuries because of access to remedial education. According to recent research, underprepared students are often very well served by remediation, and many go on to graduate in similar timeframes as their [QUOTE/UNQUOTE] college-level counterparts.

At the same time, the myth that we will rid ourselves of remediation has persisted. Despite the demonstrable shifts in what constitutes “college-level” reading, writing, math, and study skills, producing well-wrought laments about the dire state of education and the regrettable need for remedial work is practically a cottage industry. Often these complaints have described courses or students using highly derogatory labels including “bonehead courses,” “the awkward squad,” and “the vandal horde.” Likewise, because of the belief that they are “sub-collegiate” basic skills courses, remedial courses have often been outsourced, degraded, defunded, and even outlawed.

Even when schools attempted to rid themselves of remediation, however, it nearly always creeps back in. In 1960, the California Master Plan for Higher Education relegated remedial instruction to California’s Community Colleges. Soon thereafter, the California Legislature cut funding to the CSU that had been earmarked for writing clinics that served underprepared students. Less than a decade later, in 1974, the CSU issued a report indicating the need for remedial courses, and two years after that the CSUs introduced the English Placement Test and remedial courses. The UCs, as well, have long found ways to accommodate underprepared students even when they were pretending not to accept them.

Rather than continuing to enumerate examples, I want to finish by returning again to Harvard. From what I can ascertain, Harvard has offered some form of remedial work in almost every year of its existence, even when it wasn’t officially requiring remedial courses. In 1914, after about 20 years of requiring remedial students to take “special instruction,” Harvard finally reintroduced an official remedial writing course. The course shifted and changed over the years, and in the 1970s, they renamed it “Expos 10: Introduction to Expository Writing.” It remains on the books to this day. What is so striking about this remedial class is that Harvard is so unlike most other post-secondary institutions in America. In 2015, they accepted fewer than 6% of their applicants—less than 2000 of the more than 37,000 people who applied. These are some of the most accomplished applicants in the world—maybe the history of the world. And Harvard still needs to offer remedial writing courses for some of them.

It’s worth asking why, and the simple answer is that students need reading, writing, math, and study skills instruction. Notwithstanding the political value of remediation in arguments about post-secondary education, the history of remediation helps us to recognize that basic skills are not basic in the sense of being prior to more complex instruction—they are basic in the sense of being fundamental to all instruction. Remediation is not going away any time soon, and perhaps counter intuitively, the final expulsion of remediation would be a bad sign for higher education because it would signal the end of aspirational standards. Remedial education allows universities to serve student needs and pursue higher standards, and I think we would do well to recognize it.

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