Date of Award

Fall 2004

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas R Newkirk


This study works to develop a way of reading the functions of race in classroom contexts---specifically in the predominantly white contexts in which composition was formed as a university subject. The model of race chosen for this study is based on critical race theories that conceive of race as being socially constructed, but also a force that organizes identity and experience in powerful ways, even when (or perhaps especially when) its presence is apparently silent---or is, in the terminology of Charles Mills, "normalized."

Primary data for the study is drawn from materials related to the daily theme assignment designed by Barrett Wendell for his English 12 course at Harvard in 1886--87. Sources include the daily themes written by 22 of the 144 students who took the course, Wendell's class notes, and administrative documents from the Harvard Archives. The study situates these course materials in relation to broader cultural contexts.

The study argues that the movement to establish English as a subject in schools and universities was motivated by a desire to privilege values thought to be associated with the Anglo Saxon people and their descendants. Philological theories of the mother tongue defined language as a "race acquisition," and perceived English to be the repository of particular cultural values, as well as a highly developed set of tools for cognition. Secondly, the study argues that the educational goal of "cultivation" became racialized in the American context, where Americans identified themselves as people who were "fighting the wilderness." A new ideal of "the cultivated man" was constructed in relation to a racialized concept of wildness. Finally, the study argues that racialized concepts of liberty that understood the love of freedom as a national characteristic of the English, or considered conditions of freedom to apply only to some portions of society influenced the design of the elective curriculum, and fostered a new, more independent model of authority in the classroom.