In The Elephants Teach D. G. Myers traces the origin of the teaching of creative writing in the university, and in the process he tells the history of the teaching of English in the university. For the last several years, I've felt as if my studying English was ill advised; I'd have done something more useful had I studied, for example, one of the sciences. But young, I was idealistic and decided to study something I love: writing and reading. Nowadays, I tend to think I could have done such without a degree; I could have studied some other field and had something to write about. The problem . . . When I look back on it, I realize that I never enjoyed studying the sciences, and so I'd have likely consigned myself to misery trying to do so. And in total, my life hasn't worked out badly; I just often wish I felt more like I had a "real" skill.
Myers's book merely confirmed a lot of what I've come to feel--that English degrees, and especially writing degrees, are essentially self-reproducing. English students study English to teach other students to teach English. And creative writers study writing to teach others how to teach others how to write.
Myers starts his work off with a discussion of philology, which predated the modern English program. Philologists studied language the way a linguist does, focusing mostly on grammar and on etymology. Where did this word come from and how should one use it? Writers, as with today, could rarely make a living writing, so they often had other professions, and only rarely did one choose philology--or the teaching of a foreign language.
It was in the late 1800s that English departments began to take shape. Philology fell from favor as the idea of composition took hold. Composition--teaching others to write--started out to be, according to Myers, actually much more like creative writing. The idea was to be creative--and teachers often didn't care what one composed be it an essay, a story, or a poem. Many classes were forged around the idea of daily compositions--journals. Part of the impetus for teaching writing, however, was also for people to learn an appreciation for reading--not so much to become a professional writer.
But as composition became more popular and was added as a requirement to many school's prerequisites, so too did composition come under fire, just as it does today. What exactly should composition teach? Creativity? Critical thinking? Rhetorical argument? Literary appreciation? Business-oriented writing for specific disciplines? As composition moved more closely into the line of rhetoric, creativity began again to be placed on the back burner.
Writers, however, began to enter the academy more and more as a means to support themselves. (Myers examines the founding of various writing colonies, which is also a rather fascinating discussion.) And that's when New Criticism came to the fore. The idea was that writers would read texts closely, examine them, see how the text worked internally, rather than looking to its linguistics or its historical origins. Criticism was, thus, a part of teaching writers to write and readers to read. (The elephants teach refers to the idea that a zoologist study not just the animal from the outside but that the zoologist actually become the animal--he or she lives the life of the elephant to understand how it is constructed. So it is that a writer lives the writing life, reads like a writer, to understand how a piece of writing is forged.)
But eventually criticism and creative writing split off. And thus we now how several segmentations in an English department--linguists, rhetoricians, critics, and creative writers. Though the process started in the 1920s, much of the influx of writers to the academy happened after World War II, with the advent of the GI bill and the upswing in the number of degrees being granted. These people needed something to do, and the federal government was happy to pump more money into the system. Creative writing was a cheap program for a university to start (most such universities were not a state's flagship institution but an outlier, looking for a program to include among its specialties). And so it is. An excess of English professors and of money led to more creative writing programs being established, which led more such programs and more and more.