Last night, Ann Leckie turned up some information from google books that might shed light on both the origin of remedial composition courses and the durability of the narrative that grammatical education is in immediate, shocking decline. (The essay is talking about American education and history, though, so ymmv…)
Firstly, it sources the origin of English composition classes (seen as teaching remedial skills) in the mid-1880s. I hope y’all (and she) will forgive me for copy/pasting what she sent to me in IM last night. (She was retyping what she’d found in google books since you can’t copy/paste from there so there may be minor errors…)
the consolidation of the field [composition and rhetoric] came with startling rapidity after 1885, with the advent of written entrance exams at harvard in 1874 and the general adoption of such exms at most established colleges. The consolidation of composition and rhetoric did not take place because true theory or practice drove out false, but because pressing social problems demanded solutions. When more than half the candidates–the products of america’s best preparatory schools–failed the harvard entrance exams a great outcry went up. Trumpeted throughout the nation in newspapers and magazines, “the illiteracy of american boys” became an obsession…
…proposed, in the middle 1880s, that harvard institute a temproary course in remedial writing instruction, just until the crisis had passed–and require it of all incoming freshmen. This was done….it was the prototype for the required freshman course in composition that within fifteen years would be standard at almost every college in america.
The essay dates required freshman composition courses “to just after WW2, because of the influx of GI bill students who did not have upper class educations. the writer goes on to bemoan the corruption of that original, noble ecomp course.”
ETA: Blerf, I thought I might have been making a source mistake (I checked and decided I wans’t, but apparently not well) and Ann confirms it:
there’s a confusion of links here.
The “ecomp dates to WW2″ was a different link: http://www.popecenter.org/clarion_call/article.html?id=2404
The Google Books link had different historical information, that would indicate the article of that essay was wrong about WW2 being the origin of Freshman Comp.
So, yes. Sorry for the error.