Revolution Lullabye

May 6, 2009

Ohmann, English in America

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1976.

This educational critique that focuses on higher education English departments, arguing that they are implicit in forwarding the capitalist, military, industrial agendas of the institutions in power (government, military, big business.) Ohmann argues against New Criticism for a return to the humanist, moralistic study of literature, one grounded in people and culture, not science. English departments, he claims, act to sort and sanction undergraduate and graduate students, assimilating them into an elite class. He draws his critique from an economic history of American industry (and its effect on education) and by looking at the MLA organization, the structure of English departments, freshman composition textbooks, the AP system, and institutional writings like The Pentagon Papers. His critique is profoundly affected by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and the students’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and he wants English departments to adopt Marxist, revolutionary agendas, to shed their apolitical stance and work for societal change.

Quotable Quotes

“Ther is just no sense in pondering the function of literature without relating it to the actual society that uses it, to the centers of power within that society, and to the institutions that mediate between literature and people. In other words, the function of literature and the role of English teachers cannot be understood except within the context of a given society and politics” (303) – texts do not exist and cannot be understood in isolation

“Meetings and memoranda are main instruments in planning, prime media of discourse in a complicated technological society” (191)

Composition arose “when the modern university was being grafted onto the old aristocratic college” (134).

“writing was no longer mainly a private and public art, but a tool of production and management” (93).

“I found it harder to believe that Humanity was being served well by the academic humanities, as our official dogma held, or that the professional apparatus we had invented was a rational structure and not a Rube Goldberg machine” (5)

Notable Notes

wants what is done by English departments and professors to matter, not just be contained in some specialist world that doesn’t communicate with reality.

looks at composition and its connection with gatekeeping. Chapter by Wallace Douglas about the Boylston Professorship at Harvard – move from classical, rhetoric as art to training for the professions, a hurdle to overcome

problem with emphasis on apolitical, childish, decontextualized, solitary, individual, private themes and attitudes towards students in freshman comp – we need to look at what kinds of writing actually are written, valued, and enact policy in the world, like the memos of the Pentagon Papers.

Pentagon Papers – the memos set an official argument, framed action, was a point (evidence) for future reference. THe memo kept policy makers in a particular frame of mind, following the warrants of the genre because the purpose behind it, the human costs of war, were never questioned or considered.  Connection to teaching professional writing, ethics

what does it mean to be a professional? independence, jurisdiction to allow others in, to train, assertion that your knowledge is special, needed, and only attained through long training in schools

industrial society values are tied up in the history of English and comp: efficiency, centralization, measurement, capitalism, management (261)

the shift to the knowledge economy raised the importance of universities to corporations, the college degree became the mark of socialization and training

professional, intellectual choices are political choices (304-305)

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