Annotations

English Department
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SUNY Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
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Richard Ohmann, English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (Oxford University Press, 1976; rpt. with new introduction, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996)

One of the first critiques of the discipline of English -- from the teaching of canonical texts and specific courses such as composition to the hierarchical structure of university English Departments and their affiliated sites of "work," e.g., journals and professional organizations -- by an engaged literature scholar and teacher of writing. Reissued a decade ago, its argument remains one worth reading for all students, faculty, and administrators if they are to understand the connections between "literacy," education, and the class system in America.

Ohmann's focus in this classic text, as well as in the many contributions to journals with which he is associated such as College English and Radical Teacher, intends to provoke those invested in the field of English studies; I emphasize the term because Ohmann relentlessly seeks to place English within the horizon of capitalist society. While the form of capitalism we are now experiencing may have changed since the book's initial publication (from a state-centered to a globalized one), the salience of his analysis remains.

For those attending the Mary Louise White Symposium, passages such as the following help illustrate this book's relevance:

It seems to me that the special responsibility of literary intellectuals and scholars has to do with precisely the center of their vocation: literature itself. Academic humanists often speak of themselves, a little grandly, as the preservers and transmitters of literary culture, and I have no quarrel with that design. What should be questioned is the means of that preservation and transmission. ... I think it is accurate to say that every good poem, play, or novel, properly read, is revolutionary, in that it strikes through well-grooved habits of seeing and understanding, thus modifying some part of consciousness. Though one force of literature is to affirm the value of tradition and the continuity of culture, another, equally powerful, is to criticize that which is customary and so attack complacency. Th[e] second side of literary culture is extremely valuable in the way [Noam] Chomsky has in mind, since it ensures a difficult time for barbarism posing as humanity, for debasement of values, for vapid or vicious rhetoric, for hypocrisy in all forms (1976, 48-49).

Ohmann's reference to the essay, "The Responsibilities of the Intellectual," (in American Power and the New Mandarins, Vintage 1969) by linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, which helped inspire many scholars to start looking much closer to home--their own academic departments and their scholarly and professional participation in the discipline of English broadly speaking--in the decade that witnessed student revolts over the university's culpability in the Vietnam War, publication of The Pentagon Papers, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights and liberties by minorities and women, for keys to social change. The now infamous "culture wars" within the university had their first salvos in books such as Ohmann's, Chomsky's and others.

Ohmann's questioning of how "English in America" participates in the preservation of a hierarchical and oppressive class system thus praises the "revolutionary potential" of literature, literacy and teaching while also providing a critique of certain ways that English has been organized as a field of study within the university, revealed in passages such as:

How have we preserved and transmitted [literary culture]? A distinction is necessary. The critical force of literary culture must have played some role in the personal-political lives of literature professors this past decade. I admire the many teachers of literature who, like many poets, spoke out early against our government's conduct in Vietnam, and I would like to think that their humanistic training and practice helped them see and oppose injustice. But in our institutional efforts to preserve and transmit culture, I see only a denial of the critical spirit. Our computerized bibliographies, our fragmented 'fields,' our hundreds of literary journals and 30,000 books and articles, our systems of information storage and retrieval, our survey courses and historical pigeonholes, our scramble for light loads and graduate students, our 67 sections and 67 seminars, our emphasis on technique and procedure, our hierarchy of scholarly achievement, our jealous pursuit of social neutrality and political vacuity -- in all this I see a retreat from criticism and movement into more comfortable ways of life (1976, 49).

While the numbers are a little outdated and technology has altered the profession more than Ohmann probably could have imagined in the mid-1970s, the "distinction" above is as relevant now as it was then.

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