Back-to-School Reading: Why Yalies Can't Write

Once, as a graduate student in English, I remember reading a sentence in a quarterly, the first sentence of an essay on Faulkner. “Although virtually every character in Faulkner’s works has received extensive critical analysis, curiously little attention has been paid to the role of dogs.”I’m quoting from memory. It may not have been as bad as that. But at the time it seemed to suggest all the dutiful woe of academe.
There is still considerable sadness in our nation’s English Departments. I haven’t seen it expressed anywhere else as fully as in Richard Ohmann’s book ENGLISH IN AMERICA (Oxford, $15.00; paper, $4.95). Ohmann laments almost every aspect of the teaching of English in college, and though his accumulated displeasure sometimes turns this into a low moan of a book, it’s an intelligent and an interesting moan nevertheless.
Ohmann’s first complaint concerns the specialization that infects the profession, by which virtually every serious teacher of English must purport to be a “scholar" with a narrowly defined field. Ohmann cites a forlorn advertisement, placed by a college in Joplin, Missouri, in search of a Renaissance person—i.e., someone whose area of competence is the literature of the Renaissance. Ohmann sensibly remarks that it’s unlikely that the college either needs or wants such a person, and he says that “most students choose graduate work in our field because they like literature and writing and think that they would like to teach them to college students. I know few whose design was to be scholars, and almost no one who intended to be something as specific as a renaissance scholar.” But these reluctant scholars—their careers in mind —published hundreds of books last year on various topics in English and American literature. Ohmann recalls that he once read an entire year’s output—seventyfive books—on modern literature (for purposes of review) and that he realized he was the only person ever to have done so, or likely to do so in the future. “No one can ‘keep up’ with the modern field any more; soon fiction of the twenties will be enough.”Or Faulkner’s dogs.

Specialization is crucial to the advance of the young professor on the rise. But the standards by which various members of the profession judge one another have little to do with their essential function as others see it. Most English Departments are kept alive— their budgets and their size are determined—not by the scholarship they produce but by the number of students they process. And most of their enrollment consists not of young apprentices in Dryden, Swift, or Pope, but of students at the lowest levels, especially students of Freshman Composition. If teachers of English are unhappy about the pressure on them to produce unread monographs, they are even more depressed by the burden of responsibility for teaching large numbers of students “how to write.” It is the nasty little secret of the English Department that “the part of our job that justifies us to others within and outside the university is the part we hold in lowest regard. . .”

Why should this be? Surely not because the work lacks interest, though possibly because it abounds in frustration. For some time, teachers of English have worried over their inability to help students toward forming what the testmakers call “verbal skills.”Recently their dissatisfaction has gone public. “Why Johnny Can’t Write" was the subject of a Newsweek cover not long ago. And The Yale Alumni Magazine devoted much of its January issue to “The Writing Gap.”“Anyone who reads student writing today knows that students can’t write,” the editors said flatly, and the students they had in mind were Yalies.
Richard Ohmann has some intriguing notions about the teaching of composition. He begins by looking at some artifacts, a number of textbooks meant for use in introductory composition courses. His examples are universally bleak. They include extensive advice on “how to find a topic,” which encourages triviality. The books teach methods of argument that pretend that opinions are disposable objects and that “writer and reader . . . are prophylactically sealed in an environment of disinterestedness.” The texts advance tidy, tried-and-true patterns of organization. Not all of this advice is useless, but all of it does make writing an abstract, denatured process that occurs outside of history, place, social circumstance, and selfhood.
The books are undeniably drab, and to Ohmann they are something worse. He suggests that their failures aren’t accidental or dumb, and that in one sense they may not be failures at all. These texts, he says, are doing, in part, what is expected by the society that sponsors them. They are educating students in the skills of impersonality, in false objectivity, in deceptive fluency. It is no exaggeration of Ohmann’s position to say that he feels that this fall’s freshmen will be, in effect, educated to become authors of the Pentagon Papers of the future. He says that his profession is bought off, that it knows (at some lessthan-conscious level) what is expected of it by technocratic society, and that its pretense of maintaining “humanistic” values is a sham: “Our [the profession’s] increase in numbers and status is subsumed in the emergence of the industrial state and of its dependence upon science.”Ohmann is at pains to make clear that he views this relationship as osmotic, not conspiratorial, but a powerful relationship nonetheless.
I do not, of course, hold that the Rockefellers and du Ponts or the Kissingers and (Gerald) Fords are managing English 101, or even that they would do it to their best advantage if they were. I am holding, rather concretely, that an educational system is responsive to the personnel needs of an economic system; and, less concretely, that the educational system will support the tacit ideas of the dominant groups in the society.
English in America rests on some political assumptions, hints of which can be heard in the last sentences. The politics are both vague and assertive. Ohmann, who calls himself a radical, speaks of his book as a specimen in the literature of conversion, and talks with equanimity and imprecision about the need for “social revolution.” He has experienced the revelation Everything is political, and has moved on to its illogical corollary: Everything must be politicized. (At one moment he entertains the idea that it would be useful to issue different textbooks for different socioeconomic groups, and though he remarks on the impracticality of this idea, he seems to overlook its essential foolishness.)
Worse, Ohmann forgets about his politics when it’s convenient to do so. For a writer concerned with relationships of power, Ohmann, a professor at Wesleyan, oddly neglects the social distinctions within his own profession. He speaks of “our profession,” but the profession is large enough to contain all sorts of class distinctions and antagonisms: in terms of status, an instructor at Foothill Junior College is to a professor at Harvard much as a Chevrolet service manager is to a General Motors vice president.
Acknowledging this would mean acknowledging that English is taught quite differently from place to place, For one thing, there is likely to be much more political content (and of a kind congenial to Ohmann) in the classroom at Wesleyan than at the University of Oklahoma. And students at elite schools are much less likely to use the textbooks whose stultification Ohmann deplores.
Still, writing is a problem everywhere. Even Yale students, their alumni magazine tells us, “can’t write.” And though I resist Ohmann’s relentlessly political diagnosis, he seems to me to be absolutely right in suggesting that writing becomes an abhorrent and intimidating subject because it is conceived of as something divorced from social reality. Ohmann remarks on the way textbooks treat the crucial question of “audience.”Those that treat it at all do so as mechanistically as they treat such topics as “organization” and “argument.” They speak in terms of picking one’s audience and tailoring one’s diction, forgetting that occasion governs expository writing from the start. They don’t let on that writing is of a piece with the rest of life and that “writer and reader [are] already related to each other, socially and dynamically.”
If it is peculiarly hard to learn howto write these days, the cause may be less grand than political oppression, “the military-industrial complex,” or “the death of print,” or less grand even than the now traditional culprits, television and the movies. The blank page may look so intimidating to a student perversely because of all he knows—and one thing he knows is that he doesn’t have handy a voice adequate to his social experience.
We lack a shared language, a generally accepted mode of expression. Where does a student look for models? Everywhere he sees someone suffering from the cultural confusion that causes people such as Nelson Rockefeller. Henry Kissinger. Richard Ohmann, reviewers of books—all who raise a voice in public—to sound more dimwitted than they are. Everyone suffers, but it’s not inconceivable that everyone may gain as well. If we’re confused about how to sound in public, it is because we’re aware of the richness of language that public discourse generally excludes. American language has always been messy (and thus pleasurable), but think of the dialects that have insisted themselves into larger awareness in just the past decade. Listen to educated speech (speech, not writing) and hear its selfdoubt, its nervous inclusion of phrases and accents from hip talk, black talk, corporate talk, sports talk. Educated America is highly uncomfortable about the sound of its own voice; no wonder its students are unsure of theirs. One way to make writing into a palatable subject is to face that mutual uncertainty, and in that sense I can agree with Richard Ohmann that the classroom needs more politics—if he’ll allow that politics isn’t just a contemplation of the oppressive system, but a consideration of all that divides and unites “us.” -Richard Todd