A ’60s Radical Reflects: Richard Ohmann describes two scenarios of what happened in universities and society, then and afterward

Richard Ohmann, November 13, 2017, Inside Higher Education.

Activists from my cohort will soon mark 50th anniversaries of events that shook the world in 1968. We will recall, retell, reinterpret, revalue, reflect upon and draw lessons from those famous events, as well as from less famous ones that nonetheless changed alignments and life scripts.

One such event for me and other scholars in language and literature was a 1968 uprising within the Modern Language Association. It derailed the stately procedures of that learned society, infused it with rebellious politics and enraged or inspired 30,000 members. For me and others in the new MLA Radical Caucus, it helped open a pathway — on which we joined many from other academic fields — to what students were calling “relevance” in education. A heady moment. We imagined ourselves struggling toward a just and democratic society. We thought of ourselves as the academic wing of international popular movements.

At a session of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I thought to relive that rush of political euphoria and talk about its reverberations half a century later. But the conference took place this past March in a dysphoric rush instead, brought on by a decisive win of what for most academics was the “other side” — not our movement, but a nationalist one that might have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of a very different uprising and consolidation, post-Goldwater. I decided to juxtapose those two different takes on the last 50 years and suggest a few of the implications. Here are the two stories that I told.

Story No. 1

The post-World War II boom increased the prosperity of all classes and groups. Economic inequality stood at a historic low. Social movements arose to challenge injustice, especially of race and gender, and to protest an imperial war. Those movements flourished in a society that had rapidly expanded to beat swords into TV sets and cars and suburbs; to return millions of people from military to civilian life via the GI Bill; to build a military-industrial complex and fight a Cold War; to organize research and make consumer goods for profit. The flow into college of new populations both resulted from the civil rights and women’s movements as well as fueled their growth. The Vietnam War and the draft blew up a storm of antiwar activism on campuses.

With new kinds of students came demands for changes in college education. One demand was for a new kind of professor. More female, working-class and black students entered graduate study and college teaching. Their dissidence led to critique and revision of the arts and sciences curriculum: history from below, insurgent sociology, revised literary and artistic canons, the serious study of commercial culture, science for the people, African-American and women’s studies, and much more.

New disciplines like gender studies sprouted. Old ideas like Marxism, banished in the 1950s, were recovered, refreshed and blended with New Left thought. Social forms and ideas that had seemed natural turned out to be socially constructed. The university became a freer, more stimulating place to learn and teach about the world.

At the same time, classroom routines and relations lost their unquestioned authority. Composition and rhetoric became a leading venue for critique of hierarchy and for pedagogical innovation in the name of democracy and of respect for the lives, cultures and knowledges students brought with them to college. Practices of student-centered education and collaborative learning flourished.

Those changes swept through academic work and culture. They seemed liberating. When countermovements rose up against them — like the culture wars waged in the humanities by federal officials like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney — we were ready for, even a bit flattered by, the hostile attention. Higher education seemed to be developing in the direction we wanted. The university had become our neighborhood.

Story No. 2

The robust economic growth that fueled expansion of universities after 1945 was itself driven by the conversion of wartime capacity to the making of consumer goods, by the dammed-up purchasing power of people who couldn’t buy much during the war, by the big lead that U.S. capitalists had over the ruined industrialists of Europe and Japan, and by advanced scientific and technical know-how — with universities eager to help corporations further develop it.

Those conditions weakened in the 1960s. Borrowing to pay for the Vietnam War was a burden. So was the seeming end of cheap oil. By the early 1970s, U.S. capital was in trouble: meager profits, too much equality. Business leaders sought remedial strategies. They moved production south and then overseas in search of unorganized cheap labor. They outsourced and subcontracted and otherwise weakened industrial unions.

Reagan broke PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, in a show of toughness. Corporate leaders moved capital nimbly from one place to another, globalizing economic life. They fought successfully against the high marginal tax rates and support for public services that had prevailed for two decades.

Meanwhile, finances tightened up in education, especially at public universities. The party ended with the ’60s. Neoliberalism took root.

It’s no coincidence that the MLA job market in language and literature crashed in 1970, or that the crisis lengthened out into a 40-year depression. The job market in rhetoric and composition, which barely existed then, suffered less. But in both areas, the labor and rewards of teaching devolved from tenure-track faculty members to workers on contingent appointments with low pay, few benefits, little autonomy and almost no role in governance.

The degradation of labor has continued for 45 years in most of the arts and sciences — and (unevenly) across the whole university. We approach the day when postsecondary education will be a marketplace where shoppers can buy credentials — degrees, certificates, badges — that promise the best return on investment.

Nor is this shift limited to the academy. Most established professions are in similar trouble. Even in law and medicine, most senior professionals are salaried employees, surrounded by technicians, paralegals and so on, with job security comparable to that of adjunct faculty members. The managers of economic life, having reorganized physical labor to their advantage, are now deporting, outsourcing and eliminating mental labor. Conservatives stigmatize “academic elites” along with political and media elites. The professional-managerial class declines in cohesion and influence.

Story No. 2 has a political and ideological plot, as well. Beginning in the 1950s, and picking up steam after the Goldwater challenge of 1964, wealthy people such as Joseph Coors, the Walton family and the Koch brothers funded the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and many other think tanks to incubate conservative thought, institutions and eventually political campaigns. The conservative movement worked for 50 years to gain control of the Republican Party — through, for example, the Southern strategy, Reagan’s charisma, the revolt against taxes and “big government,” the mobilizing of a Christian “moral majority” and then of the Tea Party, and the nationalist fervor of last year’s presidential campaign.

Needless to say, none of those causes (even antitax purism) sits comfortably with the principles of the Republican Party’s old leadership, which Donald Trump rudely dismissed in the primaries of 2016 and has marginalized since becoming president. Old-guard leaders like David Rockefeller believed that as long as the GOP safeguarded free markets, it could tolerate such frivolities as open-carry laws on college campuses, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, a Muslim travel ban and abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol.

But how can the corporate and Wall Street factions live with an “America First” assault on the free movement of capital and labor? The tension is palpable. To be sure, many of us have grown old and hoarse forecasting a Republican Party implosion. And though one day we could be right, this band of warring factions has more power right now than any U.S. government since 1945.

What does Story No. 2 imply for the hopeful plot of Story No. 1? Might the diverse and liberated university we built in and after the 1960s survive in the interstices of the new order? Unlikely. Big history tends to swallow and digest small history.

Moreover, the main agents of big history today have aspirations for education that sharply oppose those of academic radicals 50 years ago. They want college education to be of direct use to those who will hire its consumers and would like to replace the faculty with robots. They want school and college to be private, profitable, nationalistic, maybe pious. They do not want it to be a critique of power or a force for equality and cooperation. They don’t want their taxes to support the humanities or most of the other liberal arts.

What’s to stand in the way of their project, now that they have turned back ours? As you can imagine, this is not a happy question for an academic lefty from the ’60s to ponder.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” For years, I had Antonio Gramsci’s motto on my office door.

Optimism of the will, anyone?


Richard Ohmann is professor emeritus of English at Wesleyan University. The Conference on College Composition and Communication session in which he presented an earlier version of this piece was a collaboration with Christopher Carter and Russel Durst at the University of Cincinnati, who organized the panel, and Patricia Harkin at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *