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Richard Ohmann: The Radical Professor Who Enraged the Right

“A feeling of inadequacy bordering on desperation.” That’s how Richard Ohmann characterized his early teaching years. “A twenty-three-year-old standing in coat and tie before privileged eighteen-year-olds, I took attendance with gravity, carefully announced that papers would be due or would be returned at the end of the hour, passed around a list of conference times, said, ‘OK, please turn to Orwell’s essay…I knew the script. They knew the script.’”

New teachers still tend to feel this way, but teaching itself has changed, and Ohmann, who died in October at 90, had a lot to do with it. Starting in the mid-1960s, as a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he helped to transform the humanities, challenging the old teacher-student hierarchy and working to confer on the study of texts by minorities and marginalized cultures an academic legitimacy they had been denied. In the years to come, he watched as conservative pundits, decrying the supposed liberal elitism of the academy, would continue to deny that legitimacy. He was an unapologetic godfather of political correctness, a visionary whose effectiveness inspired decades of Republican grumbling.

“There’s a lot of what people call P.C. at Wesleyan,” Ohmann once said. “But if I have to choose between P.C. and its antagonists, I’ll choose P.C. every time.”

An academic golden boy, Ohmann raced in the early ’60s from Harvard’s Society of Fellows to the Wesleyan faculty, advancing from tenured professor to provost and chancellor in record time. He proved equally adept at political protest, which he felt the nation’s intensifying involvement in Vietnam demanded. He wrote private letters to members of Congress, signed a public one to the president, withheld his income tax, turned in his draft card and organized support for draft resisters. After his name was mentioned on a CBS Evening News report about a rally at the Justice Department, he received a visit from the FBI.

His activism conflicted with his institutional role. “Not reform,“ he said, “but radical change was my agenda. Yet at work I was charged with holding things together against radicals like me, and as editor of College English, with sustaining the dignity of a profession whose structure and practices I now thought carceral.” He ran articles on feminism, Marxist criticism and gay liberation.

His early uneasiness with the conventional relationship between teachers and students deepened with his political commitment. He had come to see the university as implicated in the nation’s imperial project. An inflexible and inequitable grading system not only determined a student’s likelihood of professional success but was now, when a high GPA conferred exemption from the draft, a matter of life and death. The racial and ethnic homogeneity of the faculty and student body perpetuated the class system. “Every customary procedure that our professional training had naturalized now seemed laden with political relations, chiefly undemocratic,” he wrote in a 1998 essay.

At the 1968 Modern Language Association convention, Ohmann raised the political consciousness of the profession. He smuggled a printing press into his hotel room and ran off fliers to publicize a series of anti-war resolutions he was proposing. Hotel security tried to stop his colleague Louis Kampf from posting the fliers in the hotel lobby. A scuffle and police arrests ensued. Despite resistance to politicizing the conference, the resolutions passed. A New York Times editorial denounced the group’s activism: “Anti-intellectualism is getting an energetic assist these days through the irresponsible behavior of a noisy fringe group of academics.”

Ohmann wasn’t cowed. “If you are going to judge attempts at intellectual, professional, and educational reform by such frivolous standards,” he wrote in reply, “you will totally misunderstand the uneasiness now expressing itself in all academic organizations. A major part of that uneasiness is precisely about our professional gentility, our attempt to insulate our academic selves from real conflict and from serious educational and social issues.”

Under Ohmann’s aegis, Wesleyan was either the first or among the first universities to create departments of Women’s Studies and a center for Afro-American Studies. A course he designed and oversaw in the late ’70s called “Towards a Socialist America” became a model of student-directed education.

In 1976, a couple of years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Ohmann published English in America, an impassioned consideration of universities’ “inability to resist a government that was crushing the values of human freedom and of pursuit of truth, values that are the primary allegiance of the liberal university.” Selling Culture, about how magazines and magazine advertising created the American mass market at the turn of the 20th century, appeared to great acclaim in 1996, a theorist alive to complexity and able to slice through it in a lucid, genial style.

“When I had a new project, I’d tell [Dick] about it,” University of Oregon professor and Wesleyan graduate Daniel Rosenberg said. “When I was mostly done, he’d chuckle and not that gently reduce a good part of my idea to rubble. … He wouldn’t suggest that I was wrong about anything. What he did was to spin out the often-uncomfortable implications of my argument were it right.”

As a Wesleyan student, CUNY Professor Joseph Entin walked into Ohmann’s office one day, found himself working with Ohmann on a reading project, and never looked back. Entin marveled at Ohmann’s profound openness. “The teacher shall always be taught — that was Dick,” he said. “He respected everyone, without pretense, and had a truly democratic approach to knowledge and culture.”

By the time I got to Wesleyan, in the early 80s, the momentum that Ohmann had done so much to create seemed to have slowed. There were sit-ins over divestment from South Africa and the threat from the Reagan administration to end student loans, but the happenings had mostly happened. Nationally, an ascendant political right found multiculturalism to be a convenient target in the culture wars. The persistence of the conservative backlash testifies to the durability of Ohmann’s and his colleagues’ legacy. In a 1996 Wall Street Journal column, Lynne Cheney characterized Ohmann as a dangerous radical.

No small part of Ohmann’s radicalism lay in his ability to listen, the danger he posed that of higher understanding. In a splendid Greek Revival building, Ohmann ran a series of lectures — historians, theorists, critics; also poets and writers. I’d usually arrive too late to get one of the few dozen spindle-backed chairs, and walk around a staircase and through the scullery to a doorway with a side view of the lectern and, when my eyes strayed, of audience members in half- or quarter-profile. There, shadowy in the chandelier-lit parlor, the corner of a wide black plastic eyeglass frame, a blue button-down collar, a broad shoulder swiveled by a crossed arm — there, listening hard, was Dick Ohmann, living proof, through the reach of his own work and that of his students, of the possibility of change. I couldn’t see it then any better than I could see him, but I can now.

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