- The Writing "Crisis"Vol. 41, No. 1, November 1978
Perhaps I should admit, at the outset, that I am not a full-fledged member of the English-teaching profession. Although I have belonged to English departments during most of my academic life, I hold no degree in English. But in any case I would like to identify myself with certain of the current concerns of the profession.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a committee interviewing candidates for the directorship of a university writing program. One candidate, himself the director of such a program, kept referring to "the crisis." Finally, one member of the committee, with some exasperation, asked, "By the way, what crisis are you talking about?" "Why, of course," the candidate responded, "the crisis in English composition."
This "crisis," we all know, is a result of the recent discovery by people at Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times, that many young Americans, even after protracted exposure to the classroom teaching of English, are still unable to write the language. Not only are they unable to write, but their skill often declines during four years of higher learning at some of our most prestigious universities. We also know that this so-called crisis is a variant of another a few years back when the same publicists discovered that Johnny couldn't read. My sense is that the present crisis—which is a name for our difficulty in helping the young to think clearly and efficiently—is inseparable from other crises of recent years—the much larger socioeconomic and political crisis of our society. I don't mean to say that there isn't much yet to be done by way of improving instruction in writing and reading—what is now called "the basics"—but I also think there is no excuse for anyone in the profession adopting the Time/Newsweek talk about "the crisis" in English composition as if it might be a merely technical, professional problem susceptible to solutions by pedagogical experts. But how are we to relate the situation in English composition to the veritable cataclysm of crises this country went through in the era of Vietnam and Watergate?
I want to consider the relationship between the low status of the profession nowadays and our tendency, as teachers, to deny or ignore larger social issues. When I speak of the profession's "low status," incidentally, I do not refer primarily to its economic but rather to its moral status as measured by the public respect it enjoys (or fails to enjoy) as compared [End Page 206] with other professions, and as compared with teachers of other academic subjects. That status, as you know, is not very high these days, and when it rises it usually does so for the wrong reasons. Like other groups which have suffered from public contempt or neglect, the English profession has reason to change the prevailing view of itself.
One way to improve the status of the profession, I would suggest, is to bear down on the precise character of the relation between the degradation of language and the degradation of institutions, of people, in this society. Although it can be grossly misleading to speak of a "crisis" in English composition and literary studies, it is a fact that many intelligent Americans only now are becoming aware of the decline in language competency of the young. While that awareness doesn't necessarily constitute a crisis, it could provide an opening, a chance to educate the public about these matters, and at the same time, provide an opportunity to raise the moral status of the profession. This means—or so I shall be arguing—that we must address ourselves to issues of language education across the whole spectrum, from elementary education through college. We must open organizational as well as pedagogical or programmatic lines of communication with other teachers and professionals concerned with literature and language. And the reason for this, most simply stated, is that the English classroom is an arena of cultural politics.
That what happens in the English classroom is closely bound up with the political health of the society is by no means a...