Citizenship and Literacy Work: Thoughts Without a Conclusion

  • Richard Ohmann


How does literacy work fit into the configuration I have been describing? One might answer, only a bit sardonically, that it doesn't have to—that higher education as a whole has reconfigured itself on the model of literacy work, having learned from English 101 how to give the customer decent service while keeping costs down and the labor force contingent. The professionalization of comp, while installing the usual apparatus (journals, conferences, a professional society, graduate programs and degrees), bringing a great advance in theoretical sophistication, and winning job security and good compensation for advanced practitioners, has made little if any difference in who does the front line work, under what regimen, for what pay, and so on. The idea that universal education underwrites a polity of free and equal citizens was contradictory to begin with. But an illusion can serve well as a common goal, and the dream of a mutually responsible, educated citizenry probably did help open the gates to higher education in the U.S., through the postwar period. In the present time of privatization and agile capital, the illusion shatters: education becomes a commodity among other commodities, with claims made for its contribution to the common good only on the basis of economic advantage. All that is solid melts into air, once again.