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Mark Edmundson's new book calls for renewed emphasis on teaching

'Real Education'
August 19, 2013

It’s a question many professors may be asking themselves this month, as they prepare for another academic year: “Why teach?”

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, answers the question in a new book, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, out Tuesday from Bloomsbury.

But what is a real education – and why does it need defending?

“It's an education in which the student follows the Platonic injunction: Know Thyself,” Edmundson said in an e-mail interview from Nova Scotia, where he recently vacationed. “And also seeks to know the world. It's not about career planning or preparation for success. When you know yourself career and success can follow with ease – if you want them.”

All too frequently, however, Edmundson argues, that kind of education is upended by the goals of the “corporate university” and the broader consumer culture, in which iPads and television largely have supplanted literature and philosophy.

“As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too,” Edmundson says in Why Teach? “For myself, I’m inclined to respond by asking another question. Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave?”

Although neither exists in pure form, the predominantly “corporate city” institution is an extension (and a shaper) of “good” high schools, where students succeed by being “all-arounders.” That means getting an "A" in every course, even if it equates to using SparkNotes for an English class in order to squeeze in a session with the math tutor between sports and clubs. Deep engagement of the material suffers, but with a turbo-charged resume, it hardly matters.

Corporate cities are easy to spot: “Most of the students – and many members of the faculty – are buzzing from place to place, always feeling a bit self-important, always feeling a bit left behind, like that poor rabbit in Alice in Wonderland,” Edmundson says.

And the people representing corporate cities? They’ll talk “a lot about new computer initiatives, about partnering with business, and about the creation of young leaders. They’ll talk about kids who have hit the Silicon Valley jackpot. …You’ll hear the word ‘excellence’ about a billion times.”

By contrast, the “scholarly enclave” teems with students “seeking knowledge so as to make the lives of other human beings better.” They’re students who want to become teachers, scientists, soldiers, doctors and legal advocates for the poor because the work matters to them more than the status a title brings, Edmundson says.

And unlike the pitches at corporate cities, you won’t hear “incentivizing” or “academic entrepreneur,” or even “excellence” more than once.

Asked if he was sure “real education” ever existed, and wasn’t just a function of nostalgia, Edmundson said it was “hard to measure.” But, he added, “For decades there have been terrific teachers of the humanities inspiring students. Those teachers still exist, but they are surely feeling beleaguered.  I hope my book gives them some encouragement.”

It’s clear Edmundson’s ideal comes from his own experiences, including his “first intellectual” --Doug Meyers, his philosophy teacher at Medford High School in Massachusetts. Trading Will Durant for Albert Camus and Ken Kesey, with a quiet but obvious disdain for the status quo, “pretty much on his own, Meyers taught me how to teach,” Edmundson wrote.

And how to think – but not without consequence.

“Meyer’s path, so appealing in its first steps, separated me from my family and cut me loose from religion,” the author says. “It sent me adrift beyond the world bordered by TV and piety and common sense. One step down that road followed another, and now I probably could not turn around if I wished to.”

It’s this kind of education Edmundson seeks to give his students.

“Not long ago a young man came to my office, plopped down, and looked at me with tired urgency,” and asked for a 10-minute pitch as to Freud’s relevance, he wrote. “Despite appearances, this was a good moment. It was a chance to try to persuade him to slow it down.” The professor advised his student to read Civilization and its Discontents, then come back for a talk.

Such one-on-one interactions are what “create a university,” he argues, allowing students and teachers to connect “not just through cold print but through gestures, intonations and jokes.” (A warning to all advocates of technology-enhanced education: Edmundson says his students should check their laptops at his classroom door.)

The professor, who also wrote Why Read? and Teacher, traces the rise of the corporate university to the post-baby boomer era, when college enrollment suddenly contracted due to the declining birth rate. Institutions were desperate to woo students, and began operating their admissions offices more like marketing departments, catering to their perceived needs.

Enter the climbing walls and elaborate dining halls and all-important student evaluations, Edmundson argues, and “exit” hard questions and meaningful student-professor interactions.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. The book -- a mix of previous essays and new work -- describes a woeful dynamic but also prescribes a cure, for both this generation of students as well as professors. Students, whose “spectacular hunger for life” is both promising and dangerous, must “slow it down and live deliberately.” There’s no better place than the college classroom to do so, Edmundson says.

Teachers, in turn, must remember their “primary job is not to help our students acquire skills, marketable skills, bankables. ...We’re not here to help our students make their minds resemble their laptops, fast and feverish.”

That doesn’t mean a real education should be easy, however. In fact, Edmundson said, “I think professors need to be willing to ask harder questions. They should pass beyond asking what Plato's text means to asking if it is true or not.”

The author acknowledged that many professors likely want to slow down to become their own versions of Mr. Meyers, but university reward systems – including student evaluations – may make that challenging, if not professionally perilous. Still, professors must try, he said. Students will be kind to professors they see as trying to reach out to them and foster growth. “The students are out there and hungry to make sense of their lives – people at that age always are.”

Faculty also must play a much bigger role in shaping the greater U.S. culture, Edmundson said. “Almost all professors should have a public voice and be willing to speak out with modesty, circumspection and authority on the issues they have experience trying to understand. They should also get the general public excited about what they love to teach and write about.”

Meghan Marshall, associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College and author of Margaret Fuller: American Life, wrote a blurb for Why Teach?, calling it an invitation to make one’s “own revolution.” (Marshall attended Edmundson’s alma mater, Bennington College, for a year with him in the 1970s before she transferred to Harvard University.)

In an e-mail interview, she said she identified with Edmundson’s description of the perceived decline of education, and the humanities in particular (the book makes the case for English as a major, calling reading a kind of “reincarnation,” being “born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess.”)

“Humanities courses are still popular and profoundly meaningful to students, but English and history departments aren't winning the battle for majors,” Marshall said. “One reason that Mark identifies is the urge to go professional too soon.”

Theory, too, is introduced too soon (Edmundson argues this in the essay “Against Readings”), Marshall said, instead of allowing students “the thrill of grappling with the big questions provoked by literature, philosophy, history and other subjects in the humanities” on their own first. And those thrilling moments happen most often in “a small classroom with a dozen students and a professor. Colleges and universities, and the government at the state and federal level, must do everything possible to ensure that the nation's youth, hungry whether they know it or not for learning that lasts a lifetime, will get it.”

J. Hillis Miller, a distinguished research professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine who taught Edmundson when he was a graduate student at Yale University, also wrote a blurb for Why Teach?, calling it "indispensable reading for all those concerned with what higher education in America and in the world should be."

Like Marshall, Miller said "real education," and the humanities in particular, need broad support, including adequate funding -- in particular, for more full-time positions.

Of course, the intellectual lives of today's students factor into the changing nature of education, he said. Undergraduates have a wealth of technological skills, but largely come to college with little knowledge of literature to begin with.

"The new media have a big influence on how young people live and think, however, probably more than Shakespeare or George Eliot," he said. "I read somewhere recently about students in a beginning literature class in a university not far from Walden Pond, not a single one of whom had ever heard of Thoreau."

 

 

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