Mark Edmundson has a message for this fall’s crop of first-year university students: If you’re going to university in search of what universities have traditionally offered — which is to say, an education — you had better be prepared to meet some resistance. Edmundson asserts in his book “Why Teach?” that universities have largely lost their way: Their administrators, and many of their faculty, are less interested in developing their students' intellectual capacities, in giving them access to the treasures of our culture and in helping them discover themselves and grow as people than they are in keeping students happy with flashy technology, pop culture references and inflated grades.
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Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and when he talks about a "good" or "real" education, he means a liberal arts education: one that emphasizes the humanities, in particular the reading of literature, and takes self-development rather than career preparation as its primary goal. The fact that most universities, and most students, now focus on job training and show little interest in exploring perpetually perplexing questions and trying to impart deep values strikes Edmundson as disturbing and wrongheaded. "What does it mean," he asks, "for a university to stop seeing itself as having something like a spiritual mission and begin acting like a commercial venture?"
Regardless of what it means, there is no question that universities have undergone a radical shift in the way education is perceived. The people who run universities — and many of the people who teach in them — no longer believe in the value of learning for its own sake, let alone such hoary ideas as truth, virtue or wisdom. What they care about is pleasing the students so that those students will continue to enroll and pay the tuition that funds the university's operations, and so that those students will give high evaluations now required of professors for retention and promotion. And, as Edmundson points out, students who have been raised in a consumption-based society in which the fundamental values are monetary, the most respected virtues are agreeableness and speed, and the highest conceivable end is to be constantly diverted and entertained are unlikely to demand to be challenged, made uncomfortable or forced to confront and critique their basic beliefs.
Yet it is those students who suffer. "The quest at the center of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest: it's a necessity quest," Edmundson writes. "If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation — maybe quiet; maybe, in time, very loud — and I am not exaggerating. For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are, which, in the long run, is killing."
Unfortunately, Edmundson asserts, most university education is concerned with making us other than who we are. "Current schooling, from the primary grades through college, is about tooling people to do what society (as its least imaginative members conceive it) needs done. We are educated to fill roles, not to expand our minds and deepen our hearts."
Some will find it easy to scoff at such lofty sentiments. Indeed, scoffing — particularly when lofty sentiments are the target — has become something close to an automatic reflex in our society, and I think Edmundson is on to something when he points out how much harm is done by the desire to look cool, to avoid showing enthusiasm, to appear above sincere expressions of genuine feeling. It used to be that professors were willing to display a passionate interest in the subjects to whose studies they had devoted their lives. If this alienated some students, or invited a certain degree of easy mockery, it also served as an encouraging example and role model for those students who were potentially capable of passionate interest and commitment. To avoid such displays, as so many professors do now in the interest of trying to look cool (or at least relevant), is to rob students of this opportunity.
Edmundson's passionate dedication to and enthusiasm for teaching make the book, despite the grimness of its portrait of American universities today, a spirited and cheering read. I had the occasional quibble with Edmundson's claims — and once or twice I wasn't quite clear what he was getting at — but for the most part I found his descriptions, diagnoses and suggestions accurate and insightful, even inspiring.
I found myself wanting to give copies of "Why Teach?" not only to all of my university colleagues but to my students. Perhaps some of them would dismiss Edmundson as a crank, a Luddite or some sort of malcontent. But others, I'm sure, would recognize him for who he is: an optimist and an idealist who believes that true education makes students into something far more valuable than consumerist robots and who believes that universities can still offer this kind of education. All it would take is for those of us who have chosen teaching as our profession to remember that we made this choice because we believed in values that transcend the shallow and deeply corrosive values of the marketplace, and to find the integrity to proclaim our belief in those values to each other, to our students, and to the world.
Troy Jollimore is a 2013 Guggenheim fellow and a philosophy professor at California State University, Chico. His books include "Love's Vision" and "At Lake Scugog: Poems."
By Mark Edmundson, Bloomsbury, 240 pages, $24Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun