In Defense of a Real Education

Posted by M ws On Thursday, September 5, 2013 0 comments
Here's Michael Roth's review of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” by Mark Edmunson as featured in NYT. Thanks to Angela who shared this link.


When young people starting their college careers ask me what they should look for when they get to campus, I tell them: find out who the great teachers are. It doesn’t matter much what the subject is. Find a real teacher, and you may open yourself to transformation — to discovering who you might become. This can be the great gift of a liberal education.

Yes, I sometimes get puzzled looks. Or eye rolls.

If I meet any students heading to the University of Virginia, I will tell them to seek out Mark Edmundson, an English professor and the author of a new collection of essays called “Why Teach?” For Mr. Edmundson, teaching is a calling, an urgent endeavor in which the lives — he says the souls — of students are at stake.

Mr. Edmundson loves to teach, but he hates the conditions under which much teaching takes place today, even at an elite university like Virginia. These conditions — the consumer mentality of students and their families, the efforts of administrators to provide a full spa experience and the rush of faculty to escape from the classroom into esoteric research — make real teachers an endangered species in the academic ecosystem. In this context, Mr. Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and who they might become. This is what a real education is all about.

Mr. Edmundson made this discovery himself just before graduating from high school. In his working-class family, college was not something taken for granted. When he told his father that he probably “should be prelaw,” his old man warned him not to waste his life studying something he thought he was supposed to be interested in. Unless he was sure about reincarnation, his father thundered, he had better make the most out of this opportunity to pursue subjects that were meaningful to him. Mr. Edmundson found his inspiration in Malcolm X, and in Emerson, Blake, Dickinson and Freud.

According to “Why Teach?,” inspiration is in short supply these days on campus. In the book’s first section, Mr. Edmundson describes the growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge. Mr. Edmundson’s critique is both personal and idealistic, drawing on his deep belief in the democratic mission of liberal education and on his practical experience as a teacher.

He knows the studies showing that students spend less time than ever on their classwork, and he writes of an implicit pact between undergraduates and professors in which teachers give high grades and thin assignments, and students reward them with positive evaluations. After all, given all the other amenities available through the university, the idea that “the courses you take should be the primary objective of going to college is tacitly considered absurd.”

After describing this unhappy shift, Mr. Edmundson’s remaining essays are devoted to “fellow students” and “fellow teachers.” He’s hard on both groups, but underneath the curmudgeonly rhetoric he is desperate to remind them of why real learning and teaching aren’t so much luxuries as necessities.


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