A Profession at Risk: Teaching Humans in the New Millennium

David Clemens

Mark Edmundson likes asking difficult questions. The title of his latest collection of essays asks one that I hear more and more from despairing professors: Why Teach?  

Professor Edmundson’s book has a purpose beyond meditating on teaching, a purpose announced by the book’s subtitle, “In Defense of a Real Education.” What is real education, and why does it need defending? Each essay provides a different take on higher education’s surrender to corporatization and finds that something pervades our schools and colleges which is not “real” education at all. This faux education comes in many forms: MOOCs, assessment, SLOs, job readiness, technology, ideology, acceleration, and Big Data. Professor Edmundson’s defense of real education begins with the one variable missing from the current higher education formula: human students. 

There is no reason to teach other than students, whose greatest need is to become more fully human through a sustained interrogation of themselves by “the best which has been thought and said.” But getting students to pursue this interrogation is compromised by the means and ends of our colleges and by the nature of today’s digital natives. In a section titled “Fellow Students,” Professor Edmundson speaks to and about today’s collegians who, he says, “disturb me a little, these kind and melancholy students, who themselves seem rather frightened of their own lives.” His favorite is a student named Joon Lee, who is actually curious and displays an unabashed “capacity for enthusiasm” in a generation of students whose permanent temperature is cool and whose affect is impassive “knowingness.” Edmundson recalls his own career as a disassociated high school student. At one point, he says, “I checked out. I went low to the ground, despondent, suspicious, asleep in the outer self, barely conscious within.”

Edmundson believes that students’ real education, Keats’s “Soul-making” or character building, involves being awakened, and being asked uncomfortable questions. How else can they begin to test the limits of their self-conception and begin to grow? Edmundson likes to rouse students by asking them, “How do you imagine God?” He gets some shocked responses because his question is unexpected, discomfiting, and dangerous, because it opens up abandoned rooms and hallways in the academy’s manse.

Intending to unsettle them further, Edmundson asks incoming students, “Who are you?”:

You may not be the person that your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not. The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself.

Real education results in self-knowledge and self-awareness in the context of the past and the wider world. Edmundson describes his own high school, which, 

. . . whatever its appearances, was not a school. It was a place where you learned to do—or were punished for failing in—a variety of exercises. The content of these exercises didn’t matter at all. What mattered was form—repetition and form. You filled in blanks, conjugated, declined, diagrammed, defined, outlined, summarized, recapitulated, positioned, graphed. It did not matter what: English, geometry, biology, history, all were the same. The process treated your mind as though it was a body part capable of learning a number of protocols, simple choreographies, then repeating, repeating. 

This place sounds like the model for today’s faux higher education: standardized, measurable, machine-scored, instructed by software or video, and culminating in bubble tests. Faux education is interested in developing skilled workers, but skill development divorced from values results in graduates who know how to work, but not how to live or why. 

Another obstacle to real education is the aprioristic nature of “readings.” In the chapter “Against Readings,” Edmundson objection objects to the practice of giving students a Marxist “reading” of William Blake or a feminist “reading” of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Better, he says, for the teacher to provide a “Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot . . . .” Literature is best understood as art which can restore and renew us, where “readings” are often reductive and repetitive. 

In the penultimate essay, “Teaching the Truths,” Edmundson finally offers what he calls his “thesis statement”: 

[T]he function of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that [Richard] Rorty calls the final vocabulary [which] is potentially also a new way to live. 

Each of us has a “final vocabulary,” the words we use to describe ourselves to others, the words that represent what we believe to be true. Experiencing what others have thought to be true, in literary form, can expand or contract our own final vocabulary (meaning, of course, that our final vocabulary only seems final). He says, “[T]he process I am describing is simply one in which the self recognizes its own unarticulated order as it is shadowed forth in the thoughts of another.” The medium for encountering another’s thoughts is language because “When human beings attempt to come to terms with who they are and who they wish to be, the most effective medium is verbal.” Real education of human students, then, comes through speech and writing. 

Why Teach? concludes with “Under the Sign of Satan: Blake in the Corporate University,” a lyric essay in which Edmundson combines William Blake’s biographical details, his poems “London” and “Milton,” Miltonic and Blakean Satans, Hulk Hogan and monster trucks, college administrators, Blake’s mythical Palamabron, and a young engineering major seeking the blueprints to follow for writing fiction. His mélange of fact, anecdote, vision, literary allusion, and allegory reveals how universities have become a habitat for the gnomes of pragmatism and finance just as the humanities have grown mute, no longer able to justify their ways to man. 

In the end, Professor Edmundson sees the university as becoming ever more powerfully corporate and dehumanized, smothering teachers and students. He knows that he can defend real education but he may not be able to save it as long as professors “can’t say why Shakespeare is better than the next episode of Jersey Shore.”  

Thus, the book that began with a question concludes with a challenge to the professoriate: “If you don’t cultivate (and discipline) Satan, he’ll grow ever more powerful and ever more pragmatic.” Satan loves practical, efficient, economical training. His is the corporate university, a business that privileges monster truck rallies on campus over string quartets because it helps the bottom line. Satan says that the unexamined life is well worth living. 

Teachers must resist the corporate temptations, discipline Satan, and embrace real education—the formative education of personal growth, values, and tastes leading to a fulfilling life.  

Image: Matt Sartain/Academy of Art University, San Francisco, found at New York Times Magazine.

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