My responses to Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2013), are mixed. I appreciate Edmundson’s dedication to teaching, but not his narrow sense of what it can be. He misjudges and underestimates contemporary students. He is glib, flippant, and prone to jerking his knee. Although some of his objections to the impact of technology on students and learning are apt, he doesn’t acknowledge the advantages it offers. Finally, we can all groan and moan about the good old days when universities weren’t sprawling corporate structures, but those days are never coming back. Those of us who might feel marginalized by the changes that continue to take place in modern universities really need to take stock and decide how to preserve and nurture what is valuable about what we do. Only in this way can we effectively oppose the dark forces that threaten to transform universities into technocratic mind-control job creation factories. Humanists, in particular, need to abandon their self-marginalizing defensiveness and enter aggressively into the fray and demonstrate their value to the larger university mission.
Edmundson is in a sense locked within the frame of his own life and teaching style. It limits almost everything he says. He assumes that teachers who make references to popular culture, who use group exercises, who encourage discussion, who flip the classroom are pandering. I think he is right to caution about such practices, but he fails to recognize that they can actually have value. He needs to accept that there are more teaching styles than one, and that different bodies of knowledge may require different methods of presentation in the classroom. Change and evolution are natural, inevitable.
Yet Edmundson’s time frame is my own, and I can therefore appreciate and sometimes share his point of view, his concerns about how important advantages of teaching and of universities are being lost, about the disappearance of standards. I believe in drawing distinctions between great ideas and works of art and shoddy, transient ephemera. I believe it is wrong to allow students to think that all opinions (including their own) are equally worthy.
Where Edmundson really resonates with me is in his sense of teaching as a way of helping students discover themselves and the paths they will take in their lives. He refers to this as helping students “learn how to live.” He uses the word “transformation.” He is specifically referring to the teaching of literature and to the notion that through literature one can discover one’s own deepest self. I agree and fully embrace that position although I think the teaching of any subject can lead towards the same end.