Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Instant Classic?

I don't know what else to say about Mark Edmundson's essay on the purpose of college in the Oxford American — except that I love it. It's moving, heartfelt, and true. Its main claims are (1) the true value of college is in confronting texts and traditions that know you better than you know yourself, and in so doing, bring about self-understanding, and (2)  the disengagement compact is an obstacle to realizing this value, compelling those who seek this value to go looking for it during their college years by "making trouble".

Some tidbits I particularly liked:

 So, if you want an education, the odds aren’t with you: The professors are off doing what they call their own work; the other students, who’ve doped out the way the place runs, are busy leaving the professors alone and getting themselves in position for bright and shining futures; the student-services people are trying to keep everyone content, offering plenty of entertainment and building another state-of-the-art workout facility every few months. The development office is already scanning you for future donations. The primary function of Yale University, it’s recently been said, is to create prosperous alumni so as to enrich Yale University. 

So why make trouble? Why not just go along? Let the profs roam free in the realms of pure thought, let yourselves party in the realms of impure pleasure, and let the student-services gang assert fewer prohibitions and newer delights for you. You’ll get a good job, you’ll have plenty of friends, you’ll have a driveway of your own.

You’ll also, if my father and I are right, be truly and righteously screwed. The reason for this is simple. The quest at the center of a liberal-arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. 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.

By the time you come to college, you will have been told who you are numberless times. Your parents and friends, your teachers, your counselors, your priests and rabbis and ministers and imams have all had their say. They’ve let you know how they size you up, and they’ve let you know what they think you should value. They’ve given you a sharp and protracted taste of what they feel is good and bad, right and wrong. Much is on their side. They have confronted you with scriptures—holy books that, whatever their actual provenance, have given people what they feel to be wisdom for thousands of years. They’ve given you family traditions—you’ve learned the ways of your tribe and your community. And, too, you’ve been tested, probed, looked at up and down and through. The coach knows what your athletic prospects are, the guidance office has a sheaf of test scores that relegate you to this or that ability quadrant, and your teachers have got you pegged. You are, as Foucault might say, the intersection of many evaluative and potentially determining discourses: you boy, you girl, have been made.

...Right now, if you’re going to get a real education, you may have to be aggressive and assertive. 

Your professors will give you some fine books to read, and they’ll probably help you understand them. What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by. When you read Plato, you’ll probably learn about his metaphysics and his politics and his way of conceiving the soul. But no one will ask you if his ideas are good enough to believe in. No one will ask you, in the words of Emerson’s disciple William James, what their “cash value” might be. No one will suggest that you might use Plato as your bible for a week or a year or longer. No one, in short, will ask you to use Plato to help you change your life.

That will be up to you. You must put the question of Plato to yourself. You must ask whether reason should always rule the passions, philosophers should always rule the state, and poets should inevitably be banished from a just commonwealth. You have to ask yourself if wildly expressive music (rock and rap and the rest) deranges the soul in ways that are destructive to its health. You must inquire of yourself if balanced calm is the most desirable human state.

Occasionally—for you will need some help in fleshing-out the answers—you may have to prod your professors to see if they take the text at hand—in this case the divine and disturbing Plato—to be true. And you will have to be tough if the professor mocks you for uttering a sincere question instead of keeping matters easy for all concerned by staying detached and analytical. (Detached analysis has a place—but, in the end, you’ve got to speak from the heart and pose the question of truth.) You’ll be the one who pesters his teachers. You’ll ask your history teacher about whether there is a design to our history, whether we’re progressing or declining, or whether, in the words of a fine recent play, The History Boys, history’s “just one fuckin’ thing after another.” You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking. You’ll not only question the statistics teacher about what numbers can explain but what they can’t.

Go read it yourself (and tell us what you think!)


  1. My expectations were raised so high by your recommendation that, paradoxically, I thought I was going to be disappointed. But at first I shared your enthusiasm for the essay. Then I got to the end and was disappointed. Dedicated teachers, however great they may be, cannot expect to be paid to travel around the world lecturing. It's true that doing what you love can pay. At my school the wealthiest alumni are the former English majors, because many of them go on to become lawyers. So studying Emerson rather than Business can pay off. But this isn't the reason to study Emerson, surely.

    And what about this: "When you read Plato, you’ll probably learn about his metaphysics and his politics and his way of conceiving the soul. But no one will ask you if his ideas are good enough to believe in"? Really? That's the main thing I do (after trying to make sure the students understand what his ideas are, of course). And I really don't think I'm at all unusual in this.

    Otherwise, I agree, this is a powerful essay.

  2. DR - I'm with you. Certainly there are some instructors (of Plato and other topics) that ask students what's worth believing in. Still, I think Edmundson is correct in diagnosing a certain detachment in higher education pedagogy.

  3. Agreed. I think he hits the nail on the head as far as where people tend to focus their energy and why they do so. Everyone generally behaves rationally, and none of the major incentives encourages a focus on education.

  4. I'm not sure "is this worth believing in" is the right question to ask. I'd paraphrase the main question driving my own philosophy teaching as "Can you see how a human being could believe this?" For me the teaching drives toward a kind of constructive empathy, rather than an attempt to judge things as true or false. I assume any student who takes the constructive empathy seriously will as a matter of course make use of the insights gained when "figuring life out for themselves" (either now or later on) but it seems to me the fairly obvious answer to the question "is this worth believing in" for almost any specific view of Plato's is "for me, today, a citizen of the US in the 21st century?! Of course not!" To ask the question in any central way, then, misses whatever is of value in the text.

  5. Anonymous: I agree, or at least I think I do. I wouldn't ask students to choose between taking or leaving the whole thing. Rather, I try to get them to think about how much of it they agree with (and why), and then why someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Plato might have thought the rest of it was true too. So, yes, "how could a human being believe this?" but specifically "how could Plato believe this?" and "how much of it can you believe (and on what grounds)?"


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