The Vale of Soul-Making

Mark Edmundson's latest collection of essays on teaching, learning and the state of the contemporary university repackages many of the laments, jeremiads and crotchety harrumphs of his previous work. Indeed, all of the essays in Why Teach (Bloomsbury, $24.00) first appeared in such publications as Harpers, The Chronicle of Higher Education or the New York Times.  

Read together, however, they form an extended cri de coeur to fellow students and teachers that real education is still possible today, but it's not easy and the obstacles--including the modern university itself--are formidable.

Somewhere in the 1990s, Edmundson notes, American higher education dropped any pretense of being driven by the intellectual and cultural pursuits of its professors and became an essentially commercial enterprise. Administrators proliferated (especially in Student Life) and admissions offices became marketing departments.  Even the physical plants of campuses began to transform. More and more they resembled "retirement spreads for the young, complete with health spas and gourmet offerings in the cafeteria."

There are various reasons for this transformation: competition for declining student populations, political pressures and, perhaps most importantly, the increasing permeation of marketplace imperatives into nearly every aspect of American life.  All of this is familiar stuff.  Any number of authors have chronicled how an increasingly-powerful economic growth model has come to define higher education's value only in terms of its contribution to product development and market competitiveness. 

But Why Teach? isn't a call for reform.  That moment has passed.  Higher education in this country is now firmly in the hands of the corporatists, and they see their mission as turning out careerist leaders who can adapt themselves to the needs of organizations, manage their functions and internalize their rules. Such leaders, Edmundson writes, may question the "presiding powers but in the manner of a minor angel, inquiring into the ways of his more opulently-fledged brethren."

There's not even much push-back these days from those who once argued that education should prepare citizens to take part in and strengthen democratic society.  You will search op-eds in vain looking for even a whisper of this idea.  Old John Dewey's body lies a-moldering in the grave. And don't bother dredging up that hoariest of educational mission statements: knowing thyself. 

Yet it's this idea (soul-making, to use Keats' phrase) that Edmundson champions.  He acknowledges that "the major enemy of education in America now is American education," but he maintains that there are still a surprising number of opportunities to be had for shaping one's soul, for acquiring a personality and even for more fully knowing oneself.  It isn't easy and you will have to work at it, but it's still there.  At almost every college and university you will still find a few professors who are strangely passionate about their subjects and their students' learning.  Every year, too, a few students show up on campus, a little lost and uncertain, but inarticulately hungry for something deeper, richer and more soulful.

That they show up lacking any language to express these aspirations is hardly surprising.  Very few of them have ever heard education discussed as anything but an expensive yet necessary process for enhancing their value as commodities in the labor market. By the time they're seniors, however, most of them get it.  I continue to be amazed by how little it takes to engage students in a deeper conversation about life and what they aspire to become.

If I ask my seniors to evaluate and reflect upon their meaningful courses and experiences, almost all of the language of a cheap transaction falls away.  The courses they value are ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest or found out something new about themselves and their own soul. On the whole I'm enormously impressed with young people. A lot of their superficiality and cynicism is only skin deep. Underneath they're just as scared, hopeful, and needy as they've ever been. And they're just as capable of sustained and deep intellectual thought as they've ever been. It's just that the world doesn't ask them to do much of it. What the world seems to want is what Max Weber feared: specialists without spirit, and sensualists without heart.

Why Teach? doesn't say much that is new about contemporary higher education. It simply says a lot of old things, most of which are still worth saying.


T.J. Brayshaw said…
Thanks for pointing me to this book. I am, literally, right now (well, not exactly RIGHT now) in the process of trying to formulate a teaching statement for my two-year review. I'm reminded of a comment a (non-teaching) friend of mine made one day after a tough day at work. He bitched and moaned, but then said "But you know, I'll do it again tomorrow because the thing I never question is whether the work I do is important." I'm putting that into my teaching statement.

Incidentally, I'm also a fly fishing professor at a liberal arts college in the midwest. Perhaps we're neighbors? Colleagues?

Professor Quest said…
Good heavens, a comment! I often feel I'm typing into the abyss. You're right, too. Teaching what you love is the best revenge (or maybe just a really good dodge). As for fly fishing, I can't wait. I'm hoping to get on a few streams in N.E. Iowa over spring break.

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