Saturday, April 12, 2008


This week I picked up a book whose title was practically an invitation: “Why Read?” by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2004). I was aware of the author, a distinguished Humanities professor at the University of Virginia, because I’d read two of his previous books – a memoir about his favorite teacher (“Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference”) and a study of Gothic culture in pre-millennial America (“Nightmares on Main Street”). The latter was recommended to me by one of my own favorite teachers, Dr. Robert Geary, who taught English Literature for many years at James Madison University.

I can sum up my formal education in three significant steps: Mrs. Hamilton (1st grade) got me writing. Ms. Marshall (9th grade) turned me into a critical thinker. Dr. Geary (junior year of college) helped me to solidify my beliefs - simply by asking big questions. I mention this because Edmundson is the same kind of teacher - one who asks the big questions - and his 2004 book might as well have been called “Why Teach?”

Edmundson, like all great teachers, feels a burden of responsibility for the intellectual and emotional development of his students. And, like all great teachers, he has very specific ideas about what he needs to accomplish and how he should go about it. Throughout the book he promotes the education philosophy of Humanism, which he defines as “the belief that it is possible for some of us, and maybe more than some, to use secular writing as the preeminent means for shaping our lives.” This is hardly a new concept... it goes back to Matthew Arnold and beyond. I recently read a 1908 book by Harvard professor Irving Babbitt, in which he defends Humanism from encroaching perspectives, saying that “what is wanted is not training for service and training for power, but training for wisdom and training for character.” In other words, it is not the job of the teacher to prep their students just for a career but for life. “How to Be a Human Being 101”… these are your tuition dollars at work. It's an idea that was apparently very much at odds with the American education system in 1908, and is even more at odds with American culture in 2008.

In his book, Babbitt makes a clear distinction between wisdom and the accumulation of information – a distinction that greatly influenced the life and work of his student T.S. Eliot. I have spent the past four years studying Eliot – not just because I am curious about his work but because I am deeply curious about how he tried to live his life. He was not a practitioner of art for money’s sake, nor of art for art’s sake. He studied everything he could get his hands on, and wrote endlessly, as a way of better understanding himself and the world around him. He sought wisdom through an endless stream of ideas from different philosophies, different religions and different cultures. He did not simply gather these ideas like an Internet encyclopedia; he assimilated them into his own perspective on the world via a process that Babbitt likens to alchemy of the soul.

Edmundson wants the same thing for his students. They ask: Why read? He answers: So that we can better address the most vital questions in life. Who am I? What might I become? I remember being bowled over by such thoughts as I read “The Catcher in the Rye” for the first time in a high school English class. Should one believe in God? What is truth? How does one lead a good life? These questions popped up time and time again, demanding to be answered, when I took Ms. Marshall’s course on the history of Western philosophy. The questions remained just as vital when I took Dr. Geary’s course on Theodicy in Literature four years later. What is this world in which I find myself? How might it be changed for the better? Edmundson has an answer: Read. Teach.

In the more disheartening sections of his book, the author claims that the humanities are suffering in 21st century American universities. “Universities,” he says, “have become sites not for human transformation but for training and for entertaining. Unconfronted by major issues, students use the humanities as they can. They use them to prepare for lucrative careers. They acquire marketable skills. Or, they find in their classes sources of easy pleasure. They read to enjoy, but not to become other than they are.” Irving Babbitt said much the same thing in 1908. In his book “Literature and the American College,” he maintained that the humanities needed to be protected from being overrun by science and business, as they had once needed to be protected from religion. Not much has changed. The number of students who study the humanities (whether by choice or by requirement) continues to decline, and the discipline itself has been fractured since the so-called "culture wars" of the 1990s.

Edmundson argues that business and religion now pose the biggest threat to the kind of education he is promoting. In our current political climate, professors often avoid the topic of religion. “We teachers strike an unspoken agreement with religion and its dispensers,” Edmundson admits, guiltily, “They do their work, we do ours.” Speaking for myself, I can say that the exceptions to this unspoken rule were the courses that influenced me the most: Ms. Marshall’s course on Western philosophy and Dr. Geary’s course on Theodicy in Literature. These two classes stand out against all the others because they dealt with the most important questions I could ask. Like all students, I wanted – above all – to know how I fit into the world. The books I read in those classes helped me gradually to figure that out, in just the manner that Edmundson describes: “the reader may encounter aspects of themselves that, while they have perhaps been in existence for a long time, have remained unnamed, undescribed, and therefore in a certain sense unknown.”

Why read? Because that is how we stimulate the alchemy of the soul.

Why teach? Because without such introductions to the literature of universals, very few of us would know how or where to begin looking for our place in the world. There are simply too many things vying for students’ attention - often we don't find Socrates or Freud or T.S. Eliot without a pretty strong push in that direction. Students (hell, even adults) need help in discriminating between worlds of competing influences. It’s worth noting Edmundson’s stipulation that the teacher should not simply teach the things that form his or her personal worldview, but point students toward the texts that help them form or revise their own worldviews.

Toward the end of his book, Edmundson mentions Northrop Frye, author of a study of William Blake entitled "Fearful Symmetry," as an example of an ideal teacher – a type of critic who reinvigorates the classics for modern audiences: “A valuable literary critic is not someone who debunks canonical figures, or who puts writers into their historical contexts, or, in general, one who propounds new and brilliant theories of interpretation. A valuable critic, rather, is one who brings forth the philosophy of life latent in major works of art and imagination. He makes the author’s implicit wisdom explicit, and he offers that wisdom to the judgment of the world.” Edmundson demands the same thing of critics of T.S. Eliot: “The true T.S. Eliot scholar is not a grubber after Eliot-related facts, or the creator of ingeniously baroque readings of Eliot. He is not the source of minutiae for the Eliot newsletter or any other such thing… He is, or ought to be, Eliot’s disciple. He is responsible for so immersing himself in Eliot that only he and very few others can plausibly bring Eliot’s vision alive in the current world, which, as the critic deeply believes (or why would he have become a deep student of Eliot to begin with?), has sore need of it.” This is what I've tried to achieve with my study of T.S. Eliot.

Edmundson describes the job of the teacher, the scholar, and the critic alike as “offering past wealth to the present.” It’s a job, he maintains, that is more necessary than ever – as humanities curricula move away from the literary canon in favor of pop culture entertainment, away from universals in favor of ephemeral particulars, away from wisdom in favor of accumulated information. It’s a job that is necessary because it encourages Babbitt’s “subtle alchemy by which mere learning is transmuted into culture.” And without culture, what do we have? Just a lot of information without the wisdom to use it for a better life.


  1. So much about this post rings true to me... Tony and I were just talking the other day about our modern society's lack of a shared cultural experience. You can literally put yourself in a bubble and never hear, see, read or experience anything you don't want to, thanks to the Internet. (Of course, the big exception to this is must-see-tv, but most shows these days are so watered-down and PC and homogenized that I don't really count them as influencing any sort of cultural development.) The assertion you mentioned about colleges being places to entertain and collect marketable skills rings painfully true; it was mostly already that way when I was there in the 90's.

  2. Joe -

    I can confirm--at least in part, though maybe not on the same terms as Eliot--the need for humanism to stay a central part of today's college curriculum. I've considered myself a fairly dedicated humanist for the last several years. It defines who I am, as well as how I think, how I approach the world, and how I come to change how I think and how I approach the world. Now in graduate school doing film studies in an English program, I see that my own interest of learning, the written word, and the unfettered exchange of ideas does not quite translate across the spectrum.

    My biggest worry as somebody entering "the education industry" (humanists cringe at this phrase) is that tomorrow's students will have done no critical legwork outside of the classroom. I notice it a bit in my film history classes right now. The humanist in me doesn't just shudder when I realize that none of my students have heard of Arthur Penn, it starts to feel even more weak once I say one or two sentences about him, watch them write those scraps of information down, and realize that those few lines are probably the last time that most of them will ever consider the man and his work.

    My remedy, so far at least, is to enthusiastically tell them about other readings, other similar films, and any associated bit of culture that could be of interest if they liked the central object of study from class. Beyond hoping that the students "get something out of" the class--some historical sense, a new critical vocabulary, hopefully more than idle cocktail party chatter--I want them to be able to similarly impart an enthusiasm (or a grave skepticism, take your pick) to other people. For me, the humanist spirit is the discovery and ingestion of the learned thing, but then the transmission, discussion, and consideration of that thing to/with other people. Though there is learning in organized religion, I am more interested in critically received nuggets of wisdom, and not so much in any passive acceptance of dogmatic truth.

  3. I think it's the exceptions to the rule that make all the difference in education today - one teacher or one class can shape a student's life more than all the others combined. Maybe it's always been that way. Whether or not those teachers are part of your formal education is another issue. I think of John Muir's posts on Johnny Byrne, who was obviously a big influence. And also Bobby's recent post on Don Geronimo...

    Kevin, don't feel too discouraged about your film class. Speaking for myself - I found my way to T.S. Eliot through a very short, very casual reference to "The Waste Land" in a Stephen King novel. Sometimes it doesn't take much. That casual reference has ultimately had a profound effect.

    As for Eliot's particular brand of humanism... well, I have my reservations too. My study follows him right up to the point of religious conversion, where I have to veer off in another direction. But that's a subject for a completely different post. Or book.

  4. Dennis Fischer4/14/2008

    I too am a proponent of Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, and the now discarded New Criticism, which sadly was supplanted at universities by Foucault and his pernicious philosophy of "deconstructionism." Instead of pursuing literature to explore deeper meanings, the philosophy of deconstructionism is that language is so ambiguous that no definitive readings are ever possible. The basic idea was to take linguistic concepts and apply them to literature.

    As a long time high school English teacher in California, I recall the disaster that was the "whole language" approach, based on the misguided concept that students would pick up spelling and grammar by omosis through prolonged exposure to literature. At the same time multiculturalism insisted that the Western canon be revised not to include so many dead white males with the result that many foreign and women writers were introduced (which certainly are voices that deserve to be heard from), but at the expense of a long self-critical tradition that confronted cultural shortcomings and ethical dilemmas head-on. The consequence was a large group of students who never did learn to spell, use grammar correctly, or recall which works of literature were fundamental to American culture (a concept, with less literature recalled by modern students, that is getting harder and harder for the average person to define).

    On top of that, the California Dept. of Education synched up with the Dept. of Labor to explore what kind of workers employers needed. What was emphasized was the need for young people to be able to work peacefully together, so a program called "Second to None" was concocted that insisted that group learning was the best and only way to teach California's students. As a long time student and educator, I have long been well aware that the drawback to group learning is that most groups tend to throw responsibility on the most conscientious member and not take responsibility for individual learning. (With a typical group of four, one member would easily pass the test when tested individual while his or her three compatriots would expose their persistent lack of knowledge and engagement).

    Naturally, in a capitalist society, money talks, and so it has become received wisdom that education is no longer to be considered an end in itself, but rather the means to access higher paying jobs and ambitions (while those who lack ambition tend to simply party and drop out). However, our young people are ignorant, not foolish, and they can't help that the people who are best compensated appear to be entertainers and sports figures. They prefer to listen to those who are better remunerated in hopes that they can be better remunerated themselves.

    However, persistent game playing and television watching means that modern pupils have a paucity of vocabulary. There are many words and concepts that they are not getting exposed to simply because they are self-restricting and limited in their reading. Their horizons often are not getting stretched, though their access to the best of what Western Civilization has to offer has never been greater.

    According to Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." That still remains true as ever. And Plato told us the unexamined life is not worth living. It sounds as if the book Why Read? gives a good indication why this is so.