In a lecture at Elmhurst College on May 15, scholar Mark Edmundson presented a vigorous defense of what he calls a “real” education.
Speaking to a lively audience of students, faculty and community members, Edmundson described a real education as one that takes up the question of ideals, especially those of compassion, courage and contemplation.
A professor of English at the University of Virginia, Edmundson sees teaching as a vital endeavor in which the very souls of his students are at stake. In his recent book, Why Teach? Edmundson “reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and who they might become,” wrote Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in a New York Times review. “This is what a real education is all about.”
In his Elmhurst lecture, Edmundson said that students today are driven to seek careers grounded in security and stability—and to pursue those “at all costs”—rather than to be guided by ideals.
That pursuit to feed the self, with money and security, takes over everything and becomes a vain, lifelong attempt to fill the emptiness caused by ignoring a basic human need—that of wanting one’s life to matter, of upholding ideals through bravery, sacrifice and selflessness.
Edmundson said his goal in the classroom is to expose his students to the great thinkers and playwrights and poets—to expose them to ideals.
He urged the students in the audience, especially the seniors about to graduate, “to take this moment to consider pursuing ideals versus security, before plunging in.”
“Rather than choose a profession, choose an ideal, choose a virtue, and then find a job.”
In an interview last year with Inside Higher Ed, Edmundson defined a real education and why it needs defending. “It’s an education in which the student follows the Platonic injunction: Know Thyself … and also seeks to know the world. It’s not about career planning or preparation for success. When you know yourself, career and success can follow with ease—if you want them.”
Why Teach?, a collection of Edmundson’s essays on the subject, draws on his belief in the “democratic mission of liberal education” and his years of experience in the classroom. “He’s hard on both [students and teachers],” Roth writes in his New York Times review, “but underneath the curmudgeonly rhetoric he is desperate to remind them of why real learning and teaching aren’t so much luxuries as necessities.”
Edmundson, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale University, is the author of a number of other books, including The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll (HarperCollins, 2010); Why Read? (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004) and Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference (Random House, 2002). He also has written for numerous publications, including The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation, and is a contributing editor to Harper’s.