Sermons from the Ivory Tower
As soon as someone tells me something is in crisis, I immediately wonder whether it wasn’t always thus. You would think that Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, would approve of this response. In his new collection of essays, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, he repeatedly refers to Groucho Marx’s maxim from Horse Feathers, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” That’s the attitude teachers ought to have, Edmundson suggests, the one they ought to transfer to their students. If you want to teach the liberal arts, the humanities, especially literature (Edmundson uses these terms as near-synonyms), it helps to be a contrarian. But Edmundson shows no such contrarian spirit when it comes to the subject of his book: how higher education has lost its way by foregoing the lessons of the humanities. And he’s not the only one who thinks this way. It’s practically an article of faith among humanists that the disciplines they profess are about to vanish, and that higher education will lose the best part of itself when they do. The last months alone have seen the publication of Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities, to name only the most prominent titles. Why Teach? joins august — and anxious — company.
So what should teachers of the humanities do when faced with the crisis of the humanities? Should they endorse that crisis, and contribute, as Edmundson has done, to its perpetuation? Should they follow Groucho’s advice and refuse the hand-wringing? Or perhaps, like Cristopher Fynsk in his marvelous and subtle The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities, they should question the very terms of the premise. What is a crisis? Who is served by it? What are the humanities? As the political philosopher of fascism Carl Schmitt noted already in the 1920s, the rhetoric of endless crisis, with its insistence on exceptionalism and states of emergency, is a way to short-circuit the very critical thinking extolled by every defender of the humanities, Edmundson included. If we don’t question the very idea of crisis we will be reduced to diagnosing and perpetuating it.
Crises, then, can easily be put to self-interested ends, as much in the realm of publishing as of politics. And it is the cynicism of Edmundson’s book, so at odds with its purported beliefs, that is the most offensive thing about it. Here we have a series of occasional pieces which neither the author nor the publisher has done much to shape into coherence. Reading charitably, however, we can see the book not just as opportunistic but as a missed opportunity, for the subject proposed by its title — what it means to teach the liberal arts in contemporary higher education and why anyone would want to do so — is one that has yet to receive sustained attention amidst the rhetoric of crisis that afflicts all discussions of higher education. The demise of higher education is a subject of perennial fascination—or at least remuneration. (At the very least, someone thinks people want to buy these books.) But few of them focus on pedagogy, preferring instead philosophical (Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins), historical (Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas) or sociological approaches (Richard Arum & Rosipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift).
At their worst, reports of the demise of higher education more generally and the humanities more particularly rely upon what the theorist Simon During — in his recent and trenchant essay “Stop Defending the Humanities” — calls “the sermonic,” by which he means the tendency for their defenders to evangelize about “the humanities’ value for society and culture as a whole.” Such sermonizing tendencies are everywhere in Edmundson’s essays; his “defense of a real education” is composed of nothing but. Like many sermons, Edmundson’s tends toward the platitudinous and the clichéd. Good teachers “crack the shell of convention and help people look freshly at life.” Real learning “help[s] us see the world anew and show us there could be more to our lives than we thought.”
Against real learning Edmundson opposes “education,” which “prepares us for a life of conformity and workplace tedium.” Education can be redeemed only when preceded by the phrase “liberal arts”:
A liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessary quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation . . . you risk trying to be someone other than who you are, which in the long run is killing.
The particular sentiment here, which presupposes something like the acceptance of who one really is, can be made to fit with the general idea that “the experience of change is at the heart of literary education” only if personality is initially false or flawed, which Edmundson seems to believe is indeed the case in contemporary America. But paradoxically the idea of personality itself is upheld. That term is never held up to scrutiny. The book’s greatest weakness is that it always assumes the very terms it ought to be investigating. Edmundson never asks, for example, who or what the idea of personality or identity might be serving. As we can see in the surprising final word of the passage just cited (“killing”), Edmundson’s rhetoric tends to the extravagant: his claims are as grandiose as his thinking is hazy. Real learning provides nothing less than “a rebirth, often of a secular sort.” A proper education makes us ask fundamental questions “about ultimate values,” about how to live. Liberal arts education is nothing less than the place where “souls are won and lost.”
Using the philosopher Richard Rorty’s idea of “final vocabularies”—“the ultimate set of terms we use in order to confer value on experience” — Edmundson concludes that
the function of a liberal arts education . . . is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that Rorty calls the final vocabulary.
To do so will be to make us think about and (it apparently follows) change the way we live. The alliteration of Edmundson’s list of apparent synonyms is broken by the word “overwhelm,” which is an apt description of Edmundson’s rhetoric. By using many words when one will do, he replaces argument with incantation. Just as these terms are not the synonyms Edmundson seems to think they are when he places them in apposition (replacing isn’t the same as reaffirming, for example — if anything it’s the opposite) so too the claims he makes for the humanities are jumbled and incoherent.
It’s a pity that Edmundson refuses some of the few defenses of higher education that might hold up to scrutiny. These cluster around what he calls the “service provider” argument: the idea that the liberal arts and the humanities generally, and literary studies above all, aim “to help the student to acquire skills that he or she can turn to profit in the future . . . skills in communication, critical thinking, technology, and teamwork.”
I make versions of these claims all the time, in my classes and on my syllabi, as do the overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the English Department where I work. As a group, we worry about how to stay vibrant within and relevant to our university. A large part of this task involves keeping our enrollment numbers high, which is part of the way we justify asking for new hiring lines. On our Departmental Facebook page, for example, we are forever posting links to studies that conclude that reading novels increases empathy or that English majors do better than anyone in the job market. Admittedly, these articles have a depressingly self-congratulatory air. But they speak to real and even, it would seem, quantifiable skills that we offer our students.
Unlike Edmundson, I believe that those skills are things that we can and ought to teach. I think people live better, more useful, more meaningful lives if they have them. They might also live more materially comfortable lives. What the sociologist Pierre Bordieu called “cultural capital” still adheres to the humanities. (You get more social mileage from knowing the plot of Hamlet — or the latest HBO show based on it — than from knowing the uncertainty principle.) But there is no consideration of the socio-economics of higher education today in this book: Edmundson mentions class only in a single parenthetical aside lamenting that he teaches almost no poor students. In truth, the kinds of schools that both Edmundson and I work at have almost no socio-economic diversity. Inasmuch as studying the humanities can be a way to increase social mobility, then it does need defending and supporting.
But Edmundson’s sermonizing only cares for “timeless” qualities of soul and truth. It doesn’t get its hands dirty. In this context, the story Edmundson offers about what he perceives as the difficulties faced by anyone who wants a real education is telling. He imagines a “student who eschews medical school to follow his gift for teaching small children.” He spends “his twenties in low-paying but pleasurable and soul-rewarding toil,” behind on his loan payments, living in lousy apartments with four other guys. But the student has a gift for teaching. And he writes a book about teaching — “which no one buys. But he writes another . . . and that one they do buy.” Now he is famous and turns down lecture opportunities because he is so busy; indeed, he struggles to make time to spend with the children who got him into the business in the first place. The people at my institution who work in what we call advancement and development — always on the lookout for stories that couple service to the world with material success — couldn’t have imagined anything better. It’s a nice, fatuous story — a fairy tale about how giving up the soul-destroying path to riches leads to riches anyway, just this time material and spiritual — and it suggests Edmundson isn’t so at odds with the institutional mindset of higher education he purports to disdain.
Edmundson’s idea that the “service defense” of the humanities is limited, that it is depressingly mundane and material, is based on an idea of the material that is itself depressingly mundane. For an infinitely richer idea of the material we could turn to the mid-century Frankfurt school philosopher Theodor Adorno, who argued that we need the humanities, those disciplines preoccupied with the fictionalizing of experience, because we need a vision of what our world isn’t in order to understand what it is and could be. Artworks unconsciously reveal the contradictions of their society in ways that direct or “truthful” or non-fictional depictions are necessarily blind to. The best defense of the humanities, then, is one that insists that, in the words of Louis Menand, interpretation goes all the way down. No matter what the endeavor — even in the discovery of what many are pleased to call facts — interpretation is necessarily involved, so learning how to interpret is necessary, and teaching others how to interpret and work with interpretations is what we in the humanities do best.
Late in his life, after returning to Germany after the war from his exile in the U.S., Adorno wrote a remarkable essay called “Education after Auschwitz.” The essay is fueled by despair at what he found there: Adorno was disheartened at the ineffectual “denazification” of public institutions, not least universities, and the general lack of critical thinking in German society, not least in the training of teachers. But surprisingly the essay is one of Adorno’s least pessimistic, one of the places where he risks offering specific suggestions of how things might get better, how the fascist mindset (by no means unique to Germans) might be uprooted. Adorno discusses a number of social institutions, including sports, which he describes as an ambivalent phenomenon: at its best it is generous, inculcating its practitioners with a spirit of fair play; at its worst it is culpable, forcing upon its practitioners ideas of toughness and rigor that are at the core of fascist ideology.
Although presented in a more personal, less philosophic vein, the best essay in Edmundson’s book — the only one that does what Adorno said an essay ought to do, to show us thinking in action — comes to conclusions similar to Adorno’s. The essay, “Do Sports Build Character?,” is largely autobiographical, describing Edmundson’s surprising (not least to himself) transformation in high school into a successful football player. Here, for once, Edmundson refuses triumphant, transformational rhetoric. Edmundson’s sports, unlike his humanities, don’t tell us how to live, don’t make us a better person. Sports have their positive qualities, to be sure, developing bravery and strength of character and willpower. But these qualities are all double-edged: for sports also makes its practitioners more violent, more aggressive, “intolerant of gentleness; they help turn him into a member of the pack, which defines itself by maltreating others.”
The equivocation is refreshing among the pious certainties that fill the rest of the book. There are many things you can say against sports and their oversized role in the contemporary American imagination, but sermonizing is not one of them. People like sports for reasons inherent to sports. True, people sometimes talk about athletes as role models, but we know they don’t really mean it, because otherwise sports would have lost their appeal long ago. Everyone knows, at least unconsciously, that this sort of language is embarrassing lip-service, to be ignored in favor of those things — grace, passion, violence, the experience of chance — that people do care about but that that they don’t expect sports to justify to the rest of the world.
I like sports, but I like books more. And I admit that sermonizing has its appeal — probably more to the one making the sermon than to the one listening to it. I have myself used some of the defenses offered by Edmundson and other champions of the humanities. Part of me believes in them. As someone who also teaches an institution of higher learning, some of my identity is staked on such defenses. So why does Edmundson turn me off so much? Why was my response to this book a mixture of disgust and depression?
The answer is its fusion of weak ideas and florid expression. Here is a typical sentence, comparing the student of English to a stereotypical coarse student of Economics: “The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination.” Admittedly, I don’t quite understand that last phrase, and Edmundson’s grandiose rhetoric makes me embarrassed for him. I too find words magical and have even been something like transported by them: I just don’t think that makes me — or literature — better or more meaningful than anything else. And the sentence’s stylistic and rhetorical infelicities are duplicated everywhere in these pages. Edmundson’s prose is at once flat and inflated, filled with truisms, reductive generalizations, and undeveloped anecdotes. It’s the kind of infuriatingly lazy writing that make up most newspaper columns and op-ed pieces. Yes, it’s true that these days students and their families expect all sorts of luxuries from colleges and universities, that gyms resemble spas and dorm room hotel suites. Yes, it’s true that more money is spent on athletics than on academics, that more and more administrative staff are hired each year, even at a time when the hiring of tenure-track, non-contingent faculty is facing a precipitous decline. So in some senses it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion that “education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education — university education in particular.” But Edmundson isn’t telling us anything that a dozen Thomas Friedmans and Nicholas Kristofs haven’t already. And he’s not bringing much more analytic subtlety to his critique than they are. What we mostly get are generalizations, especially about students and what they think and value.
Generalizing about students is an occupational hazard of teaching, but Edmundson borders on finding them contemptible. (I say “borders on” because he reserves his real contempt for the other group he generalizes about, academics.) So we have airy, empty claims like these, about today’s students:
The Internet is perhaps the most centrifugal technology ever devised. The classroom, where you sit down in one space at a time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated. What’s at a premium now is movement, making connections, getting all the circuitry fizzing and popping.
For students now, life is elsewhere. Life is at parties, at clubs in music, with friends, in sports, and on and on through the Internet. Classes matter to them (a little), but classes are just part of an ever-enlarging web of activities and diversions.
It’s hard to critique younger people without sounding old-fashioned, but the harrumphing here is especially tedious because it has so little payoff. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when professors didn’t feel their students used to care more, all the way to the beginning of recorded history: this is just the kind of empty bombast that, as teachers, we work hard to excise from our students’ writing. The metaphors are hasty too — Edmundson doesn’t note that his description of the pace of what happens in the classroom (slow motion) itself comes from technology. And while circuitry neatly combines brain and computer, what does it mean for it to “fizz and pop”? In such moments, the emptiness Edmundson wants to condemn redounds only to himself. To be sure, different technologies work differently on their users. The internet and other digital media are indeed having significant effects on our behaviour. The classroom is hardly exempt from this reality: in fact, the idea that one would sit in one space and ponder ideas, usually presented in the form of black marks on white pieces of paper, is itself a historical and contingent one. Edmundson’s hasty descriptions only gesture at these pedagogically urgent issues.
Edmundson’s other rhetorical tics are just as irritating. There’s the faux casual offhanded tone: describing “an old piece of newsreel footage,” Edmundson says of the speaker, “perhaps it was Lenin, maybe Trotsky” — no difference there! There’s the clunky self-deprecation — calling himself “Edmundosaurus” — and the lame generalizations — a student who rebels against “NPR-addicted, Prius-proselytizing Mom and Dad,” another who thinks “religion is the Oxycontin — the redneck heroin — of Redneck Nation.”
Then there’s his obstreperous use of irony. Discussing how the teaching of writing has changed in the past decades, Edmundson sets up a typically heavy-handed comparison:
Many teachers once regarded writing as a way to unfold and even to discover an inner self. . . . Now we know better. Writing, it turns out, is a technology. It’s a way of transferring information from one site to another. Thus it needs to be clean, clear, fluent, but also rather anonymous, unclouded by excess metaphor or perplexing irony.
In that case, Edmundson has in fact learned the lesson he thinks he’s criticizing — there’s nothing “perplexing” about his irony here, with its ostentatious reference (“Now we know better,” “it turns out”) to a supposed conformity of thinking that threatens the poor Edmundosaurus. It makes me wonder whether Edmundson has had to teach writing in the last few years; as espoused today, writing pedagogy isn’t opposed to the idea of the unfolding of a self; it merely thinks we need to be mindful of teaching what that means to our students, rather than simply assuming they know what it means to have a self or to unfold it.
The most frustrating aspect of Why Teach? prose is Edmundson’s fatal predilection for the glib or underdeveloped anecdote. Taking up the prevalence of plagiarism and other modes of cheating, for example, Edmundson claims that most professors look the other way. Then he tells us about a friend who
had the temerity to detect cheating on the part of a kid who was the nephew of a well-placed official in an Arab government complexly aligned with the U.S. Black limousines pulled up in front of his office and disgorged decorously suited negotiators. Did my pal fold? No, he’s not the type. But he did not enjoy the process.
The anecdote, and the paragraph, end here: like the internet-addled students he complained about earlier, Edmundson is immediately on to something else. But what does he want us to take from the anecdote? Is the point to extol the friend? To condemn others, who wouldn’t have the courage to risk a diplomatic incident? To indict U.S. foreign policy and the academy’s collusion with it? The careless language — “pal,” “complexly aligned,” to say nothing of the contemptuous “kid” (no “student” here) — and the passive syntax (limousines that pull up and disgorge negotiators all by themselves) elide any notion of responsibility (ironic in a discussion of plagiarism), and ensure that Edmundson, like the students he criticizes, can simply shrug off responsibility and slip along to the next thing.
Edmundson is at his least compelling when he plays sociologist. His primary bugbear here is the idea of cool, which he calls the dominant affect of today’s students. (At the beginning of the book, in two paired essays, one from 1997 and one from 2008, he is slightly more nuanced: the second argues that the coolness which characterized students in the first has been replaced by distraction, the desire made possible by digital technology to “dwell in possibilities.” But that nuance gets lost in the rest of the book, where coolness is used indiscriminately.) Coolness is the opposite of enthusiasm. It avoids embarrassment, and therefore passion, at all costs. Cool “is a state of superiority maintained at a consistent level.” It is not ironic, because it is not critical; it is never directed inward at the self. This coolness has been bred in students by their lifelong exposure to late capitalism. It makes students into consumers — of the world and their education.
I wish that, instead of resorting to these bromides, Edmundson had developed the strand in his book he seems to care about most: the relationship between teachers and students. Edmundson criticizes university faculty for “being absent.” Like the students they teach he complains, “their real lives are also elsewhere.” It is certainly the case that much academic work takes one away from teaching (the longer one is in the profession and, perversely, the more success one has in it the more this is the case). But why shouldn’t our lives be elsewhere than our job? Would we criticize an engineer, say, whose real life was somewhere other than her company or lab? That Edmundson’s critique makes any sense at all speaks to the evangelizing aspect of teaching, evident in the peculiar and, to me at least, troubling fact that an academic is something one is rather than something one does, a role that becomes synonymous with the self.
Edmundson’s most interesting idea is that education offers the possibility of “secondary socialization,” the chance for students to “find a new way to talk about themselves and their worlds.” Their parents and other important adult role models might have been what the analyst D. W. Winnicott famously called “good-enough” parents, parents who unconsciously fail to meet their children’s every need when they recognize them to be able to survive such failure. But even when their caretakers did everything right for them, developmentally speaking (which means sometimes doing wrong by them), young people still need to be around adults who aren’t connected to the world they grew up in. I’m acutely aware that I’m something like a role model for many of my students. Part of me thrills to that fact (it’s the most narcissistic, adolescent part of me, the part of me that wants to be loved all the time). I now have a child of my own, and so luckily, perhaps, I no longer need to confuse students and children, as I did for a number of years. But part of me is repelled by it; this part of me doesn’t think influence works so straightforwardly, thinks that being among adults with different values and preoccupations and histories than one’s parents’ is what’s valuable, not the transmission of beliefs. To see an adult wrestling with what it means to be an adult — rather than receiving wisdom about the truth of the world from another adult ostensibly fully formed — might be the best thing secondary socialization can offer.
Yet how does the artificial, theatrical atmosphere of a classroom factor into this possibility? How can we show our students our fallible selves in a situation that seems to call for mastery? There’s only one moment in Edmundson’s book when he acknowledges these difficulties. At the end of an essay called “My First Intellectual,” Edmundson describes a high school teacher who made all the difference in his life. The teacher “was no missionary. He served us, but also himself . . . All good teaching entails some kidnapping; there’s a touch of malice involved.” This brief moment gives us a glimpse of the book Edmundson might have written. It would be one characterized less by contempt, as this one regrettably is, and more by malice — or at least by a recognition and exploration of the role of malice in the pedagogical relationship. That’s especially true if we think, as Edmundson also seems to do, that teaching involves upending students’ expectations, their received view of how the world works. We shouldn’t conflate malice with hostility, but by the same token we shouldn’t equate teaching with nurturing.
Despite his appreciation for Freud, about whom he has written extensively, Edmundson ignores the insights therapy offers teaching. It’s true that what happens in a session is not the same as what happens in a classroom. But the situations have much in common, not least a similar dynamic. One of the names Freud gave us from that dynamic is “the transference” — the idea that any relationship towards authority figures involves a certain clouding of judgment (that we could also call “seduction”). The paradox, then, is that something like clarity or self-knowledge comes only via blindness or deference to the other. Psychoanalysis and its various legacies remains the most nuanced and powerful description we have of how people can help each other to live more accepting, less self-torturing lives through careful attention to language. Here is where Edmundson’s repeated but only fleeting allusions to how teachers respond to students — which he believes takes the form of a fundamental cravenness — fall disappointingly short. Speaking of himself, and then generalizing, he says he conducts his classes as an endless process of humoring the students along, making things fun and light, using jokes to jolly everyone along, not assigning too much reading. He is typical, he says, of the American professoriate in the humanities in that he doesn’t assign too much reading or grades that are too low. We avoid discomfiting our students, we are sycophants to them, we placate them, we connive in their evaluation of us. Edmundson offers no larger, more abstract explanation for why that’s the case, nor a more personal, detailed description of why he acts as does. The generalizations, although interestingly self-hating, are troubling because the specifics are so hazy. He never owns his experience as experience, never takes the time to give us rich, thick descriptions of what goes on in the classroom and why he does what he does and how that makes him feel. As he does with the jejune notion of identity transformation I mentioned earlier, Edmundson here assumes the very concept — teaching — that his title pretends to question.
An unintended effect of Edmundson’s book is to suggest that if we must use the language of crisis we should reserve it for the practice of pedagogy within the professoriate. It is an open secret that graduate school, at least in the humanities but probably in all fields, does little to prepare its students to teach. Schools that require a course in pedagogy often marginalize it, offering it in the summer, for example. (In seven years in two graduate programs, I was never required to take such a course.) Although in my experience only a minority of academics hold teaching in disdain, the sense that it is something one simply learns by doing, or that one just knows how to do, remains widespread. And the idea of criticizing each other’s teaching, even when we observe it, as we are required to do for purpose of evaluation and promotion, is a universal shibboleth. How can an academic of Edmundson’s stature and experience write a book about teaching that says almost nothing about it? An answer to that question might uncover a real crisis.
Few individual moments stand out for me from the thousands of hours I’ve spent in the classroom over the past fifteen years. But that doesn’t mean the rest are a dull expanse or meaningless blur. It wouldn’t be right to say that I always enjoy teaching. But I always find it interesting and exciting. I still get nervous before each class, though now usually in a mild, even useful way, not with the extreme near-terror of the first several years. As I’ve become more balanced — saner, healthier — about teaching, my emotional responses to it have become more muted. A great class no longer gives me quite the same high, a bad one no longer the same low. But I still experience teaching as above all a visceral and emotional enterprise and only secondarily an abstract and intellectual one. To keep a group of students moving through a text, to generate enthusiasm and interest in texts written sometimes many centuries before their birth, to ask the sorts of questions, neither leading nor vague, that spur discussion in ways that allow me to have students come themselves to the points I want to make even as I remain alive to the nerve-wracking possibility that the conversation will bypass those points entirely, sometimes ending even more profitably, sometimes, alas, decidedly less so — to manage these things, by dint of pacing around a room or by sitting at a seminar table, is a high-wire performance act, by no means always successful, of which I’ve yet to tire. With its spurts of wit, silliness, stupidity, jealousy, and fear, its swells of interest and excitement, its longeurs, its sudden reversals, false starts, unexpected interruptions, its inescapably porous and temporary barrier to the everyday life of its participants, any class meeting, and any course of which it forms a part, is of great dramatic, psychological, and intellectual interest. At the very least it is an experience of great richness and texture. Only very occasionally does Edmundson signal interest in this sort of thing, preferring instead his bromides, his wheezy opinions. Better to describe the humanities than to defend them. And worse still to opine about them.
Are there any good — sympathetic and critical — memoirs of working in higher education? Jane Thompson’s A Life in School comes to mind, but, significantly, it is about overcoming or revising the strictures of the way academic life is generally practiced. Just as interesting is Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, an undervalued book, but it too offers its descriptions and theories of pedagogy only obliquely. The book about the peculiar constellation of events and affects that has generated the sort of pedagogical moments that have most stood out in my own career remains to be written. I’m thinking of moments like the time a student looked up during our discussion of that early scene in Sons and Lovers where Mrs. Morel is locked out of her house one summer night by her drunken husband and wanders the garden, distractedly putting her hands into her lilies until she is covered in gold and said, wonderingly, “She’s a miner, too, just of pollen not coal!” That book would describe the world it values instead of, like Edmundson’s, offering yet another rearguard, uncritical defense of it.
Dorian Stuber teaches British Modernism and Holocaust Literature in the English Department at Hendrix College.