When young people starting their college careers ask me what they should look for when they get to campus, I tell them: Find out who the great teachers are. It doesnt matter much what the subject is. Find a real teacher, and you may open yourself to transformation to discovering whom you might become. This can be the great gift of a liberal education.
If I meet any students heading to the University of Virginia, I will tell them to seek out Mark Edmundson, an English professor and the author of a new collection of essays called Why Teach? For Edmundson, teaching is a calling, an urgent endeavor in which the lives he says the souls of students are at stake.
According to Why Teach? inspiration is in short supply these days on campus. In the books first section, Edmundson describes the growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge. Edmundsons critique is both personal and idealistic, drawing on his deep belief in the democratic mission of liberal education and on his practical experience as a teacher.
He knows the studies showing that students spend less time than ever on their classwork, and he writes of an implicit pact between undergraduates and professors in which teachers give high grades and thin assignments, and students reward them with positive evaluations. After all, given all the other amenities available through the university, the idea that the courses you take should be the primary objective of going to college is tacitly considered absurd.
After describing this unhappy shift, Edmundsons remaining essays are devoted to fellow students and fellow teachers. Hes hard on both groups, but underneath the curmudgeonly rhetoric he is desperate to remind them of why real learning and teaching arent luxuries but necessities.