On today’s campuses, the Socratic ideal of genuine intellectual encounters has largely disappeared

October 4, 2013, 3:51 p.m. ET

Book Review: ‘Why Teach?’ by Mark Edmundson

On today’s campuses, the Socratic ideal of genuine intellectual encounters has largely disappeared.


Picture a day in the life of an ambitious American undergrad. Morning starts with a pre-law course that does little to nourish his soul but that has been commended to him by an adviser. After an internship interview with an investment firm, he’ll spend the afternoon on elective courses with titles like “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity” (actually taught at the University of Virginia) or “Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond” (University of Texas at Austin). The evening is reserved for drunken revelry.Why Teach?

By Mark Edmundson
Bloomsbury, 222 pages, $24

Mark Edmundson is angry about this state of affairs. “I’d like us to blow a hole through the university’s ethos of entertainment and training for success . . . ,” he writes in “Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education.” “We should blast away the customer-coddling deans and student service hacks; blast past academic pretension and the hunger for ‘standing in the field.’ . . . Blow away the trustees who . . . will not rest until their schools resemble Walmarts. Blast them all.”

In a series of essays and reprinted speeches, Mr. Edmundson attempts to reignite the spirit of genuine intellectual encounter that used to inspire the life of the mind on campus. Unfortunately, the author, a professor of English at Virginia, offers only a woolly diagnosis and remedy for this deficit in the liberal arts.

The culprits behind the demise of a “real education,” according to the author, include classroom computers, a feel-good culture of empty praise, and pre-professional academic tracks, such as pre-law and pre-medicine. These ills culminate in what Mr. Edmundson calls the “Corporate University”: a campus that resembles a crowded marketplace, as buyers (students) walk through a sea of near-desperate sellers (professors).

Educational consumerism, he thinks, reflects a fundamental shift in the bargaining power among the players in higher education. Many professors seeking the positive student evaluations, popular courses and satisfied alumni needed to achieve tenure, Mr. Edmundson claims, can’t actually teach. In today’s academy, the customer is always right.

The author also blames fellow scholars, whose fondness for highfalutin postmodernist theory blinds them to the real value of works of art and other cultural achievements: The commentary has crowded out the commented upon, allowing students to avoid the hard questions posed by the great texts.

He urges a reorientation toward the true goals of the liberal arts: “An English major, you see, is more than thirty-two or thirty-six credits. . . . It’s what’s inside that matters. It’s the character forming—or (dare I say?) Soul-making—dimension of the pursuit that counts.” Which texts should nurture that soul is a question for another day.

The humanities today palely reflect the ideal set forth by the Socratic method. “The function of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that [the philosopher Richard] Rorty calls the final vocabulary,” he writes in a not untypical passage of indulgent prose.

Mr. Edmundson speaks passionately on the decline of liberal arts, for student and professor alike. Yet while he refreshingly chastises the deconstructionist bent of academia and praises the classics, he shies away from concrete pronouncements on curricula. In Mr. Edmundson’s vision of the humanities, the Socratic journey is the destination.

While it took Socrates a lifetime to discover that he wasn’t wise, no such doubts seem to trouble Mr. Edmundson. He advises self-reflection and humility while displaying little of both, even as he combines his calls for profound truth with strained references to 1990s rappers and his high-school football days. The real problem with “Why Teach?,” however, is its careful evasion of the question “Teach what?” Mr. Edmundson fails to offer any measure by which we might distinguish humanities excellence from mediocrity or mere knowledge from learning.

—Mr. Graver, a senior at Yale University, was a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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