If a journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step, the road to understanding the struggles of literary pursuit in education begin with Mark Edmundson’s essay Why Read? A relatively short work in terms of length it none the less manages to challenge those engaged in teaching the Humanities to rethink educational methodologies. Comprised of thirty-two sub-categories Edmundson’s unapologetic style combined with extensive classical references is as difficult to grasp in its entirety as the subject it addresses.
He begins with the words of William Carlos Williams, “people die daily for lack of what is found in despised poems—in literary artwork, in other words, that society at large denigrates” (11). In stating his support of this idea his work is positioned as a means by which the same people may avoid death should they pay heed to his advice. To his credit he does not write exclusively but, includes personal experience as evidence of literature’s ability to both transform and sustain life. He chides many of those engaged in literary arts education admonishing their failure to defend the subjects they are tasked with teaching. Of the percentage who like him endorse its benefits and find solace in its constant relevancy he believes fear of ridicule holds them in captive silence. Unlike scholarly articles designed to dismiss those not endowed with necessary credentials the essay invites students to join and, “read over the shoulders of their teachers” inspiring them to replace guided instruction with self-discovery (12). Why Read? is Edmondson’s attempt to bolster apprehensive contemporaries, shed light on the value of literature and reveal the truth from which his philosophy developed.
The primary value of literature lies for Edmundson in its ability to assist engaged readers in the process of “expanded consciousness” (13). Featuring the thinking of Marcel Proust and Ralph Waldo Emmerson his essay introduces the notion of becoming a “creative reader” and using literature as a prod for the imagination. In talking about the purpose of a liberal arts education Edmundson denotes it as the channel through which students ask, “Who they are?” What they might become?” “What is the nature of their world?” and “How might they change it?” (14). Edmundson blames the rise of the “American consumer culture” for the lack of enthusiasm found in University Humanities departments. He asserts students expect entertainment in education and professors weighted with demands to maintain full classrooms and high student approval ratings shy from the questions which confront values and long held ideologies (17). Thus, the foundation upon which liberal education is based has been compromised, rendered ineffectual. He further maintains education has become increasingly judged by its ability to provide future financial benefits leading to generations of parents pressuring children to enter programs which have little to do with reading and more to do with earning. The use of computers as research tools has allowed Humanities departments to maintain viability in a technology driven economy however, in Edmundson’s opinion this practice has taken the place of true literary scholarship. While his concepts defend the return to what could be thought of as the purest form of liberal arts education he fails to include any mention of non-traditional students who by virtue of age may be less inclined to seek programs solely based in their ability to provide financial gain. By denigrating the use of technology in the study of liberal arts he is in effect saying, only those students able to attend traditional classes, visit traditional bookstores and spend time in traditional libraries are able to receive a true literary education.
Edmundson’s solution to the lost model of education whereby teachers lead students to seek answers in literature begins with tasking them to discover their students’ “final narratives” (28). Trusting that a discussion which unlocks the path from where basic value systems originated is the key to opening the door to self-discovery, Edmundson holds firm to the idea of religion as the groundwork for the study of Humanities. He contends contemplating emotionally charged words, such as “God”, “mother”, “America”, “love” and “father” equips students with the tools to expand the methods by which they are defined. Once equipped to examine themselves and the world through books, students are free to see both differently and to form new narratives. This development of inquiry over blind allegiance is in Edmundson’s opinion crucial to liberal arts education and the health of American democratic ideals.
As Edmondson’s discourse endeavors to identify the requisite characteristics students must cultivate if they are to be successful in the study of the Humanities the author turns to Plato and Aristotle and names “a sense of wonder” as key. The student must agreeably admit their ignorance and the teacher must provide an environment in which there is no correct or incorrect answer. The truth must become impermanent changing with each new literary revelation. As romantic as it sounds to be thought of as “full of wonder” Edmundson’s description is disappointing in its neglect of the many other abilities a student must possess in order to succeed in the liberal arts. As Edmundson shifts into an explanation and history of literary criticism and “close-reading” his extensive use of references obscures his effort to illustrate what he believes are its limitations (37). Shamefully he becomes too wordy to enjoy as he leaves the reader lost in a plethora of names, theories and titles in an attempt to garner his meaning. In what could be called a personal affront Edmundson rebukes those who encourage such criticism indicating it is merely a form of rewriting and therefore is of no value in discovering the intention of the original author. While there may be a degree of truth in his words they emanate a feeling of snobbery and leave the impression Edmundson views certain writers including himself above reproach.
The most likeable aspect of Why Read? is Edmundson’s palpable and unwavering love of literature. His devotion is also most likely what causes him to be virtually overbearing in his approach to its teaching. In talking about the promotion of critical thinking skills as an advantage acquired by liberal arts students Edmundson warns they are being gained without a basis in moral principles and they are no more than, “the art of using terms one does not believe in to debunk worldviews that one does not wish to be challenged by” (42). He worries this type of thinking creates detached problem solvers who fail to approach important issues with feeling and instead rely solely on their intellects. It is likely unemotional problem solving would be appreciated in the world of business and therefore it seems unfair of him not to find it of some value to employment seeking graduates and fellow teachers. Edmundson’s wide sweeping statements regarding the study habits of students serve to tarnish his essay and leave him appearing more opinionated than credible. By what way has he come to know the individual thought processes of every literary student or how “carefully they interpreted” or “how long they questioned” (44) . No doubt he would find this analysis proof enough of his theory concerning the making of “normal nihilists” however, he was not around at 2am when the struggle to find its words took place (54). Edmundson exaggerates the responsibility of contemporaries when he reprimands them for failing to “help students change their lives for the better” demonstrating an inflated sense of self as well as unfounded speculation concerning the quality of life experienced by liberal arts students (12). In theorizing feminist teachers as the only educators in the area of academic literary study not currently conducting classes in a “cold and abstract” fashion Edmundson presumes knowledge of techniques employed by an entire generation of professionals (60). As with his assumption that liberal arts students think with no basis in morality, there is simply no way he can know what he professes.
Why is Edmundson bent on destroying long held beliefs surrounding how literature should be taught in a liberal arts setting? He fears the loss of students who question authority, who lack the capacity to walk in the footsteps of classic writers seeking the truth for themselves. He fears living in a world with a generation of students unable to choose between right and wrong and therefore unable to contribute to the continuation of democracy. However, as an educator should he not be equally concerned with the loss of literacy in general? What value is there in understanding the feelings represented in classical literature if those experiencing them are ill equipped to express them with the skillful use of language? Is it not also the responsibility of those teaching the humanities to include the rigorous practice of mundane literary terminology as part of their ongoing study? In his defense Why Read? was written for those who by virtue of being teachers are thought to already possess the necessary writing capacity but, what of those less adept at the written word? What chance do they stand at recreating literature in a manner which would lead to Edmundson’s desired effect and cause its original author’s “ghost to nod in approval” (49)? Suppose for the sake of supposition every student who enters into the study of literature does indeed possess the required aptitude for the written word this in itself would not result in Edmundson’s desired outcome. After all, the ability to write clearly and precisely does not automatically translate into great literary talent; not all good writers are good creative writers.
Edmundson’s essay Why Read? makes use of literary references as evidence of its author’s theories which supports them in as much as he believes they do. However, as in-depth his references and his interpretation of them, they are of little value to anyone other than him. Before judging this review as harsh criticism of a respected author and teacher of the Humanities consider the content of Edmundson’s essay which demands students fully engross themselves in literary works in order to glean deeper truths, rewrite their final narratives and question the world around them. To Edmundson without immersion there can be no learning. While not inundated with accounts of history’s greatest literary authors or personal antidotes from years of teaching this work is in its own right a representation of its author’s immersion. So, despite my reluctance to agree to a theory solely based in academic opinion Why Read? ironically manages to affirm this reviewer’s ignorance and prove its author’s point. Yes, it was difficult but having survived Edmundson’s quietly poetic yet, tyrannical onslaught on those who seek to consider themselves schooled in the Humanities I can truthful report Why Read? worth the effort to do so.
Rest easy Mark Edmundson: our democracy remains safe; you may now nod in approval.