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Author Argues Colleges Focus More on Professional Training Than Transformation

September 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Colleges try to market their degrees as a ticket to professional success. A collection of essays argues the focus of higher education should be on student transformation and learning. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia to discuss his book, "Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, with millions of students returning to class this week, we continue our series about ideas being discussed and debated in the world of education.

Tonight, we turn to the role of universities and explore a question getting plenty of attention amid concerns about student debt: What is the real purpose of college?

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: “If you want an education, the odds aren’t with you,” just one of many provocative lines from a new book exploring the contemporary university, very much including the most elite institutions and the lives of teachers and students. It’s called “Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education.”

Author Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and he joins us now.

And welcome to you.

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MARK EDMUNDSON, “Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education”: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, what is a real education and why does it need defending?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, a real education — I will offend a few people by saying this — is humanities-based and it’s oriented around the prospect of getting to know yourself, figuring out who you are and what you really want to do with your life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that is not what is taught now?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, I think a lot of student come to school having been primed by their parents and their teaches to go into a business school, to go into an economics major, to do a science major, whether they’re scientists or future businesspeople in their heart or not.

So, that’s something that really — we really have got to speak to that, it seems to me, and that’s what I try to do in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: You add a larger level. You write: “Midway through the last decade, the 20th century, American higher education changed. Colleges and universities entered a new phase in which they stopped being intellectually driven and culturally oriented and began to model themselves on business.”

MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes, a lot of truth in that, I still think.

Schools have become more consumer-oriented. Can we give you the best kind of food? Can we give you the best kind of gym? Can we give you all the entertainment that you need on Saturday and Sunday, the best kind of football team? But, then, at the end, you are going to have to pay for it.

So, there’s a lot of diversions out there, but there is still the heart of a good education in just about every American college.

JEFFREY BROWN: But why has that happened, that it became more business-oriented? And what does that do to the actual exchange between teacher and student?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, it became more business-oriented because, like businesses, I think the universities competed for students. Right?

And one of the ways to compete is offer as plush and easy a circumstance as possible. So the professors have had to step forward and try to undermine those expectations of a continuing consumer pleasurable encounter, do a little bit of challenging, do a little bit of questioning, do a little bit of the Socratic thing that we try to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not enough? I’m trying to figure how far are you pushing this? Is it coddling the students, in the sense that they’re not challenging them enough because they’re more like customers, rather than students? What’s the argument?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, I think they come with those expectations, but I think professors try to push back in the direction of a more serious kind of engagement.

One of the things that we’re doing, it seems to me, is that we’re teaching students very well how to read and interpret demanding and interesting texts. But we’re not going far enough in asking them this critical question: Is this true? How would you apply it to your life? How would you live it out?

And that’s a place where I think we professors could do some stepping up.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talk a lot about a crisis in the humanities. You seem to refer — you seem to think of a crisis within the humanities, that it’s — that the humanities are being sold the wrong way, if that’s the right word, as ways to help you get a job or to help you, I don’t know, do better in life, rather than something else.

MARK EDMUNDSON: Right.

Well, I think that, you know, the humanities can help you to do better in life. You can learn to read well, write well, think well, present yourself in an appealing sort of way. But I think that fundamentally we’re not about success. What we’re about is challenging and examining every single kind of socially accredited standard out there.

If a student studies the humanities and reads Plato and reads Socrates, he may come out believing that he wants to be a conventional success, but he may also come out believing that success is really for somebody else; he’s going to lead a life of what Thoreau called voluntary poverty, and that’s that. And that’s the risk that parents take, but better a happy kid than a slogging-away, successful — in conventional terms — kid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Successful in conventional terms.

You mean so the colleges shouldn’t be telling the kids — I mean, what do you tell the — what — you want to attract kids to your class, right?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not to say this might help you become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer?

MARK EDMUNDSON: What I’m more likely to say is, this will help you decide whether you want to become a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer.

And if you do decide to do that, you are going to be all the more successful because you made the decision on your own, not because it’s been imposed on you from outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what are you saying? Because I can hear people saying, look, it’s a tough economy. Right? Kids and parents pay a lot of money to go to college.

MARK EDMUNDSON: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you tell people? Why should they not be thinking that this has to lead to something with money or the economy in mind?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Uh-huh.

Well, you know, if you look at people’s professional lives and you ask them why do they fail, right, frequently, they fail because they are a round peg trying to slam themselves into a square hole of a profession that they really do not love and are not committed to, right, so that if a student learns what it is he or she really values and wants to do, the chances of success are much better.

And that’s something we provide in the humanities that others don’t. But the thing to add is that students may in the humanities look into this idea of success and say, no, not for me. I have a son who lives in Austin, Tex., works in a bike shop, and is writing a novel. I’m tremendously proud of him. He looked into the success thing, and so far, what he’s saying is, not for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re probably going to hear from people, this is the privilege of the well-off, to be able to have that kind of, I don’t know, four years of thinking and of, as you use the word from John Keats, soul-making. Right?

MARK EDMUNDSON: I would like it to be a privilege that everybody had access to. Right?

And that — when we say we can’t afford that, we can afford 2.5 million people in jail. We can afford armies that can fight three wars at the same time. We can afford rich people who pay 15 to zero percent of their taxes, but we can’t afford to give everybody a chance at the humanities? I would rather open it up for everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you tell — you refer at one point to the astonishing opportunities at colleges. For all the kind of tough things you have to say, you talk about the wonders of our universities.

MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the advice? How should a student take those — particularly those starting maybe right today, right, or this week, how should they take advantage of that?

MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes.

You have got to look around for the teacher who is going to be great for you. There is this period that they call shopping period — probably not the best name — but you go from class to class, from professor to professor, and you see, you look around for somebody who really lights it up for you. You’re looking for somebody with a keen mind, love of learning, and a warm heart.

And you get those things together in the same person and you have found somebody who might actually be able to teach you something, and maybe you will teach him something, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for those in your profession? What’s the answer to your question, why teach?

MARK EDMUNDSON: You know, it’s a little bit of a mystery. There’s something just plain wonderful about watching people develop.

And the ages between 18 and 22 are among the very best for that. People come, and they’re very unformed. And they read and they think and they spend time with their friends. And they grow at this astronomical rate. And it’s just wonderful to be around and see it happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We’re going to continue this conversation online. I want to ask you about your own experience to becoming a professor.

But, for now, Mark Edmundson, the new book is “Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education.” Thanks so much.

MARK EDMUNDSON: My pleasure. Thank you.