With an ever-increasing focus on job readiness in college classrooms, author Mark Edmundson sometimes seems like higher education’s firebrand moral preacher — goading faculty and administrators to repent and embrace their traditional values.
But his latest book, “Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education,” is a distinctly practical argument for what is often thought of as an idealist, impractical approach to education.
“There’s a lot of pressure on students to approach college from a pre-professional standpoint, but I think that’s a mistake, especially for young people,” says Edmundson from his office at the University of Virginia. “You’ve gone through high school and a lot of people have told you who you are — teachers, guidance counselors, parents. And maybe you are that person, and that destiny is right for you. But it’s possible you’re not. Perhaps what you really want to do with your life is something your parents and teachers could have never anticipated, and you yourself have no idea about it either. … A good humanities education is key to discovering who you are.”
If there’s anything a good old-fashioned liberal arts education instills, it’s skepticism. And Edmundson encourages students to embrace an extremely skeptical view of schools and programs that focus on workplace preparedness.
“I think it’s only natural for American business people to want universities to be a feeder for the workplace — to create really good and responsive workers. But I don’t think that’s the primary purpose of education,” he says. “My students may still go off and work [in business] and that might be a good thing for them, but I want them to think in a critical way about what it means to be a success in business or academia or any other field.”