Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia; The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll, 2010, etc.) dispels any ambiguity about his position on his subject with the subtitle—“In Defense of a Real Education”—of this deeply felt collection of explorations and reflections on an education in the liberal arts.
The author examines the slow transformation of universities and colleges from being driven by intellectual and cultural betterment to institutions modeled on business, with a complex, and not always successful, emphasis on attracting students and making a profit. Success, Edmundson writes, isn’t as clear-cut as the bottom line or the percentage increase in applications or even in the rigor of the education being offered. Our culture rewards the system in which the professors tend to their academic business, the students check off the various boxes, and the school support staff build newer, better amenities to ensure that the students feel they are getting the best of the best. Edmundson argues that students have an immeasurably priceless opportunity to take the beliefs that have been instilled in them throughout childhood and put them under a microscope. They have the chance to ensure that they aren’t going to simply fit in, as a square peg, to the first matching hole that comes along. “Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play,” writes the author—not that it should be simple and without challenge but that doing what you love (and discovering what that might be) is more important than “advancing in the direction of someone else’s dreams” and pursuing education as a means to buying your way into what you’re acculturated to think equals happiness and success.
Edmundson may have strong words about culture, education and the common reader’s quest to be entertained above all else, but he provides a bracing tonic against the decline of higher education.