“We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”

~Maria Montessori

In the recently published book, Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education, Mark Edmundson defends education on behalf of all teachers. Real education is the life-changing, mind-altering, value-questioning pursuit that was lost somewhere along the way. The beast has changed in the past 40 years and he describes poignant moments in the evolution and posits explanations throughout this collection of essays.

Some ideas are consistent with his earlier publication, Why Read?, but there is plenty of new material to appreciate. I appreciate his balanced approach since he challenges the student, the institution, and the professor to examine their role in the demise of education. Each element shares equal responsibility. While teachers must do what they can to help shrink the monster, he addresses both teachers and students in hopes of reigniting real education.

The most compelling chapter was his satire on the typical student in contemporary education, “A Word to the New Humanities Professor.” New or not, professors will appreciate how relevant these moments are in their classrooms. Edmundson’s criticism of various new trends in higher education, especially the push toward group work, is particularly interesting. He argues that it is deeply problematic that instructors relinquish their role as educators, or those meant to inspire change among our students, to the students themselves. Group work does allow students the space to marinate in what they have learned from the professor, however, it would be ideal for collaboration to take place outside of class to allow sufficient time for instruction.

There is a great deal to appreciate about this book. It is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. It’s a very casual read, but if a teacher finds himself in a despairing moment, this might be a momentary cure. Individuals are reminded of why they began their journey as an educator, or educatee, in the first place: to befriend texts and transform students through acting as a kind of attorney in the classroom.

And finally, Edmundson reminds the English major that they made the best decision of their life, despite how society might be trying to convince them otherwise when they chose to surround themselves with books:

The English major is, first of all, a reader. She’s got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves–they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay–to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, to be Jane Austen, to be Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games? The English major wants the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who–let us admit it–are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than themselves are. The experience of changing minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen is one that is incomparably enriching. It makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined was possible. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense–more alive with meaning than you had thought.”


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