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Essay on the uses of liberal education

On the uses of a liberal education: September 1, 1997 Harper's Magazine Mark Edmundson A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. Today is evaluation day in my Freud class, and everything has changed.

The class meets twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the clientele, about fifty undergraduates, tends to drag in and slump, looking disconsolate and a little lost, waiting for a jump start. To get the discussion moving, they usually require a joke, an anecdote, an off-the-wall question -- When you were a kid, were your Halloween getups ego costumes, id costumes, or superego costumes? That sort of thing.

But today, as soon as I flourish the forms, a buzz rises in the room. Today they write their assessments of the course, their assessments of me, and they are without a doubt wide-awake. Whatever interpretive subtlety they've acquired during the term is now out the window.

As I retreat through the door -- I never stay around for this phase of the ritual -- I look over my shoulder and see them toiling away like the devil's auditors.

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

They're pitched into high writing gear, even the ones who struggle to squeeze out their journal entries word by word, stoked on a procedure they have by now supremely mastered. They're playing the informed essay on the uses of liberal education, letting the provider know where he's come through and where he's not quite up to snuff. But why am I so distressed, bolting like a refugee out of my own classroom, where I usually hold easy sway?

Chances are the evaluations will be much like what they've been in the past -- they'll be just fine. It's likely that I'll be commended for being "interesting" and I am commended, many times overthat I'll be cited for my relaxed and tolerant ways that happens, toothat my sense of humor and capacity to connect the arcana of the subject matter with current culture will come in for some praise yup.

I've been hassled this term, finishing a manuscript, and so haven't given their journals the attention I should have, and for that I'm called -- quite civilly, though -- to account. Overall, I get off pretty well. Yet I have to admit that I do not much like the image of myself that emerges from these forms, the image of knowledgeable, humorous detachment and bland tolerance.

  1. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get a stripe on their resumes, sure.
  2. Teaching Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," you ask for comments.
  3. There's a new emphasis on group projects and on computer-generated exchanges among the students. That would be getting too loud, too brash.
  4. But let us look at what is actually coming to pass.
  5. Whatever interpretive subtlety they've acquired during the term is now out the window.

I do not like the forms themselves, with their number ratings, reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank. Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses.

Observes one respondent, not at all unrepresentative: I don't teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she "enjoyed" the course -- and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations -- somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff -- in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life.

But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt. I want some of them to say that they've been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they've read.

It's said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. What book did you most dislike in the course?

What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

Because that's what works. On evaluation day, I reap the rewards of my partial compliance with the culture of my students and, too, with the culture of the university as it now operates. It's a culture that's gotten little exploration. Current critics tend to think that liberal-arts education is in crisis because universities have been invaded by professors with peculiar ideas: They believe that genius and tradition are out and that P. But mulling over my evaluations and then trying to take a hard, extended look at campus life both here at the University of Virginia and around the country eventually led me to some different conclusions.

To me, liberal-arts education is as ineffective as it is now not chiefly because there are a lot of strange theories in the air. Used well, those theories can be illuminating.

For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview. My students didn't ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung to school, where essay on the uses of liberal education exerts a essay on the uses of liberal education, and largely unacknowledged, influence. If we want to understand current universities, with their multiple woes, we might try leaving the realms of expert debate and fine ideas and turning to the classrooms and campuses, where a new kind of weather is gathering.

From time to time I bump into a colleague in the corridor and we have what I've come to think of as a Joon Lee fest. Joon Lee is one of the best students I've taught. For a class of mine he wrote an essay using Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus to analyze the pop group The Supremes. A trite, cultural-studies bonbon? He said striking things about conceptions of race in America and about how they shape our ideas of beauty.

When I talk with one of his other teachers, we run on about the general splendors of his work and presence.

Uses of a Liberal Education

But what inevitably follows a JL fest is a mournful reprise about the divide that separates him and a few other remarkable students from their contemporaries. It's not that some aren't nearly as bright -- in terms of intellectual ability, my students are all that I could ask for.

Instead, it's that Joon Lee has decided to follow his interests and let them make him into a singular and rather eccentric man; in his charming way, he doesn't mind being at odds with most anyone. It's his capacity for enthusiasm that sets Joon apart from what I've come to think of as the reigning generational style.

On good days they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there's little fire, little passion to be found. This point came home to me a few weeks ago when I was wandering across the university grounds. There, beneath a classically cast portico, were two students, male and female, having a rip-roaring argument. They were incensed, bellowing at each other, headstrong, confident, and wild. It struck me how rarely I see this kind of full-out feeling in students essay on the uses of liberal education.

Strong emotional display is forbidden. When conflicts arise, it's generally understood that one of the parties will say something sarcastically propitiating "whatever" often does it and slouch away. How did my students reach this peculiar state in which all passion seems to be spent? I think that many of them have imbibed their sense of self from consumer culture in general and from the tube in particular. They're the progeny of 100 cable channels and omni-present Blockbuster outlets.

TV, Marshall McLuhan famously said, is a cool medium. Those who play best on it are low-key and nonassertive; they blend in. Enthusiasm, a la Joon Lee, quickly looks absurd.

On the Uses of a Liberal Education

The form of character that's most appealing on TV is calmly self-interested though never greedy, attuned to the conventions, and ironic. The TV medium is inhospitable to inspiration, improvisation, failures, slipups. All must run perfectly. Naturally, a cool youth culture is a marketing bonanza for producers of the right products, who do all they can to enlarge that culture and keep it grinding. The Internet, TV, and magazines now teem with what I call persona ads, ads for Nikes and Reeboks and jeeps and Blazers that don't so much endorse the capacities of the product per se as show you what sort of person you will be once you've acquired it.

The jeep ad that features hip, outdoorsy kids whipping a Frisbee from mountaintop to mountaintop isn't so much about what jeeps can do as it is about the kind of people who own them. Buy a Jeep and be one with them. The ad is of little consequence in itself, but expand its message exponentially and you have the central thrust of current consumer culture -- buy in order to be. Most of my students seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.

Do I have to tell you that those two students having the argument under the portico turned out to be acting in a role-playing game? The specter of the uncool creates a subtle tyranny. It's apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, this Letterman-like, Tarantinolike cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are rather different. You're inhibited, except on ordained occasions, from showing emotion, stifled from trying to achieve anything original.

You're made to feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code will get you genially ostracized.

This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm. Am I coming off like something of a crank here? Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself. But one of the lessons that consumer hype tries to insinuate is that we must never rebel against the new, never even question it. If it's new -- a new need, a new product, a new show, a new style, a new generation -- it must be good.

So maybe, even at the risk of winning the withered, brown laurels of crankdom, it pays to resist newness-worship and cast a colder eye. Praise for my students? I have some of that too. What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality.

They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get a stripe on their resumes, sure. But they also want other people to have a fair shot. And in their commitment to fairness they are discerning; there you see them at their intellectual best. If I were on trial and innocent, Essay on the uses of liberal education want them on the jury.

What they will not generally do, though, is indict the current system.