Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I got to do again one of my favorite things in all the world. I sat in the warm, bright sun on a bench by a small lake near my house, and for four glorious hours I read an engrossing book. It was a mini-vacation. My wife and I, following C. S. Lewis, call such times “pleasant inn” moments. (“Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns,” Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” See here.)
The book I was reading was Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (Bloomsbury, 2013) by Mark Edmundson. Edmundson is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since the 1980s. Edmundson is not a Christian (by his own acknowledgment) and my guess is that he is considerably to the left of me politically, but he has a conviction that “real education” is supposed to change who we are, and I couldn’t agree more. The book is a series of loosely related essays, some more interesting to me than others, but I found a lot to think about throughout. And Edmundson is a a delightful writer: passionate, engaging, humorous at times, and relentlessly candid. I disagree with him on some points–including some major ones–but I also found some powerfully keen observations that went straight into my commonplace book.
Here, without commentary, is a sampling:
Some measure of dislike, or self-discontent . . . is a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students . . . usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.
All good teaching entails some kidnapping.
The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness.
My favorite passage from the book is actually one that articulates, better than I have been able to on my own, the value of keeping a commonplace book. In a previous post (see here), I explained how writing in my commonplace book “helps me, imaginatively, to think of myself as entering into a grand conversation about enduring questions, something far bigger than the transient fads and obsessions that so easily steal the best days of our lives.”
Edmundson tells of a friend who has kept a journal for more than forty years and refers to it as a “life thickener.” The observations, reflections, and questions that his friend records, in Edmundson’s words, collectively “give dense meaning to the blind onrush that unexamined life can be.” What a marvelous sentence. I found myself saying “Yes! That’s exactly what I long for.”
Edmundson goes on to explain how it is that contemporary culture works against this kind of goal. There are surely many factors, but a chief culprit, he believes, is technological. The students he meets at the University of Virginia are children of the Internet. It was born in their infancy, and they can never remember a time when the word “chat” referred primarily to face-to-face conversation. Technology allows them (and us) to be multiple places at once–watching a U-tube video, checking Facebook, answering e-mail and texting friends, all while interacting in a coffee shop (or “taking notes” in a lecture hall!). And as Edmundson rightly observes, the person who thinks he can be in a half dozen places at once is not wholly anywhere.
“An Internet-linked laptop,” the author notes wryly, “is not a life thickener.” Of course it has its uses, but the promotion of deep introspection does not seem to be one of them. “To live well,” Edmundson writes, “we must sometimes stop and think and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately.”