“To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be.” So declares Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book of essays Why Teach?, among numerous others. In an essay in that book titled simply “Who Are You?”, Edmundson takes up the question of what exactly a real education is, and how it can help students discover who we really are.
Edmundson thinks we’ll have to fight the institutions we find ourselves in because most students, professors, and the wider university staff all have their own interests, and those interests are decidedly not about helping you discover a sense of purpose in life. Most students come simply to get the degree, Edmundson says; most faculty, too, aim simply “to get on”, focussing on their research:
“So if you want an education, the odds aren’t with you: The professors are off doing what they call their own work; the other students, who’ve doped out the way the place runs, are busy leaving their professors alone and getting themselves in position for bright and shining futures; the student-services people are trying to keep everyone content, offering plenty of entertainment and building another sate-of-the-art workout facility every few months…
No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.”
Edmundson turns to the idea of a real education, arguing that it should help us, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “become who we are”:
“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…
You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.
For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.“
This brings to mind Mark Lilla’s speech to an audience of students at Columbia, where he said that genuine students are “less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” When we read books, Lilla says, we are “almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…”
Books are the answer for Edmundson, too, and he also sees right through the argument that we should read to be ‘cultured’:
“The real reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts following back to you with an “alienated majesty.”
When we find books that speak to us in this way, we can start to formulate who we might like to be not solely out of the possibilities that have been given to us by our families, say, but by all the possibilities that exist. We ask deeper questions of ourselves—not banker or lawyer, but how do I want to spend my days, what kind of person do I want to be with, and what work fulfils me?
Ultimately, Edmundson reminds us, we shouldn’t expect a real education to be nice and easy. We will certainly have a more difficult time grappling with ourselves, and may face some tougher decisions. But if we are to live lives that are ours, not someone else’s, we just have to take that:
“The whole business is scary, of course. What if you arrive at college devoted to premed, sure that nothing will make you and your family happier than life as a physician, only to discover that elementary schoolteaching is where your heart is?
You might learn that you’re not meant to be a doctor at all. Of course, given your intellect and discipline, you can still probably be one. You can pound your round peg through the very square hole of medical school, then go off into the profession. And society will help you. Society has a cornucopia of resources to encourage you in doing what society needs done but that you don’t much like doing and are not cut out to do…
Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play—work you do so easily that it restores you as you go… And having found whats best for you to do, you may be surprised by how far you rise, how prosperous, even against your own projections, you become.”
I urge a reading of the essay in full, and if the essay leaves you wanting more, read Edmundson’s whole book. He is one of those unique voices inside higher education who is able to see college and university for what it is, as well as explain succinctly what it can be.