Marc Edmundson is a professor who has written a new book entitled Why Teach? Having just read it, I concur with those who have celebrated it -- and believe that those who teach are not the only folks who might wish to read it. Those who administer institutions might want to read it -- and those who subject themselves to education (aka students) might as well. There are bits to object to; frankly, I get tired of negative portrayals of students -- despite my own sense that we all, includign students, do embody a culture that is peculiarly against education and learning and sometimes, even, peculiarly incomprehensible. There are moments when one or another essay might have been edited -- or even (gasp) omitted. And yet, I recommend the book. And, I would go so far as to say that Edmundson, though he know it not, has a spark of the Shimerian in him.
Here are a few reasons why, which I share in the spirit of nudging readers toward the book. (And yes, I believe even a president can benefit from reflecting on the question "why teach?".)
1. The tone of the first essay is a wonderful and insightful way to understand faculty relationships to course evaluations. Yes, he is unduly negative about students and, I fear, gets somewhat of the wrong message from the evaluations (which seem to me to push him toward entertainment rather than pushing him toward a bait and switch from entertainment to rigor). But, I may be missing his ironic tone in my hasty reading.
2. His argument against laptops in the classroom is worth a good solid read.
3. He seems fair minded when he discusses sports in part because he reflects on his own experience in sports -- and I suspect his experience is more like many of his readers' experiences than those we see on television.
4. His essays entitled "Against Readings" and "Narcissus Regards HIs Book/The Common Reader Now" push this reader to think about reading in new ways.
5. Who can not love his essay entitled "The Uncoolness of Good Teachers." Really.
His passion for his vocation -- and for liberal education -- are indeed inspiring. But, what I really want to talk about is a comvocation address he gave at the University of Virginia in 2005 entitled "Glorious Failure." The essay (as presented in the book) is why I have carried the book around with me for the month I have owned it. Failure. Glorious failure.
The phrase seems oxymoronic, right? It feels a bit like linking education to . . . . bewilderment? Or slowness? It feels somehow wrong. And yet, the essay is inspiring -- that one aims for glorious success and in doing so the failures -- the opportunities for learning -- themselves are glorious. He rages from Thomas Jefferson to Joni Mitchell, on the same page even, noting the ways both tried new things rather than repeating earlier successes. Edmundson has "heroes in the art of failure." Walt Whitman is one -- who did all sorts of things not so well (including it turns out he was -- according to WEdmundson -- bad at everything by the time he was 32). And, Edmundson also writes about the ghost or shadow curriculum vitae (cv or resume); he notes that when we look at such genre productions we see only the successes -- the articles we completed, the degrees we received, the books we published. We do not see the failures or the struggles -- only when one looks at one own cv does one see the rejected articles or the years that lead to that one publication. The shadow of the success is. . . the failures, the work, and the rest of life that disappears behind the carefully planned font and style of our cv.
And of course, for Edmundson, the writer can, slowly, patiently, over the course of a lfietime -- create the reader whose patience and thoughtfulness we all need: the common reader. (See page 179). Perhaps equally importantly, Edmundson reminds us that Wittgenstein was an elementary school teacher. So: teaching matters.
Why should presidents read Why Teach? Because much administrative work is itself teaching -- as is much leadership. And, because we too have a vocation.