Book Review: Why Teach? by Mark Edmunson

The current climate in higher education is host to a great debate about the purpose of a college education.  Are schools responsible for turning out a thoroughly-prepared, pre-programmed workforce, or it is the responsibility of educators to shape thoughtful, reflective humans without regard for how future employers will view them?  Alexis Harrison, Departmental Teaching Fellow, read the book and wrote this review.


Graduate students wind up teaching for many reasons. For some of us, teaching is a rewarding way to share our enthusiasm for our field of research. For others, inspiring the next generation is the primary goal of the academic life. For a few, teaching is an annoying distraction from hours spent in the library or laboratory. While the motivations for teaching may vary, we tend to view ourselves as educators working to disseminate knowledge and promote the greater good. Very few teaching assistants (or professors for that matter) see themselves as entertainers.

Yet according to Mark Edmundson, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia, education and entertainment are becoming more and more difficult to discern as a consequence of the new “corporate university.” According to his new book Why Teach, one consequence of the emergence of the “university-as-a-business” model is that students are viewed more and more as customers. The competition among institutions of higher learning to attract students (and their tuition dollars) has placed pressure on instructors to make classes that are entertaining, comfortable, and easily traded for employment after graduation. The cost of this shift is that students are no longer asked to push themselves to their intellectual limits or to question their own beliefs and values, and classes that don’t provide a clear economic value are abandoned in favor of classes that focus on skills rather than wisdom.

This fall, several of the Department Teaching Fellows here at Harvard met to discuss these issues. A few major trends emerged from these discussions. First, we agreed that the goals of higher education are complex and often contradictory. One of the main objectives of students pursuing higher education is to improve their future employment opportunities. Having a degree increases both the probability of finding a job and the expected salary of future jobs. To this end, higher education should endeavor to teach students concrete skills that can be applied in the workplace. Beyond the economic incentives to seek higher education, we agreed that gaining an appreciation of the breadth and depth of human knowledge was a common goal of university education. Taking classes in a general education or core program can have many advantages, from finding interesting connections among different areas of knowledge to exciting an interest in a diverse range of topics that a student will carry forward to enrich their adult lives. The last and most nebulous goal of higher education is what Edmundson referred to as “soul-making”: the process of exploring oneself, questioning the beliefs and values that have shaped the person thus far, and deciding on values to adhere to as an adult.

While all of these goals have value, we did not always agree on how much weight to give to each. For example, is self-exploration worth the cost of tuition? Should students be required to learn an appreciation for a broad swath of human knowledge if they would prefer not to? Is it even possible to teach “soul-building” to someone who is skeptical or outright resistant? Is it elitist to build today’s universities around the principles that shaped these same universities in an age where they were open only to wealthy white men? Is it discriminatory to change the goals of the university to accommodate less “elite” students? We found many questions to discuss, but few answers.

A second major theme in our discussion was the differences between the sciences and the humanities. In Why Teach, many chapters focus mainly on the humanities. Those of us in the sciences found that a surprising number of Edmundson’s arguments seemed to apply equally to science. For example, science instructors often face pressure to teach students marketable skills rather than challenge them to engage with the idea of science. Likewise, teachers in all disciplines face pressure to make their courses entertaining, sometimes at the cost of rigor.  The humanities face more pressure in the “corporate university” because of their perceived lack of concrete value and decreasing enrollment, but the challenges facing teachers are largely similar.

Finally, we talked about concrete strategies that individual educators might employ to shift “edutainment” back towards education within the corporate university. This topic was the least satisfyingly addressed in Why Teach.  At the individual level, instructors can try to improve their teaching and activity-based learning to try to get students as engaged as possible.  Also, a personal passion for and commitment to teaching can help give students a better educational experience.  However many of the problems brought up by Edmundson can only be solved at the institutional or cultural level, perhaps by organizations like the Bok Center.

Alexis Harrison made her way to Harvard from Oregon (via New Mexico) to pursue research on the evolution of visual communication in Anolis lizards with Dr. Jonathan Losos.  She has been known to engage in “guerrilla education” tactics by carrying her pet lizard and snake around in her purse.  Alexis is a Ph.D. candidate and Departmental Teaching Fellow at Harvard University.

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