In Why Teach? Mark Edmundson addresses vital issues in modern education in the most exasperating style possible. If you believe that education and training are not synonymous, you will be annoyed that Edmundson writes about it so carelessly. And if you take umbrage with attacks on post-modernism, college athletics, and watery reading lists devoid of enduring texts, then I hope that one day you change your mind. But I will not ask you to read Edmundson's book--he will only harden your heart.
Instead, I would beg you to read (or re-read) Spinoza's Political-Theological Treatise, Plato's Gorgias and Republic, Rousseau's Emile, and Bronte's Villete. These authors do not often agree with one another, but they write well, and care deeply about learning. They not only challenge the modern spirit of the age, but offer a center and a purpose as well. Even if they are not totally correct, one could follow their footsteps and become a more compassionate and interesting human being.
Why Teach? consists of a series of essays that fall under three closely related areas: the shift towards treating students as consumers, the goals of students while at a university, and the goals of teachers at a university. In each essay, Edmundson pushes against the shortcuts often taken in academic teaching. He argues that popular paradigms reduce students from burgeoning thinkers to opaque receptacles; it does not matter whether the paradigms come from Marx, or Derrida, or MTV, because the deliberate use of any prescriptive lens too much distorts the radical freshness of a liberal education. Paradigms fertilize young minds, but too often fail to measure the mind's current chemical balance, or take heed of what storm clouds lurk on the broader horizons of life. A good education is conservative in its suggestions, but radical in its consequences. This is the gist of Edmundson's book. It's pretty important. It suggests that specialists should not to dose their students with a narrow set of arguments, however confidently reasoned. It suggests that teachers must view their students as potential guardians of philosophical inquiry, and not just prospective customers or doomed malcontents.
The best chapters in the book highlight Edmundson's own journey as he struggled towards a university education. The worst chapters in the book coldly burn with weak verbs and straw-men attacks.
Edmundons' style aggravates more often than his argument enlightens. For those interested in engaging in such debates, I advise turning to older texts. For those that insist on reading newer literature, consider Alan Bloom's curmudgeonly 20th century essay, The Closing of the American Mind. But to hell with modernity: read Plato's Republic. Plato likes you better than Bloom or Edmundson, and yet disagrees with you more.