On the uses of a Liberal Education

The article ‘On the uses of a Liberal Education’ by Mark Edmundson was published in 1997. Mark Edmundson, an author and a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has published numerous scholarly articles in respect to literacy and cultural criticism. This article demonstrates Universities as institutions, and people who attend those institutions including teachers, and how they direct their focus less on the education part, and tend to redirect much of their focus on a consumerist society. In the University setting, he equates students to customers and teachers to service providers who are willing to go to any lengths to satisfy the needs o the students (customers). 

            Edmundson introduces his proposition early in this article when he explains the process of presenting his students with their course evaluations. According to him, these evaluations were distributed in a way that the ‘informed consumers let the provider know where they have come through and where they are not quite up to snuff’ (7). The importance of this statement is to underline the fact that students are consumers and, therefore, anything they propose, their professors feel obliged to amend. Universities have become the products of society’s consumerist nature, and Edmundson mourns the student-pleasing, biased attitude of our former revered halls of higher learning. He observes a changing trend whereby, historical standards are lowered with the sole aim of not deterring students from joining our classes, and the creation of courses that cater for students’ interests at the expense of what we deem as crucial learning. The outcome of this mix up is a population deficient in passion.

            Edmundson laments that, while literature was initially regarded as transformative, today, it is regarded as entertainment. Nevertheless, Edmundson is explicit that he never teaches to amuse, divert or to be merely interesting, but describes his sidebar jokes and off-the-wall questions as lead-ins to stronger content (10).  However, he reiterates that the act of engaging the students is paramount, but the question should always be, ‘What are we engaging them for?’ The vital question becomes, ‘Why learn?’ He seeks to engage us into reflecting on whether we should seek knowledge merely for knowledge’s sake, or for the delight it brings, or still, for its stimulating insights that we like sharing at dinner parties. In his article, Edmundson questions people’s desire to cultivate critical thinking if it fuels no desire for improving humanity. I find such concern valid and strikingly obvious, for what a shame it would be if I read the famous Martin Luther King Junior’s letter from Birmingham jail and not be transformed by it, to merely get ‘entertained’ by the ideas therein, and eventually shelve it at the back of my mind!

            The article is an insightful readership because it demonstrates the link between evaluations and the consumerist society. For instance, when one goes to a restaurant, the management is most likely to ask you to evaluate their services, and based on what you write on their card, they will alter it. This phenomenon is replicated in students’ lives whereby consumerism makes students lose parts of their identities and they begin acting like their peers, or people they see on TV. Edmundson is knowledgeable enough to observe that the word ‘genius’ has been replaced with ‘consumerist’ in our schools, explaining that those students who go to school with the genuine purpose of acquiring knowledge are labeled outcasts. The other claim by Edmundson I find true is that, although teachers like the ‘outcasts’, they model their classes such that the environment favors those students who are in school to ‘fill up the seats’ at the expense of those students who come to ‘fill up their brains’. This essay, therefore, conveys information that has the potential to transform and inspire thought in, more or less, the same way longer works of literature can.