He fervently advocates for the transformative power of a true education because he experienced it firsthand. In high school, he cared about football and rock ’n’ roll more than about literature until he was stirred by great teaching and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “I think that the highest objective for someone trying to provide a literary education to students is to make such moments of transformation possible,” he writes.
This “highest objective” is also extraordinarily fulfilling. “Teachers who have been moved by great works have been moved to pass the gift on,” he says, with a nod to Wordsworth and Coleridge — and to all professors who introduce students to books that have changed their own lives. Art inspires us; teaching changes us.
Mr. Edmundson worries that too many professors have lost the courage of their own passions, depriving their students of the fire of inspiration. Why teach? Because great professors can “crack the shell of convention,” shining a light on a life’s different prospects. They never aim at conversion, only at what Emerson called “aversion” — bucking conformity so as to discover possibility.
Despite the forces arrayed against them, in the next few weeks, students across the country will find their way to professors like Mr. Edmundson, teachers eager to continue the fight for real education. I wouldn’t bet against them.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His new book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” will be published by Yale University Press next year.
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