Shimer College

November 27, 2013

Why Teach?

As one aims for glorious success, the failures–the opportunities for learning–are themselves glorious.

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. Administrators as well as teachers might want to read it, as might those who subject themselves to education.

There are bits to object to: frankly, I get tired of negative portrayals of students, despite my own sense that we all, including students, do embody a culture that is peculiarly against education and learning. There are moments when one or the other essay might have been edited or even, gasp, omitted. And yet, I recommend the book.

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. Athough Edmundson is unduly negative about students and, I fear, gets somewhat of the wrong message from evaluations (which seem to me to push him toward entertainment rather than toward a bait-and-switch from entertainment to rigor. But, I may be missing his ironic tone in my hasty reading), this essay is an interesting read. 

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.

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 cannot love his essay entitled “The Uncoolness of Good Teachers.” Really. 

Edmundson’s passion for his vocation and for liberal education are indeed inspiring. But, what I really want to talk about is a convocation 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 in the way that it suggests that as one aims for glorious success, the failures–the opportunities for learning–are themselves glorious. Edmundson moves from Thomas Jefferson to Joni Mitchell, on the same page even, noting the ways both tried new things rather than repeating earlier successes. He speaks of “heroes in the art of failure.” Walt Whitman is one who did all sorts of things not so well (according to Edmundson, he was bad at everything by the age of 32).

Edmundson also writes about the “ghost” or “shadow” curriculum vitae; 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. 

So, why should college presidents read Why Teach? Because much administrative work, and leadership, is itself teaching. And because administrative leadership, just like teaching, is a vocation, filled with glorious failure as much as it is characterized by success.