Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?

Just read the marvellous 2011 essay from Mark Edmundson “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” about the purpose of education, especially a degree. There are many wonderful parts, in particular this on why we should read a variety of writers:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: you feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more than yourself.

Note that Freud is in that list. Books that lift your heart might not always be the fiction ones. They might not always be the most “classic”, what matters is that they lift you up. It’s so easy to become bogged down in the idea that reading should be for other people – to impress or blend with them – but reading is really about much more than that.

Edmundson also reflects how to be a great learner:

You’ll be the one who pesters his teachers. You’ll ask your history teacher about whether there is a design to our history, whether we’re progressing or declining, or whether, in the words of a fine recent play, The History Boys, history’s “just one f***ing thing after another.” You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking. You’ll not only question the statistics teacher about what numbers can explain but what they can’t.

And he explains why his father got mad when teenaged-Edmundson said he would likely study law for his degree because  lawyers “make pretty good money, right?”:

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times.

There is so much more wisdom in this piece, but I’ll leave it for you to explore and figure out which are the bits that speak back to you the things you’ve always thought but have never been able to say.