Why Read?

Mark Edmundson, Author Bloomsbury Publishing PLC $21.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-58234-425-6
Extending the argument of his tome Literature Against Philosophy: Plato to Derrida, Edmundson laments the state of liberal arts teaching--and, despite his protestations to the contrary, effectively caricatures critical theory as the soulless antithesis to his own humanistic pedagogical ideals. While a stylish, erudite piece of rhetoric, Edmundson's book is dated, rooted as it is in the author's Harper's article of 1997 and in the culture wars of that decade. Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, claims he is not""antitheory,"" but a humanist who believes a liberal arts education ought to expand minds rather than shut them down. For him, critical theory comes""between"" the reader and the power of great books, distracting students from the big questions concerning life and how best to live it--questions central to a democracy. As an alternative approach, Edmundson permits students to identify with characters in a naive manner currently out of favor in the academy and highlights the author's voice (a technique he calls""ventriloquism""). Edmundson gives examples of how he teaches classics from Wordsworth to Orwell and takes positions on canonicity, multiculturalism and pop culture. Yet for all its learning and elegance, Edmundson's challenge to teachers might have done more to rejuvenate or deepen the tired debate in which it engages had its observations extended beyond his own classroom.
Reviewed on: 09/20/2004
Release date: 09/01/2004
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