Book Review: Why Read?

Why do we go to school? Is it for the credentials? Is it to learn some technical skills? Is it to learn how to live better? Is it for some other reason? Or is it for some combination of reasons? In a wonderful and emotionally charged essay in the Oxford American titled, “Who Are You And What Are You Doing Here“, Mark Edmundson challenges readers to think about what an education really ought to provide us. Education is not immune to economic analysis, but, before running a cost-benefit analysis, it’s of utmost importance that we tally up all the costs and benefits, both financial and non-financial. My views on the topic of education have slowly evolved over time, which is one of the beauties of writing a blog! Anyway, Edmundson’s essay was my first introduction to his work and it prompted me to read his book Why Read.

In essence, Why Read is a book about the importance of literature and, more generally, a liberal-style education. It seems that in the modern era many people find a liberal education increasingly irrelevant when compared with learning technical skills. I suspect that this is often because the financial return on an education rooted in the liberal arts pales in comparison to the financial return that can come from studying, say, finance. What are those poor literary types and pedantic souls who enjoy reading literature, history, and philosophy really good for anyway? Edmundson asserts, and I agree, that the professors in the humanities in particular fulfill a very important societal role because, if they do their job well, they help teach people how to live. And what is more important than learning how to live?

For many people, learning how to live has traditionally been the responsibility of religious teachers. That, however, needn’t necessarily be true. Books, the ones studied in literature courses anyway, can be thought of as secular bibles, according to Edmundson. “I think that the purpose of a liberal arts education”, writes Edmundson, “is to give people an enhanced opportunity to decide how they should live their lives.” Admittedly, religion often does this, but so too can a secular education (and often without many of the dogmatic ills). I’ll acknowledge that Jesus can teach us lessons about how to live, but lest we forget that Socrates can too! And some of the similarities between these two characters are uncanny. Why not treat both of them as the historically significant philosophers they were without deifying either of them? Edmundson ultimately suggests that literature can be a substitute for religion, although he very carefully refrains from attacking religion.

While I largely enjoyed the book, Why Read was not without it’s flaws. On several occasions, Edmundson dances around the topics of truth and Truth. First, consider the following passage.

What am I asking when I ask of a major work (for only major works will sustain this question) whether it is true is quite simply this: Can you live it? Can you put it into action? Can you speak–or adapt– the language of this work, use it to talk to both yourself and others so as to live better? Is this work desirable as a source of belief? Or at the very, can it influence your existing beliefs in consequential ways? Can it make a difference?

I think it’s fair to concede that there are many different routes that may help us converge on Truth. Edmundson, however, seemed weary of denying that Truth exists at all in the book. While it may be fun to play around with semantics so that you can avoid offending anyone, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to avoid calling verifiably false claims in religious texts myths. At several times throughout the book, I got the impression that Edmundson thought truth was relative or that Truth doesn’t exist. Do works like the Bible and the Koran belong with works of historical non-fiction or do they belong in the same category as Homer’s Illiad? I think the answer is obvious, but many academics are too scared of offending people who perhaps desperately need to be offended. Many of us, myself included, would likely stand to learn a great deal about the world and ourselves, if only we aren’t so afraid of being offended.

Arguably, one of the most important benefits that comes from studying philosophy in particular is that it helps us discern what is and isn’t important in this one life that we are given. Without some philosophizing, one runs the great danger of wasting a lifetime on things that aren’t really valuable. For example, one may be really good at their job and make a lot of money. However, that doesn’t really matter if the job isn’t important and if money ultimately fails to satisfy, right?

As most people who get involved in education realize, souls can be won or lost within the confines of the academy. Edmundson thinks a liberal education is required in order to promote democratic humanism and with him, I agree. Plato, however, scorned democracy and whether or not democracy is the best form of government is something that I think needs to continually be debated in philosophy classes. The debate over pedagogy shows no signs of going away anytime soon either and Why Read is an important book for those interested in that discussion.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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