WHY READ?

By Mark Edmundson. Bloomsbury. 146 pp. $21.95Seven years ago Mark Edmundson published an essay in Harper's magazine called "On the Uses of a Liberal Education" that caused a small firestorm in academia, which loves nothing more than a food fight. He argued, with plenty of supporting evidence, that "university culture, like American culture writ large, is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images." He said that universities kowtow to students in "a solicitous, nearly servile" way and that it is all of this, not some "left-wing professorial coup," that has put American higher education in its present fix.

Though it seemed to me that Edmundson too hastily dismissed the malign influence of "multiculturalism and political correctness" on the campuses, the rest of his argument was, and still is, sound and important. Coming as this criticism does from within the walls -- Edmundson holds an endowed chair at the University of Virginia as NEH/Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professor -- it carries all the more weight. According to the publisher of Why Read?, the Harper's article "is said to be the most photocopied essay on college campuses over the last five years," presumably because what Edmundson said in it touched a sensitive nerve.

Why Read? seems to have been inspired by the article and the response to it, but it is not a book-length version of the original. Though Edmundson does briefly rehash some of the points he made in 1997 -- that college is now part of "the culture of Total Entertainment All the Time," that "the culture of cool" reigns, that in catering to the students for whom they compete, universities are "creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice" -- Why Read? is in fact something quite different. It is an encomium to literature and reading, a passionate argument that literature "is the major cultural source of vital options for those who find that their lives fall short of their highest hopes," and that "the purpose of a liberal arts education is to give people an enhanced opportunity to decide how they should live their lives."

Edmundson half-denies that "the kind of literary education that I'm endorsing here [is] a form of therapy," but it's not a very persuasive denial. The word one encounters over and over in these pages is "self." It is abundantly clear that Edmundson sees self-discovery and self-fulfillment as the chief purposes of a liberal arts education. There's a tension here that he simply doesn't resolve: On the one hand he (properly) attacks American universities for catering to the consumerist and pop-cultural demands of students, most of which can fairly be described as selfish, yet on the other hand he contends that the central purpose of a liberal arts education is to heighten the student's sense of self, which (to me at least) sounds a whole lot like self-centeredness.

Thus, for example, consider Edmundson's argument on behalf of the literary canon. Not merely does he insists that some books actually are better than others; and believe it or not, there are ideologues in the humanities departments who would have you think otherwise, who "want to replace Bronte novels with bodice rippers" in the curriculum. But he also argues that a few books are indisputably great, no matter that (this part of the argument he declines to make) they were written by Dead White Men. This, to quote him at some length, is where he goes from there:

"The test of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it? If you cannot, it may still command considerable interest. The work may charm, it may divert. It may teach us something about the larger world; it may refine a point. But if it cannot help some of us to imagine a life, or unfold one already latent within, then it is not major work, and probably not worth the time of students who, at this period in their lives, are looking to respond to consequential and very pressing questions. They are on the verge of choosing careers, of marrying, of entering the public world. They are in dire need of maps, or of challenges to their existing cartography. Perhaps most of all, they seek ways to unfold their promise, to achieve the highest form of being they can. Works of art matter to the degree that they can help people do this. Books should be called major and become canonical when over time they provide existing individuals with live options that will help them change for the better. A democratic humanism can have no other standard for greatness."

Wow. It is difficult to imagine a more utilitarian approach to literature and art. The humanities departments of the university, it seems, are just branches of AAA, there to provide roadmaps for young strivers preparing to steer their BMWs onto the great Interstate called Life. Yes, self-discovery and growth are essential parts of any education, but to see literature -- Edmundson writes herein about Proust, Shakespeare, Emerson and Faulkner, among others -- as providing a game plan for life is scarcely to see literature at all. Why Read? is crammed with quotations, as Edmundson readily acknowledges -- the book is "filled with the wisdom of many others" -- but nowhere will you find Keats's immortal lines: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats didn't get it exactly right either, but the familiar words make the essential point: Knowing how to recognize and honor beauty and truth is something toward which we must strive and -- to extrapolate from Keats -- toward which a liberal education must direct us. Edmundson argues with passion and force against a "consumerist" view of the duties of higher education, but how, precisely, does his own argument differ from one? A work of literature "is not a major work" unless it can help someone "imagine a life," or, to put it more crudely, help someone plan a career and choose a spouse? For all of Edmundson's eloquence about literature, the kernel of his argument is wholly pragmatic: "the function of a liberal arts education is to use major works of art and intellect to influence one's Final Narrative, one's outermost circle of commitments. . . . A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially a new way to live."

Flaubert's Frederic Moreau was given a sentimental education. Edmundson would give his students a solipsistic one. Is that an unfair oversimplification? Perhaps. Yet it seems to me the central conclusion to be drawn from Why Read? Even when Edmundson takes a turn toward the Keatsian and urges that students "read for truth," it is so that the truths great literature teaches give them "a satisfying relation to experience," help them "make a contribution to their society," even help them get "a clear sense of the tensions between themselves and the existing social norms." He seems not to grasp that "truth," in and of itself, matters; that exploring the inner workings of the human heart is an essential impulse behind serious literature; that by giving us the world outside ourselves, great art turns us outward toward the world rather than inward toward our selves.

The trouble with Edmundson's argument isn't that it has no merit -- if reading and interpreting literature make us better, happier people, then that certainly is to be welcomed -- but that it capitulates to precisely the same urges he elsewhere decries. No, he isn't urging that teachers of literature should try to entertain rather than challenge their students. Quite to the contrary, he complains that "this generation of students -- steeped in consumer culture before they go off to school; treated as potent consumers by the university well before they arrive, then pandered to from day one -- are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be enjoyed without effort or languidly cast aside."

In this as in much else, Edmundson is dead on target. The problem is that in the end he, too, wants education to point people into themselves rather than out into the world. His language sometimes is eloquent, and his motives doubtless are the very best, but boiled down to its essence his argument is just another form of consumerism. It puts me in mind of nothing so much as the Me First Party, which was founded nearly half a century ago by the humorist Roger Price. Its slogan was, "I'm for Me First." That is the subliminal message that Edmundson, perhaps all unknowingly, sends to the reader of Why Read? *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.