The freshman comp class I’m a TA for recently read an article that really got me thinking about education and its purpose. The article, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students” by Mark Edmundson, is somewhat provocative but in a relatively plausible sense: it asserts that education has now become so much about entertainment and diversion because of the increasingly consumeristic outlook that modern students take. I can see this, but I wonder where the line gets drawn between the two.

Perhaps Edmundson is overreacting a bit, but I think I get some of what he’s saying at the beginning of his essay – why should he be evaluated for making the material interesting unless students judge his teaching in large part on whether or not he could present the material in such a way that they are entertained by it? It does make sense to me: as teachers, we should be cultivating the idea that what we teach is worth learning, regardless of its entertainment value. (If it is entertaining, then that should merely be a nice side effect.) I think this value can be cultivated, but the notion that we as teachers need to be entertainers, always on the spot, ready to please our audience students, is a problem, one I’m not particularly sure how to fix (and Edmundson doesn’t offer any suggestions, really).

Here’s the conundrum as I see it: Where does the line exist between entertainment and engagement? Or, perhaps I should say: Where does that line exist now? (It’s surely not true that entertainment and engagement have always had such an association.) If there exists an attitude among students that engagement with material will only occur if some entertaining element is incorporated, then can teachers really afford to stand on principle? The answer, of course, is very clearly no.

So, how can a teacher then balance a commitment to presenting material that ought to be learned because there is something inherently worthwhile in studying it and a circumstantial obligation to provide entertaining opportunities that allow students to become engaged in the material (and hopefully take it with them outside the classroom)?

I think the key is to be clear about the purpose of any activity. If you show a movie of Moby-Dick, be clear that the purpose is to compare the effects of different media and interpretations of a text, how those relate to the symbolism and allegory of the work, etc. Never let students think that you are doing an activity that is merely meant to occupy or divert them – when you do, you reinforce the idea that you are merely there to keep them from being too bored during the time that they are forced to be in school, and subsequently, no one wins, not the teachers, not the school, and certainly not the students.

But this will still be in the back of mind, and it will hopefully be a useful consideration for unit design and lesson planning (since I’m about at that stage in preparation for student teaching). If I can answer affirmatively the question, “Is this lesson on the whole more about diversion than education?” then I know that I have some rethinking to do. With any luck, this won’t have to be an issue I grapple with too horribly.