In mid-October, I sat down with 19 other students to speak with Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia. He traveled to Boston College that day to deliver a lecture for the Lowell Humanities Series, and he was kind enough to meet with several undergraduates prior to his scheduled talk.
In spite of a healthy oeuvre of publications on topics ranging from Freud to football, readers primarily associate Edmundson with one article written for Harper’s Magazine, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students.” Insightful and spirited though this piece may be (indeed, it was the premise on which I knew Edmundson best and had requested him to speak), I fear it has followed him like a shadow since its publication in 1997. Nevertheless, I don’t regret asking him to speak with us about the state of liberal education in the modern university. I expected a rousing dialectic on the merits and impediments that a humanistic education offers in contemporary society. Rather than merely talk about the liberal arts, as we are wont to do here at BC, we performed them. That afternoon we lived liberal education, and I would like to share a bit of the conversation and work out a couple lingering thoughts.
“Did you all have happy childhoods?” The question lingered in the air as we looked at each other, half-amused and half-alarmed that he lobbed this question into our court. This query usually signifies the start of some bad joke about going to a shrink. Once we could see that Edmundson was quite serious and expected some answers, we reached a consensus—yes, of course. Then, the inevitable follow-up: What made it happy? Loving parents, supportive siblings, secure neighborhoods (secured from what, might I ask?), the odd school trip, sport teams, celebration of holidays … you get me.
Although everyone loves to nail BC for having Wonder-white-bread, homogenized paradigms of “normal,” and “happy,” and “childhood,” in no way did we at the table (or do I now) claim that there is a universal ideal of childhood, or that everyone at BC had a perfectly happy first 18 years of life. We simply identified a shared set of experiences that signified “happy childhood” among us.
The various qualifications of happy were quickly distilled down to the single idea of a sheltered childhood. Our parents, guardians, and mentors protected us physically and intellectually from the darkness and horrors that we cannot deny are present and active in the world. Some of us were “lucky”—like well-tempered custard, knowledge and experience were slowly added so as not to scramble the eggs. Others were not. Is shelteredness desirable? We in the room thought so, but we also acknowledged that sheltering—or parenting in general—is a precarious art. Too much, and the young person will either be shaken upon encountering something that challenges her reality or will never venture beyond her comfort zone to live outside and dangerously. Too little, and the results will likely be equally traumatic.
This brings me to my first meditation that followed the seminar. In passing, we mentioned that the community plays a pivotal role in protecting and raising a child. By community, I mean all persons and entities beyond the immediate family: academic, religious, athletic, artistic, and civic groups. The family is undoubtedly integrated into the community, but I would like to momentarily consider the community in isolation.
My memory of what was a very happy and blessed childhood generally recalls my community as a safe, supportive place. My elementary and middle school educations were both completed at a K-8 parochial school, and the place abounded with great friends, caring teachers, and thoughtless safety. Even today, I could not conceive of a better start to my academic and social lives.
Now that I have the perspective of time and distance, however, I realize that the very place and people responsible for “protecting” me were the same to administer my first tastes of public humiliation, anxiety, and resentment. If you ever attended such a school, you know that there exists no better place for an education in small-group politics. And God help you if you played parochial basketball and were skilled at it.
The safe place becomes unsafe as we grow and wake up. Even now, when I think of potential threats to a child’s safety, I see them as external entities that must be kept out, some foreign change imposed on a peaceful domestic climate. I’m willing to bet, though, that many of us here became experienced by virtue of what was already among us. What more to do with this, where to take it, I’m not sure right now. I leave it to your further consideration and mine. It’s a meditation, not a point.
The second meditation that lingers in the wake of Edmundson’s seminar is, what responsibility do we have to care for our childhood and its memory? If childhood was characterized by uninhibited imagination, adulthood (if we even are adults in the fullest sense yet) is characterized by memory. Time has a nasty habit of accumulating on the other side of life as we move through it … but imagination and memory aren’t as opposed as we think. We use both to mentally place ourselves somewhere beyond the location of the present. To me, the noteworthy difference lies in the extent to which either is crystallized—imagination is an act of fluid intellectual and emotional creativity, but memory is an act of intellectual and emotional creativity that has ossified into one, often embellished, recording. Our inner children are the products of our experiences mediated by thoughts and time. How will we care for our childhood and its memory?
Featured Image by Daniel Lee / Heights Senior Staff