Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tracy McKenzie on Mark Edmundson and Commonplace Books

I continue to enjoy Tracy McKenzie's reflections on faith and the practice of history at his blog "Faith and History."  In his latest post, the chair of the history department at Wheaton College (IL) describes his engagement with Mark Edmundson's book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education.  

McKenzie spends most of the post discussing Edmundson's thoughts about the practice of writing in a commonplace book. Here is a taste:

My favorite passage from the book is actually one that articulates, better than I have been able to on my own, the value of keeping a commonplace book.  In a previous post (see here), I explained how writing in my commonplace book “helps me, imaginatively, to think of myself as entering into a grand conversation about enduring questions, something far bigger than the transient fads and obsessions that so easily steal the best days of our lives.”
Edmundson tells of a friend who has kept a journal for more than forty years and refers to it as a “life thickener.”  The observations, reflections, and questions that his friend records, in Edmundson’s words, collectively “give dense meaning to the blind onrush that unexamined life can be.”  What a marvelous sentence.  I found myself saying “Yes!  That’s exactly what I long for.”
Edmundson goes on to explain how it is that contemporary culture works against this kind of goal.  There are surely many factors, but a chief culprit, he believes, is technological.  The students he meets at the University of Virginia are children of the Internet.  It was born in their infancy, and they can never remember a time when the word “chat” referred primarily to face-to-face conversation.  Technology allows them (and us) to be multiple places at once–watching a U-tube video, checking Facebook, answering e-mail and texting friends, all while interacting in a coffee shop (or “taking notes” in a lecture hall!).  And as Edmundson rightly observes, the person who thinks he can be in a half dozen places at once is not wholly anywhere.
“An Internet-linked laptop,” the author notes wryly, “is not a life thickener.”  Of course it has its uses, but the promotion of deep introspection does not seem to be one of them.  “To live well,” Edmundson writes, “we must sometimes stop and think and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are.  There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately.”
Yes.  I need to read this book.