Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2002
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Waking up to learning

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Mark Edmundson Waking up to learning

Edmundson captures ’minor miracle’ in book

By Anne Bromley

After 25 years of teaching, English professor Mark Edmundson said he woke up to a startling realization. As he approached 50, he found himself thinking more about a high school teacher who had only crossed his mind before.

“I realized that Franklin Lears had affected a minor miracle,” Edmundson said about a teacher he had his senior year. Suddenly, he understood what Lears had done for him, how Lears had led students to literature and stirred — no, shaken — their minds.
Edmundson’s memoir, Teacher, was published in August by Random House and has received enthusiastic and thoughtful reviews in newspapers from The New York Times to the Rocky Mountain News.

“Edmundson’s message of the world-changing importance of good high school teaching is more than ever one we need to hear,” said Maria Russo in an Oct. 6 review in The New York Times. “It’s rarely delivered with such passion, good humor and sympathy for our floundering, faltering, yearning adolescent selves.”
For those who know Edmundson as the tall, shaggy-haired literary and philosophy critic in Bryan Hall, it may come as a surprise that he describes himself as a “thug” in high school. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood outside Boston and dragging himself to Medford High each day, he was a teen who would rather pound and tackle guys on the football field or outside a bar than open a book and think about it.

In Teacher, he recounts how Lears (the pseudonym Edmundson gives his former teacher in the book to protect his privacy) exposed mediocre students to the world of literature and ideas of selfhood and freedom.

“The richest part of it was he had no aim to convert us to his point of view. His aim was to get us to think and to ask questions,” said Edmundson, who teaches the Romantics, Freud and the like, as well as publishing articles in magazines such as Harper’s. In fact, he compares Lears to a late-’60s Socrates — this small, slight man who gently overpowered the students’ apathy by constantly questioning their assumptions.

Around the time of writing the memoir, Edmundson discovered he wanted to spend more class time not just interpreting books and authors, but also discussing what bearing they might have on his students’ lives, he said.

Over the years, his graduate students have often asked how to teach. Edmundson tries to share the lessons he’s learned through the Teaching Resource Center.
Similarly, he wrote his book to show how a teacher can make a difference in a student’s life.

“I tried to illustrate rather than just give commentary,” he said. He hopes people find “good stories” when they read the book.

Judging from its success, he’s gotten his wish. But young people might be the ultimate test.

“I’d be delighted if high-schoolers would read it,” he said.


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