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An Interesting Reason to Go to College, and a Piece about a Pharmacist in Colorado, and One about Teaching, and . . .

December 18, 2012 by Reader's Connection

I didn’t plan to include any Best of books on this year’s gift suggestion list. No one needs to be told that these are excellent stocking-stuffers. But I was standing in Big Hat Books a couple weeks ago, and opened The Best American Essays 2012. The title of Mark Edmundson’s essay “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” caught my eye.

He’s arguing against the widely held view that the only reason to go to college is to nail down a career.

Edmondson recalls that when he was getting ready to leave home on his own educational journey, he had a conversation with his father. He said that he was thinking of “being prelaw,” because “lawyers make pretty good money, right?’

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, prelaw would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog. “How about the science requirements?”

“Take ’em later,” he said. “You never know.”

Edmondson is then launched on his idea about how college is not just a stepping stone toward a career, but an arena in which to work on those deeper questions in his title. Who are you? What are you doing here? By the time I got that far, I had bought the book and was eating some cranberry thing at the Monon Coffee Company.


Peter Hessler’s “Dr. Don” is about a guy in southwest Colorado who is the only pharmacist in a region of four thousand square miles, which seems surreal when I can drive through intersections with a CVS and a Walgreens on opposite corners. He doesn’t want people to call him Dr. Don, but they do.



“Getting Schooled” was written by Garret Keizer, who returned to teaching high school for a year after being away from it for fourteen years. Last week’s shootings in Connecticut didn’t persuade me to print this next quote. I wanted to print it, anyway. The author is making a point about the difficulties of teaching under the best of circumstances. He says that John Adams, Samuel Johnson and Henry David Thoreau had tried to be schoolteachers.

I attribute the lack of illusion in their thought, their disinclination to dogma on the one hand and despair on the other, to the fact that they were tested as teachers . . .

Ludwig Wittgenstein, of modern philosophers perhaps the most sainted, served time as a schoolteacher. I am not surprised. I am also not surprised that he resigned his position after hitting an eleven-year-old boy in the head. I tried to remind myself of that at least once a week thoughout the past year, and not so I could fancy myself superior to Wittgenstein. Rather, I wanted to remember that what I had undertaken was by no means as safe or as simple as redirecting the course of Western thought.

And there are 21 other essays. I have to stop. WARNING: If you want to request this title from the library, please speak with a librarian about it. If you request The Best American Essays yourself, from our catalog, there’s no telling which year’s collection you’ll receive. I’m sure there will be some grand essays in the book, but probably not the ones I’ve mentioned here.




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