Mark Edmundson diagnoses the maladies besetting today's college students: a toxic cocktail of the dreaded three Cs--consumerism, computers, and cool. I'm not sure that there's all that much new here, especially since Edmundson himself has done so much to popularize these explanations for all that's frustrating to your average academic. Instead of nodding along, though, as I'm often inclined to do when reading such things, I found myself feeling...resistant. There are a number of reasons:
1) "What do you mean, 'we,' professor at an elite university?" Edmundson blithely generalizes from his own experience with elite students at an elite university supported by elite amounts of money. The essay keeps oscillating between "his" students and students-at-large. Now, I taught students like the ones he describes when I was at Anonymous Research I, but my own students come equipped with entirely different intellectual and cultural baggage. Not to repeat myself unduly, but what the heck: you cannot presume that Research I campuses are representative of anything except Research I campuses. I'm sorry. They aren't and you can't. Student preparation, religious affiliations, cultural background, ethnic representation, age distributions, money, money, money...all of these things and more are going to be different at less selective institutions. (It matters, for example, that many of my students are in their mid-twenties and work full-time; even some of the younger ones are married with kids.)
2) And...who does this, exactly? One of the most annoying things about this type of essay is that it relies so heavily on anecdotes. Is there some reason why academics bewailing the decline and fall of academia refuse to undertake anything that looks vaguely like the systematic gathering of evidence? (My own skeptical interpretation of such essays, to be honest, is that they are a wonderful way of inflating one's vita without having to do anything but contemplate the elegantly decorated interior of one's own hospitable brain. I suspect that this opinion may not make me well-loved in some quarters, but so be it.) Moreover, anecdotal evidence usually generates only anecdotal responses--and, by their very nature, anecdotes don't disprove anecdotes. Thus, when Edmundson bewails the instructor (imagined? real? Jerome McGann, come to think of it?) who asks his students to develop a website based on Blake's chimney sweeper poems, I can only respond, with some puzzlement, that while I've certainly seen such projects--which, when well done, may well be of value to others--I've never encountered a professor who thought they could supplant the actual work of reading the text. More to the point, most of us are not in a position to ask our students to do such websites, for crying out loud; hosting costs $ and many campuses are not especially generous when it comes to making space available. (For the same reason, I'm not asking my students to do weblogs, which otherwise strike me as an interesting pedagogical experiment. Our campus doesn't host them and I don't want to ask the students to spend yet more money.) Has Edmundson even asked himself how many students really have the access to computing resources that he seems to take for granted?
3) "Why hadn’t anyone been changed by my course?" Look, I don't mean to be gratuitously cruel, let alone uncool, but...couldn't an editor have asked Edmundson to rethink that sentence? I'm delighted when a student tells me that she thought Victorian literature was unexpectedly fascinating, or that he (it's always a "he," sorry) had expected Jane Eyre to be gooey bosh and found himself loving it instead. But you can't predict or prescribe life-changing experiences (and what's a life-changing experience? Who defines it?). Nor can you always expect a student to know that they've been changed. Looking back at my undergraduate career, I had two professors who revolutionized my attitude to poetry--but, at the time, I registered the change in only one of those two instances. (In fact, Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt had to point out just how much I had been influenced by the other professor.)
I'm not dissenting from the entirety of Edmundson's piece, merely pointing out that some of its rhetoric seems itself representative of a certain, well, intellectual consumerism of a different order. There's more discussion of the essay at Metafilter.