Reflection on Mark Edmundson's Dwelling in Possibilities | Teen Ink

Reflection on Mark Edmundson's Dwelling in Possibilities

April 2, 2021
By Mutchayaran GOLD, Shenzhen, Other
Mutchayaran GOLD, Shenzhen, Other
15 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Favorite Quote:
To define is to limit.

Curious about how many students brought laptops while they entered university? Last year in UVA, 2906 out of three thousand entered with laptops, and only 4 students showed up computerless, compared to half of the freshmen that came without computers ten years ago. Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, brought up the appalling statistics in his article Dwelling in Possibilities, to convince the primary audience, his fellow professors, that teenagers’ hunger for more life, embodied in pursuing many possibilities at one time, make them ultimately vulnerable. Edmundson located his secondary audience to be the youthful college students who are obsessed with filling their lives without gaps, who live by a standardized measure and adhere to a “college-boy” mode, who who "buy" in order to "be", and who stop being the round pegs in the square holes. Edmundson appealed to them to slow down their college life without giving a definite solution to how this might be achieved, while pointing out a range of observations that speed up students’ lives: internet-linked computers, ADD drugs, coffee, and other stimulants, X-games. As far as I am concerned, the text successfully appealed to its audience due to the author’s skillful explorations of personal anecdotes, appeals to authority, cultural and literary examples, and aforementioned unique writing style.

         Edmundson chooses to make this argument more through personal narratives and observations with a storytelling tone to lend the authenticity and ethos of his words. To begin with, he put the readers in his shoes by introducing an interaction between his student and himself on a lawn. In front of the question “what did you do over the summer,” they held disparate answers and attitude: while Edmundson spent time polishing five drafts of a chapter for a book, his student lived a life of supreme intensity of studying, traveling, making more friends, taking in all walks of life. Paralleling their experiences implicitly drives the readers to reflect on their summer and lays the foundation for his reasoning that the students’ generations might lack time for reflection and mindfulness. Similar confessions include it's when I can see it all in front of me that I’m the happiest.” Laying bare students’ mentality misted by vanity, she criticizes the absurdity of consumerism on satisfying people’s irrational cravings and voidness of “happiness'' in this context. Forging ahead, Edmundson made another comparison between a friend and his students: the former has kept a journal for 40 years that runs to about 40 volumes, while the latter is likely to think of him as a “medieval monk.” However, his friend’s arduous writing attempt allows him to see “there is a life” and endow meanings with it, unlike the youths’ blind onrush that rarely means something, making sense to readers why existential crises related to academics are a normality in this era: solely increasing life’s breadth does not multiply possibilities, a “life thickener” does. Reading his friend’s patience in keeping a 40-year journal, I reconsider that I might need to change from settling with the synopsis of books to increase my bookshelf in breadth but not my mind in depth. Hence, self-reflection is naturally put forth. Edmundson also presented an in-class experiment to lay scientific grounding to his statement, in which he tried to figure out how many places the students were at the maximum at one time. The result was unexpected — some students went to double digits — instantly messaging, watching movies, chatting. Through this seemingly hyperbolic example, he confronts readers with the status quo of college students’ inability to grasp the invaluable moment and discern the truly important, since anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular. To quote Thoreau’s words, the magnetic telegraph from Maine and Texas might be useless because they possibly have nothing important to communicate, which delicately conveys the ineffectiveness of dwelling in trivial and possibly unrelated matters.

          In addition, Edmundson extends his observation from UVA to exceptionally prestigious institutions like Harvard and Yale and found a positive correlation between the prestige of a college and its pace, building up her credibility as a knowledgeable tutor and perceptive observer. Using this evidence, Edmundson provokes readers’ concern about the academic trend in top-notch institutions and specifically, on the young intellectual minds’ future piled up with “frenetic and centrifugal” speed. When supposed academic intensity was replaced by technology that allows “space-traveling” in classes, when students pay attention to many things unrelated to course materials in the classroom, readers are left to ponder and recall the vibrant academic scenes and ethos of society in the future.

         Beyond analysing the phenomenon itself, Edmundson also showcased a deeper analysis of the psychological contributors that turned teenagers into “possibility junkies” and “all-purpose desiring-machines.” He denotes the apocalyptic September 11, 2001, inserted a deep-rooted fear in teenagers that prompts them to do everything now, “for later may be too late.” Edmundson took on a cultural perspective and mindful eye by reflecting on 911, an event not normally associated with America’s status quo, which indicates his perceptiveness in making historical connections and directs specifically to American students’ mindset of being in the metropolitan and fugitive society. The second underlying motive, as he points out, is that internet-linked computers revolutionize the way prior media are expanding desires, an example stepping outside the context of western culture into examining the global trend. Traveling with the author’s evidence, I related to my peak experience of tasting the lip of possible when opening up piles of tags. By speculatively elucidating a range of possible psychological motives specific to this generation, the author grants us empathy through which he conveys understanding and seeks to evoke understanding from professors on how students are easily led astray by the eye-catching devices in this epoch. Personally, this tactic lends Edmundson the image of a tender, objective observer whose first step towards solving the problem is trying to understand it thoroughly. In absence of an aggressive tone, it is easier for his intended secondary audience, the hurrying students to reflect on their bustling lifestyle and stand with his views. Edmundson could have employed more logic or psychological studies to show that these factors are the internal triggers of students’ endless pace. However, choosing to let "sensibility" outweigh "sense" in the essay might derive from the author's aspiration to lessen the mechanical preaching (as students are generally familiar with) and incorporate in-depth observation to abridge psychological distance with students.  

             Alternatively, the prevailing allusion to intellectual minds might supplement the lack of evidence-based statistics. Though he alluded to writers throughout the piece, it is most prominent at the end, wherein he invited Kant, Dickinson, Thoreau, and even Socrates to serve as his speakers, which might have a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are the exact opposite of dwelling in possibilities, as they ponder about their passion with an effort. Secondly, one of the problems Edmundson is criticizing is students’ lack of absorption of arts, culture, and literature, and exposing them to the words of intellectual minds, he can inject a different sort of knowledge in them, a slower, denser, deeper and time-consuming one. From Emily Dickinson’s words “I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose” to Thoreau’s warning “Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,” he deftly uses metaphor to denote the meaninglessness of living in limitless magnitudes (from research, Maine and Texas are more than 2000 miles apart) and making irrelevant connections to stray us away from the present. However, Edmundson could have taken a more dialectical outlook if he had included more context of Dickinson’s poem “I dwell in Possibility,” in particular, on how Dickinson advocates dwelling in the possibility of language in contrast to how this student generation dwells in possibilities of desires. Furthermore, Edmundson set an example of Wordsworth, whose poetry was the explorer of inner space, deliberate, slow, ponderous, to engage the readers as active viewers of another way of living — one that is different from Byron’s, who wishes never to be bored and created unexpected, shrewd rhyme to catch attention. Without harsh reproach, he ironically pinpointed how Byron’s spirit flew by metempsychosis into the industrialized machine and laptop, critiquing Byronic philosophy of escaping from boredom, thus creating ever-moving and hollow desires to occupy the immature mind. Edmundson tried to stand in the students’ perspective and considered even how literary figures contributed to their ever-moving cravings. Most importantly, what Socrates coined as Doxa — common sense, general belief — was used to describe that people are living the life not of their own, but following the voices of others. Thus, he explicitly states the aim of reading literature: to change our past understandings and delve into our self-knowledge separate from those influenced by our parents and teachers, to reshape our long-held beliefs on who we are and what the world is. Reading Socrates and other intellectual minds gives us a second chance of reflection, clarity, and authenticity. More importantly, he went further and specified the reason for education: to cut through Doxa and establish new ways of seeing things, which would approach what we love instead of following the mainstream. By extending the subject matter to the ultimate goal of Socratic education, he proved his credibility as a professor who not only imparts knowledge but also passes on intellectual thoughts. 

             Proposing a definite solution is what this essay uncommonly lacks. But Edmundson might have intentionally done this to leave time for the audience to design their own path and not fall into the trap of what Socrates coined as “Doxa,” which practically put his advice of slowing down into action. Alternatively, he might want his fellow professors to customize specific solutions for individual problems, given the distinctive devices that everyone is attached to, from music, technology, to advertisement. For a long time, students like me have been living a bustling life wherein I sought quick answers to everything. But reading this article is different. The answer, if any, would come to readers slowly, in the form of questions, an answer that not so much tells us (and his fellow professors) what it is and what to do as shows us mindfully where to go, a placement in itself a rebellion of "Doxa" which I consider mesmerizing.

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