A critic once called Edmundson a “Charlottesville gadfly,” and it is tempting to imagine a cranky tenured professor shaking his head at the fecklessness of today’s youth. But there’s more than the traditional skepticism of the young going on here, for internet technology has wrought some disquieting changes. “I see the ravages of the super-ego almost daily,” he writes. “My students are bright, talented, and kind, but oppressed by the standards that have been instilled deep within them.”
His examples of grade inflation and souped-up student achievement are especially familiar to professors who have witnessed their universities transform from places of education to places of business. In the 1990s, Edmundson argued that students were becoming the university’s “clientele,” the teachers its “providers.” The result was a student generation “unfired by ideals”—a student generation, in other words, that approached college exclusively as a path to a lucrative career.
Now, 30 years later, this mindset, Edmundson suggests, is a full-blown “sickness.” The popular cultural currency today is not apathy but judgment, and as such, the online world is increasingly toxic, for it “does not engage in dialogue or seek understanding.” Thus, the internet generally offers not “thoughtful, nuanced interpretations of experience” but a space for the superego, which Edmundson personifies as “a tyrant king,” to reign supreme:
The king is crude to the point of vulgarity, judgmental in the extreme, and bitterly punitive. He likes to sound reasonable, though he’s anything but. He wants you, and if possible everyone else, to do what he says all the time. The king is unable to enjoy himself except through acts of meanness and even cruelty. He has no capacity for humane joy or fun. He’s incapable of a good time.
Edmundson deems this tyrannical force to be a major blight on the modern college experience: “I love my students—I surely do. But there is no way I would want to be one of them […] From the time they stepped into preschool, the great majority of my students have been primed for success.”
For most students and their parents, academic success in 2023 is exclusively material. Their yen for money and status culminates not with intellectual or spiritual growth but with a “good job.” These middle-class markers of success, Edmundson notes, are at odds with the point and practice of genuine education. As he writes, “The problem is this: with all the time that it takes to succeed in current terms, there is little left for the actual, arduous, often pleasurable work of learning. Learning takes time, but time is not readily to be had.”
The prevalence of Adderall and over-the-counter medicines like Sudafed, the little red pill that Edmundson calls “Father’s Little Helper,” have not helped. Embedded in these disturbing yet humorous accounts (he paints a marvelous picture of his own Sudafed benders) are the links between soft drugs and computer culture. As he wrote in 2008, “Laptops seem to go with coffee (and other stimulants), in much the same way that blood-and-gold sunsets went with LSD and Oreo cookies with weed.” (Deep readers of Edmundson will recall here the professor’s synesthetic trip through Central Park in the mid-1970s, detailed in his 2010 memoir, The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll.) We cannot yet assess the long-term consequences of a student generation raised on speed and simulacra, but he implies that a frenetic culture interferes with, if not outright destroys, deep literacy and does not make students happy.
The Age of Guilt, however, moves beyond this unsettling portrait of American higher education. The major problem with Freudian analysis, Edmundson says, is that “Freud […] never developed a vision of human happiness,” but this is precisely what Edmundson is after—he advocates for acts of human bravery, thought, and compassion as “live alternatives” to Freud’s bitter view of the human condition. He encourages students to “embrace the ideals” as a first step toward transcending the online world of greed and groupthink that many believe is the inevitable future. Real happiness involves “losing yourself in something you love and that will also in all probability come to benefit others.” The superego is merely “a manifestation of the values and necessities of bourgeois civilization. Step aside from that civilization,” Edmundson writes, “and you will leave its impediments behind.”
In an era of internet saturation, The Age of Guilt offers a salutary good, a critical look at contemporary culture with an eye toward changing it for the better. Edmundson dares readers to imagine themselves at their best because, as he concludes, “[w]here super-ego was, there human ideals may be. There, in a thriving democracy, they may be.”
Joshua Hall teaches English at the University of San Diego and works as a lecturer for the Department of Rhetoric & Writing Studies at San Diego State University, where he has taught since 2007. His essays have recently appeared in Bridge Eight Press.