This is an exaggeration, of course. Few professors want to spend their lives teaching badly. Few students don't care at all whether they get anything but a good grade from each course they take. Even administrators probably like to think that they are doing more than managing the accounts of a business. But all the material forces are set up to push and pull people away from the business (as in busy-ness, not profit-seeking) of learning. So what Edmundson presents is an exaggeration, not a myth.
Near the middle of his essay, Edmundson writes this:
The quest at the center of a liberal-arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation—maybe quiet, maybe, in time, very loud—and I am not exaggerating. For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are, which, in the long run, is killing.I sympathize, but I don't know whether I agree. There is no guarantee that a liberal arts education will save you from a life of desperation. There might not even be a possibility of its doing so. I don't mean that despair is inevitable, or that reading books and thinking about them is a waste of time. It's more that the problem and the prescription seem to pass each other by. Edmundson's advice, after all, seems to be not to try to be someone else. So: be yourself. But what does that mean? Does being yourself guarantee that you will not live in desperation? And are the liberal arts the recipe for finding out who you are?
Some people see the self as nothing, or next to nothing. Some see the nature of life as suffering. Some believe that if there is a meaning or point to life it certainly does not consist in having a good time. All this suggests a kind of despair to me, although perhaps not desperation. 'Desperation' suggests a lack of resignation in a way that 'despair' does not. Maybe reading the right books could help someone move from desperation to despair. But you don't need to go to college to read these books. And college-age people are probably too young, at least for the most part, to benefit from books like these.
Others, of course, have a much happier view of life. But does that come from books? I doubt it. Brain chemistry might be more relevant. As might religious faith, friends, family, material well-being, and so on. And you don't need education to have these things.
In the end I'm tempted to say that the point of reading books is reading books. Or pleasure. Be an English major if that's what you want to do because that is what you want to do. Not because it will pay in the long run. If a book is "not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding." Or at any rate: less consequentialism, please.