In Praise of William Deresiewicz

I’ve read three long, fascinating essays by English professor William Deresiewicz over the last two days: Solitude and Leadership:If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts; Love on Campus: Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor (and he’s not talking about the bed-shaking kind, unless one’s partner is in paper form); and The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers.

I don’t agree with everything he’s written in those pieces, but their scope and unexpectedness is refreshing: in all three cases, he takes potentially tired themes (people are distracted a lot today; a great deal of film and fiction depicts randy professors sleeping with students; and elite colleges are training too many hoop jumpers instead of thinkers) and goes with them to unexpected places: how Heart of Darkness depicts bureaucracy and finding yourself; the erotic intensity of ideas and how they can be mingled with erotic intensity of the more conventional variety; and the entitlement complex that paradoxically can scare people into hewing to the narrow path. Even my summaries of a small portion of where he goes in each essay is hopelessly inadequate, which is part of what makes those essays so good.

The three are not all that separate: they all deal with conformity, individuality, college life, and the place of the university in society. Read together, they have more cohesiveness than many entire books. Most importantly, however, they go places I haven’t even thought about going, which is their most useful and unusual feature of all.

Jeff Sypeck pointed me to one and Robert Nagle to another; I only know both through e-mail, which is a very small but real demonstration of the Internet’s true power to make connections. All three essays might play into my eventual dissertation; at the very least, they’ve changed the way I think about many of the issues discussed, which to me is more valuable still.

4 responses

  1. see also his “The End of Solitude”
    http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708/
    and “Faux Friendship”
    http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308/

    I enjoy reading these beautifully written things and find myself nodding with furrowed brow in agreement. But I also wonder, what’s the point of this kind of social criticism? Is there really anything to be alarmed about? Was there ever? First we had Socrates with his words of warning about writing, and more recently Huxley, Hofstaedter, Postman, Putnam, Birkerts, Deresiewicz, Jacoby, Carr, Siegel and any number of prophets of imminent dumbing-down and cultural collapse, but have we ever looked back and acknowledged that any of these critics were right? What damage did television – to take an obvious target – do, in the end?

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  2. What harm from television? A few things: People can remain ignorant while having hours of alleged information about things, because tv selects the information with a bias toward protecting its own interests. (2) The language and flavor of what is true has been pillaged to enhance advertising. Commercials. If you watch, you are lied to, acceptably, directly, habitually, as long as the plug is in the wall and the switch is on. (3) People have different points of view. TV caters to its audience by lumping us in large clusters, I suppose for the benefit of the advertisers. Books and magazines are less unctuous, and expect a reader to do some thinking of his own.

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  3. Pingback: College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs « The Story's Story

  4. Pingback: Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview « The Story's Story

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