Literature

William Deresiewicz’s defense of the humanities

William Deresiewicz, who first achieved some public-intellectual prominence for delivering a great lecture on solitude and leadership to the plebe class at West Point in 2009, recently published a New Republic article arguing that parents shouldn’t send their kids to the Ivy League. Setting aside the Internet-ready provocation of the thesis, I wanted to quote Deresiewicz’s old-fashioned but well-articulated case for why college is valuable. It works as an argument for the value of the humanities as well, and is the kind of simple, effective, widely appealing argument that I wanted to promote in my earlier posts on defenses of the humanities:

What, in short, is college for?

The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.

Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique beinga soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

There’s nothing novel in this argument. But it gets to the core of why a humanistic education can be so important to a human life and to a culture. It’s the kind of argument that should be at the fingertips of anyone trying to offer an effective defense of the humanities.

It also echoes a post by JK at the Kugelmass Episodes on why he enjoys teaching literature. He begins by quoting a line from Wallace Shawn: “We live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends! I mean… I mean, you know, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things. But we just don’t dare to ask each other!”

JK concludes:

For many of my students, serious conversations about bodily, imperfectly comprehended life depend upon some knowledge of literature, and some appreciation for it. The rest of the time, etiquette and convention bar the way. Other forms of popular culture, such as movies and music, do related work. Nonetheless, writing retains its singular value because it is a solitary and largely atechnical enterprise. It does not require collaborators, unlike most films, nor does it require much by way of money, dexterity, or materials.

I once told some students in a literature class something very similar. We had been doing a lot of thematic close readings, and one of the students had expressed skepticism about the value of reading anything as closely as we had done. In response, I think I asked something like: how often outside of discussing literature do we take the time to dwell on the kinds of things we’ve been discussing, these important ideas and themes? If nothing else, the study of literature — and philosophy, and history — provides an occasion to reflect on those things that matter the most in life, including matters that are so intimate, we would rarely discuss them even among our friends.

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2 thoughts on “William Deresiewicz’s defense of the humanities

  1. Pingback: Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities | Against the Logicians

  2. Pingback: Two books on the public value of the humanities | Against the Logicians

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