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Deresiewicz lauds U.’s liberal arts tradition

‘Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League’ author discusses the value of humanities in education

Writer William Deresiewicz stoked controversy with his criticisms of elite education published in his book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” and excerpted in the New Republic under the title “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” this summer. But in his lecture to a packed McCormack Family Theater Monday night, Deresiewicz spoke instead about the value of a liberal arts education.

Though the excerpted polemic from “Excellent Sheep” has received considerable attention, Deresiewicz said “half of the book is a positive message about what college can be.” The book’s title is based on a comment made by one of his students at Yale, where Deresiewicz formerly worked as an English professor.

At the lecture, Deresiewicz read from the latter portion of his book, adding commentary as he went along.

There is a “false dichotomy” between practical skills and a liberal arts education, Deresiewicz said. “Work that gives you a sense of purpose is the most practical thing in the world,” he said, adding that a liberal arts education allows students to find jobs.

Throughout his talk, Deresiewicz referred frequently to giants of literature — from Kafka to Dostoevsky to Austen — with the air of a former English professor.

“I don’t care if you read the Great Books. I care if you read great books.”

The sciences and the humanities look at similar issues from opposite perspectives, Deresiewicz said: While a scientist looks at the world objectively, a humanities scholar views the world through the lens of personal experience. He also discussed the intersection of sciences and humanities, explaining that both physicists and literary critics think about the concepts of time and space.

The final excerpt Deresiewicz read was a passage from Jeffrey Eugenides’ ’83 novel “The Marriage Plot,” in which one of the characters, Mitchell, finds meaning in a final paper for a religious studies course at Brown. “Education,” Deresiewicz read, “had finally led Mitchell out into life.”

Deresiewicz then opened the floor for an extended question and answer session, during which the conversation shifted to the more controversial aspects of his book.

Asked whether he supported the classic literary canon, Deresiewicz said he has taught “the Great Books” and that they serve as a “basic grammar for society.” But he added that students should not be “forced” to read canonical literature.

When asked why he critiqued the Ivy League, Deresiewicz said he believes liberal arts colleges offer a better education, in general. To support this, he pointed to the high percentage of graduating students who pursue Ph.D.s and the practice of awarding professors tenure based on teaching. Students at liberal arts schools are less competitive and professors are more available to students, he said, adding that he believes Brown is similar to a liberal arts college in certain ways.

In response to a question about why students should not choose a concentration simply because of its relation to a future job, Deresiewicz said students should not choose a career for high compensation or select a popular career by default.

“Surrender the need to have a clear career path,” he said. “It’s okay to leave college confused.”

Audience members agreed with many of Deresiewicz’s points and seemed to enjoy the discussion spurred by the question and answer session.

“I know exactly what he means when he said take advantage of the liberal arts and what it can offer,” said Yen Tran ’14. Though he graduated with a degree in ethnic studies, Tran said he now works in a neuroscience lab.

Min Jung Han ’16, a chemistry and science and society double concentrator, said “the reason (she) came to the (United States) is the liberal arts philosophy.” In other countries, like her native South Korea, students do not have the opportunity to take courses outside of their chosen area of study, she said.

Chris Luo ’18 said he thought students misunderstood the lecturer’s argument as an attack on the sciences, noting Deresiewicz’s criticism was directed more specifically at the study of “purely practical” disciplines.


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