William Deresiewicz said students should learn to think before trying to change the world.
By B.L. Wilson
At elite private colleges, the social cost of dissent is high and progressive consensus tight, according to William Deresiewicz, author of the best-selling book, “Excellent Sheep,” comparing universities to what sociologists call “total institutions” such as monasteries, prisons, mental institutions and the military.
This is notwithstanding the desire of students at colleges like George Washington University to have an impact and make the world a better place.
“Your generation is to be commended for this new spirit that is broad among America’s youth,” Dr. Deresiewicz said, “a zeal for activism and social justice that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.”
Dr. Deresiewicz told students that “reflection, contemplation, analysis, study – in a word thought” should precede their commitment to making the world a better place.
Introducing the author to students and faculty crowded into Ames Hall on the George Washington University Mount Vernon Campus, Maria Frawley, executive director of the University Honors Program and professor of English, said, part of his book’s subtitle, “The Way to a Meaningful Life” is what appealed to her. “It is what all of us educators and students care most about,” she said.
Recent tensions on college campuses between freedom and equality and the struggle over restrictions on offensive speech, Dr. Deresiewicz said, prompted him to come up with a response.
He contended that the homogeneity of student populations at elite college campuses who often are from liberal upper and middle classes, multiracial, but predominantly white accounts for a progressive dogma of opinion that almost approaches religious dogma.
“Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity – principally the holy trinity of race, gender and sexuality – occupy the center of the discourse,” Dr. Deresiewicz said. “The assumption, on the left, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth.
“The central purpose of a real education, as in liberal arts education,” he said, “is to liberate us from what Plato called doxa or opinion by teaching us to recognize it, to question it and to think our way around it.”
A liberal arts education includes not only disciplines such as the humanities, English, history, philosophy but also the sciences in which the pursuit of knowledge is conducted for its own sake, he said.
You read King Lear not to master it, he suggested. “You read King Lear for what it does to you, for the way it changes you,” he said, “and hopefully that experience enhances your mind’s capacity for experience, and the ability to learn from it.”
Bringing the talk back to where he began, Dr. Deresiewicz said the humanities lead to reflection on the big questions that are persistent questions because no one has the answers. “The heart of reflection is self-reflection,” he said. “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.”
Reflection, he said, can help students achieve wisdom, an application of knowledge often associated with age. “For all the desire to change the world,” he said, “it will likely take a long time to have the real power to do so.”
Asked where he would draw the line in making students uncomfortable, Dr. Deresiewicz said even though right wing groups are often deliberately provocative, he agreed with a University of Chicago dean that colleges should provide no spaces safe from debate and uncomfortable discussions.
Allen Wang, a GW freshman and an international business major, said, “Students come to GW because it is very powerful in specific tracts such as international affairs and public health. But the talk was extremely topical and eye-opening and, more importantly, inspiring because of the spirit Dr. Deresiewicz tried to communicate about academic uncertainty and the truth.”