William Deresiewicz, Podlich Fellow, Speaks About Public Writing and Higher Education

Claremont McKenna College welcomed William Deresiewicz as the new Podlich Fellow Oct. 27. Deresiewicz is an essayist, literary critic, and author who has drawn attention for his essays that criticize top-tier U.S. colleges for being elitist institutions that have lost sight of providing a strong education to all Americans.

Through the Podlich Distinguished Follows Program, which was established by CMC trustee William Podlich CM '66 in 1998, CMC invites scholars from diverse fields to share their knowledge with the CMC community, according to Audrey Bilger, a CMC literature professor and the Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse.

“I was a college professor for 10 years, [but] that ended five years ago and I miss it a lot," Deresiewicz said. "I like the idea of having contact with students again. Also, as a writer, I don’t really have contact with anyone. It’s very solitary. So having interaction with faculty and being a part of the life of a college for a few weeks sounded nice." 

Bilger jointly recommended Deresiewicz to the fellowship with CMC history professor Diana Selig and CMC government professor George Thomas after Deresiewicz visited CMC in late October 2012 to give a reading of his book A Jane Austen Education. 

“I have for a long time admired his public writing,” Bilger said. “I think he is able to engage in very serious topics in a way that is accessible and … gets circulated widely. His [essays] went viral because lots of people around the country are asking questions about what a good education really means. And he is able to answer in a smart way … that connects to a wide range of people.”

In addition to visiting classes at CMC and Scripps College, Deresiewicz led a workshop on public writing Nov. 1 for students, and gave a talk at CMC's Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Nov. 6. Before his Nov. 29 departure, he will also hold a workshop about public writing for the faculty and continue to meet with students both individually and in groups. 

A Columbia University graduate, Deresiewicz was a literature professor at Yale University for 10 years until 2008. He has since turned his attention to public writing, which he described as argumentative writing that has an impact on society. 

His essays published in The American Scholar received both critical acclaim and a viral public response for his criticism of the current state of higher education, including his portrayal of Ivy League colleges as serving only a narrow socioeconomic class of wealthy Americans.

Deresiewicz said that although the Claremont Colleges are doing better in terms of offering students a liberal arts education with small classes, students at the 5Cs resemble Ivy League students in being “excellent sheep,” which is the tentative title for the book he is currently working on, set to be published next fall.

“The [current] educational system … cultivates conformity, a kind of sheep-hood because you’re trapped into a very specific set of occupations, even a very specific set of majors," he said. "It also cultivates aversion to risk. You have no margin of error. You have to get straight As. So people never do something they might at fail at because there is no reward for failure. That is a very terrible problem because failure is actually very valuable.” 

At his talk at the Athenaeum, Deresiewicz criticized the higher education system for emphasizing career preparation, saying that students' primary goal in attending college should be "to build a self" and develop critical thinking skills.

"I hope they walk away with the feeling that they have a right to a college experience that is an intellectual adventure and not just preparation for a career," Deresiewicz 

Remy Pinson CM ’14, who attended the writing workshop on Nov. 1, said that he has long admired Deresiewicz’s writings.

“On my wall, I have [my] favorite articles and [his article ‘Solitude and Leadership’] is one of them," Pinson said. "[One] important thing I learned from the workshop was re-establishing the relationship between the intellect and the emotion … Just to sit down and pick a professional’s brain and him being willing to do so, I think that is invaluable.”

In "Solitude and Leadership," which he initially delivered as an address to a group of students at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Deresiewicz questions the common understanding of leadership and advises students to spend more time practicing introspection.  

Deresiewicz said that although he has not had a chance to observe how CMC specifically approaches leadership, he believes that the “excellent sheep” education in high-ranking institutions has produced a new generation of leaders who are failing all across the United States due to their lack of competence and boldness.

“Leadership is about duty, public service, and the stewardship of institutions,” Deresiewicz said. “Your goal is not to enrich yourself and pad your résumé so you can go on to the next thing, but to take care [of] what’s been entrusted to you. That’s all gone. And one of the reasons it’s gone is partly because we now have a leadership class that thinks it deserves this position.”