Essays: William Deresiewicz |
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William Deresiewicz

On the dangers of flying high

His name, at first glance, does not come trippingly off the tongue, but William Deresiewicz writes a fluently conversational prose that makes him unusual among modern academics. A figure of the academy he undoubtedly is, however, with all the appropriate caps and gowns. Several degrees from Columbia qualified him for his professorship at Yale, where he has been the kind of English teacher that the university system needs more than ever as the grip of theory continues to prove that it can relax only in spasms. In the background, and sometimes the foreground, of his many published articles, Jane Austen sets his standards of pertinence, and he would write less well even about her if he had not done time as a dance critic. As often happens – but still not often enough – an interest in the hard realities of the performing arts proves to be a useful accompaniment to a general concern with the upper levels of creativity. A determined opponent of the Cultural Studies boondoggle in all fields and in all its forms, Deresiewicz goes the extra mile when he defends humanism even against itself. The tendency of a fine arts education to separate its recipient from common humanity was already an underlying theme in his work before he articulated it fully in his landmark article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, written for the magazine The American Scholar. Since the article should be required reading for everyone who draws the benefits of a tertiary education, I gladly provide a link to it here, although I should warn the prospective reader that Deresiewicz, in a review published in that excellent magazine The Nation, was very kind to my book Cultural Amnesia. But I like to think that I would have seen lasting merit in his opinions even if he had not seen any merit at all in mine. There is also a link to his The Nation article about Stefan Zweig, which, I was daunted to find, contains more information about the great Austrian humanist than I had at my command when I wrote about him in the closing pages of my own book. Finally there is a link to another piece, also published in The Nation, about the way English studies have been undermined in the universities by the requirement, when it comes to faculty appointments, of a competence in the study of minority literature. There was a time when an article deploring structural distortion in the academy could be written only from outside its walls, by such free-lance metropolitan critics as Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald. Deresiewicz can write the same sort of article from the inside, thus gaining the extra and unexpected authority of a prisoner reviewing prison food. 

Read “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz.
Read Deresiewicz on Stefan Zweig.
Read Deresiewicz on “Professing literature.