Writing Oneself: An Outline for a Short Talk

It may not be auspicious to begin by admitting a mistake, but William Deresiewicz had it right at the end of "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education."

Writing Oneself: An Outline for a Short Talk

To be delivered, in some form, at a gathering of Sigma Kappa Delta members and faculty at 4 pm, Monday September 18th.

It may not be auspicious to begin by admitting a mistake, but William Deresiewicz had it right at the end of "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Years ago, I didn't think much of his idea that students nowadays were too busy and had too many social contacts. Deresiewicz, though, had been working through what it meant to form oneself as a thinker:

Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile.

It's easy to pass over the notion that being wise meant different things in different eras. We're familiar with the sophists, who promised their students they could rule if they learned a little bit of rhetoric. We're also familiar with monks who both preserved classical texts and wrote prayers over scientific treatises. Jefferson's famous worry of "monkish ignorance" does not quite capture an age which believed all had been revealed. Moreover, there's the idea of a "Renaissance man." Someone like Leibniz, who invented Calculus, various machines, did philosophy, and researched royal lineages. It takes a bit of reflection to realize that these are not the same, despite significant overlap. Deresiewicz adds to this list, saying that "the idea of the intellectual" which emerged in the 18th century entailed "a commitment to social transformation." He has a thesis with teeth. Speaking truth to power, he notes, connects to "spiritual exile."


I know. I have questions too. If you ask me about teaching, I'll answer that teaching nowadays is nothing but cultivating empathy. Teaching all the chemistry in the world so someone creates a variety of chemical weapons isn't an ethical dilemma. It's a situation which should not occur in the first place.

How can I help cultivate empathy if students have to learn to be alone? To accept a kind of "spiritual exile" in order to change what's wrong? It's worth looking at how Deresiewicz's ideas played with his own classes. In the passage below, he describes emotions and purpose which cannot be reconciled with the multitude:

I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone. What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it mean to go to school at a place where you’re never alone? Well, one of them said, I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend’s. That same day, as it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson’s essay on friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, wait a second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?

Deresiewicz describes four notable items in the above passage. First, there's love and the paradox it creates. Woolf's character cannot confess the "urgency of [his] own passion" because there are too many people around him. There is "nobody" precisely because high school is "so skilfully organized to prevent feeling alone." It looks like the kind of solitude which forms us depends on a deeper friendship than we're accustomed to. That leads to the second item I want to highlight, the idea that "one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude." I confess this is hard to even hear, because as I said in the last post, "being alone sucks." Third, there's the anxiety many of us feel when left alone to write. This raises the issue of whether we can ever embrace our time alone. Finally, there are the questions one student raised: "[W]hy do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?"

The impertience of those last questions gives away the game. You cannot build yourself in any meaningful, positive way if you can't accept being alone. You've got to be able to say to yourself "I stand for this" and not immediately look to someone else's face to see how they react. This can be helped by striving for deeper friendships. Aristotle held that there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. Virtue, one might say, is the moral excellence which will either sacrifice for the city or end up defining the city. Only a true friend--not a drinking buddy, not someone who indulges a superficial sort of acceptance--believes you're capable of more.


I can see now that I was reacting to Deresiewicz's self-righteous tone. However, it's a tone that I'm adopting myself. No, I don't think every question we ask on Blackboard or Canvas is going to change the world. But we are trying to give students a space to reflect, to think about themselves, others, and the world. All of us know that these spaces are far too rare. The incessant feed of the phone and the chatter of larger screens are ubiquitous. We need people who are willing to be alone, if only for a minute. We need them to sit and write and start asking themselves what they really believe and whether it makes any sense. Whether, for example, someone else could believe the same and prosper.


Take a few minutes and write about a moment in class you remember which changed how you think or a class you regret not following up on. (My answer will be posted soon.)