My Thoughts on the William Deresiewicz Interview in The Atlantic

William Deresiewicz, a former Yale English professor who has written about a lack of critical independent thinking among students in higher education, has a new interview in The Atlantic:

The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life

I think Deresiewicz expresses some very important ideas in this interview. I believe that a large part of education, collegiate or otherwise, should be dedicated to the type of self-reflection he talks about. Asking questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, of the self, of society, and searching for answers to those questions in literature, art, music, religion, the whole of the humanities–this is genuine education. No doubt economic concerns and hard skills ought to be part of an education, but they should not overshadow the self-reflection that the humanities provide.

Learning hard skills helps us do certain important things in the world, but an education in the humanities helps us build for ourselves a framework through which to understand ourselves, society, and the larger world. Both aspects of education are important in fostering a well-rounded person, but constant external reinforcement of educational goals by parents and schools seems to cut young people off from an earnest approach to the humanities (instead the humanities are approached for some other end, like improving college admission chances). By the time students get to college, there is little intrinsic drive toward the humanities or the big questions it poses and attempts to answer. There is also a lack of independent, critical thinking about what one wants and why. There is only the vague promise of happiness and perfection to be granted by wealth and status. Those things they did from a young age in order to get into college are now replaced by some other extrinsic driver.

Granted, this scenario is a generalization. It does not affect every young person entering elite universities. But the culture of “excellent sheep” is nonetheless a problem, primarily because it prevents many young people from blossoming as independent thinkers. Instead of dictating for young people what they ought to want, we need to help them reach a state of self-determination in terms of who they want to be and what they want for themselves and for the world.