William Deresiewicz (// də-REZ-ə-wits) is an American author, essayist, and literary critic. Born in 1964 in Englewood, New Jersey, Deresiewicz attended Columbia University before teaching English at Yale University from 1998 to 2008. He is the author of A Jane Austen Education, How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (Penguin Press, 2011) and Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014). His All Points blog appeared on the American Scholar website from March 2011 to September 2013.
Early life and education
Deresiewicz grew up in a Jewish home and attended a yeshiva high school. He has described himself as being "thrown out" of the high school and has imagined that he might have been charged with "gross insubordination and incipient atheism".
In 1998, Deresiewicz joined the faculty of Yale University. He taught courses in modern British fiction, Great Books, Indian fiction, and writing, among other areas. He left academia in 2008 to become a full-time writer.
In 2011, Deresiewicz published A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter. In it, he divulges that his life was changed and he became a better person after reading Jane Austen for the first time at age 26.
His writings span such topics as books, higher education, culture, and politics. His article "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," along with his speech "Solitude and Leadership," have gone viral on the internet. In 2014, he published Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, a book-length expansion of his argument in "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education."
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
In this memoir of a sort, Deresiewicz admits that he was initially resistant to reading 19th-century British fiction. Soon, though, he discovered that Austen’s novels are valuable tools in the journey towards becoming an adult.
Deresiewicz juxtaposes his reading of Jane Austen with insight into his own life. For example, the reader learns about his controlling father, a series of girlfriends that come and go, and the struggles of being raised in a religious household.
"The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" and Excellent Sheep
In the summer of 2008, Deresiewicz published a controversial essay for The American Scholar titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." In it, he criticizes the Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities for supposedly coddling their students and discouraging independent thought. He claims that elite institutions produce students who are unable to communicate with people who don't have the same backgrounds as themselves, noting as the first example his own inability to talk to his plumber. Deresiewicz then uses Al Gore and John Kerry, graduates of Harvard and Yale (respectively), as examples of politicians who are out of touch with the lives of most Americans.
"The Disadvantages of an Elite Higher Education" went viral, receiving more than 40,000 shares on Facebook. Many readers had mixed reactions to the article, with plenty of criticism coming directly from the Ivy League, its peer institutions, and many others who accused him of cherry picking. The IvyGate blog published a facetious rebuttal, "Isn't Harvard Just the Worst?", telling the Class of 2012 to "enjoy these last few months of innocence, because soon you'll join the ranks of an organization whose sole purpose is to destroy the world."
The article became the groundwork for Deresiewicz' book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014). This work had a similarly mixed response. Dwight Garner, writing for the New York Times daily book review, praised it as "packed full of what [Deresiewicz] wants more of in American life: passionate weirdness.". He characterized Deresiewicz as "a vivid writer, a literary critic whose headers tend to land in the back corner of the net," one whose "indictment arrives on wheels: He takes aim at just about the entirety of upper-middle-class life in America." Other responses, however, were more critical. In the New York Times Sunday book review, Anthony Grafton conceded that "much of his dystopian description rings true" but argued that "the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects...Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz’s philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the 'exceptions' he allows." In the New Yorker, Nathan Heller was critical from another corner, arguing that the "quandaries" Deresiewicz describes are "distinctly middle-class.". Heller says that Deresiewicz argues the liberal arts "will help students hone their 'moral imagination,'" but "The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of 'moral imagination' may be at play. (Imagine being able to pay off your loans and never again having to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s heads.)" Despite this mixed critical response, the book was a New York Times bestseller.
"Solitude and Leadership"
In October 2009, Deresiewicz delivered a speech titled "Solitude and Leadership" to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It was later published in The American Scholar and went viral online. In it, he makes the case that leadership entails more than just success and accomplishment. Citing observations he made of students at Yale and Columbia, Deresiewicz discusses the ubiquity of “world-class hoop jumpers” who “can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.”  Instead, he argues, true leaders (such as General David Petraeus) are those who are able to step outside the cycle of achievement and hoop jumping in order to think for themselves. Deresiewicz claims that solitude is essential to becoming a leader.
As a writer, Deresiewicz has won or been nominated for several awards.
- Nominated for National Magazine Awards (2008, 2009, 2011)
- Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing (2009, 2010, 2011)
- Awarded a Sidney Award by David Brooks (2010) for "Solitude and Leadership"
- Awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing of the National Book Critics Circle (2012)
- Awarded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture's Hiett Prize in the Humanities (2013)
Deresiewicz lives in Portland, Oregon.
- William Deresiewicz & Mark Edmundson.
- Deresiewicz, William. "The Complete All Points". Retrieved 25 September 2015.
- "William Deresiewicz". Author Bios. The Nation. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
- William Deresiewicz (2007). "Love on Campus". The American Scholar.
- William Deresiewicz (2008). "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education". The American Scholar.
- Deresiewicz, William. "Solitude and Leadership". Phi Beta Kappa. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Deresiewicz, William (6 March 2017). "On Political Correctness". The American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
- William Deresiewicz (2012-02-22). "That is So! That is So!". The New Republic.
- William Deresiewicz (2005-01-09). "You Talkin' to Me?". New York Times.
- William Deresiewicz (2000-08-06). "Among The Bad Boys". New York Times.
- Deresiewicz, William (June 2015). "What a Piece of Work: Mark Greif's intellectual excavations". Harper's. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
- Deresiewicz, William (September 2015). "The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market". Harper's. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
- Deresiewicz, William (November 30, 2011). "A Jew in the Northwest". The American Scholar. Retrieved March 13, 2019.
- Deresiewicz, William. "The Academic Dilemma". Spectator Publishing Company. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Deresiewicz, William. "Long Story Short: About Me". Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Ahamed, Nick (October 29, 2014). "Revisiting Deresiewicz, Part I: Addressing criticisms of 'Excellent Sheep' author". The Stanford Daily. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
- Flynn, Kathleen. "A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz". Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Seymour, Miranda. "Lessons From Jane Austen". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Deresiewicz, William. "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education". Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Deresiewicz, William. "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education". Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- "Free Press to Publish EXCELLENT SHEEP: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won't Teach You by William Deresiewicz". PR Newswire Association. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Garner, Dwight (12 August 2014). "The Lower Ambitions of Higher Education". New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- Grafton, Anthony (22 August 2014). "The Enclosure of the American Mind". New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- Heller, Nathan (1 September 2014). "Poison Ivy". New Yorker. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- "Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List for September 7, 2014". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- Denning, Steve. "The Key Missing Ingredient In Leadership Today". Forbes. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- "Want To Be A Leader? 'Learn To Be Alone With Your Thoughts'". Boston University. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Hsu, Hua (September 7, 2020). "How Can We Pay for Creativity in the Digital Age?". The New Yorker. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
- Lackey, Ryan (August 6, 2020). "William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist". Chicago Review. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
- John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names 2012 Award Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
- The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. "2013 Hiett Prize Recipient Dr. William Deresiewicz Keynote Speech".
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- Official site
- The Nation profile of Deresiewicz
- Video discussion with William Deresiewicz and Mark Edmundson on Bloggingheads.tv
- Appearances on C-SPAN