Believe it or not, this time next month (Thursday, 4/27), we’ll be setting the tables for the opening feast in NYC–the enchiladas will be roasting, the ceviche nearly prepped, the churro bites ready to fry, with the sangria on ice. Needless to say, conference-related posts will be coming chock-a-block these next few weeks. We’ll be publishing the full slate of breakout sessions later this week (brace yourself) but first, I am beyond thrilled to announce that our final plenary speaker will be someone whose byline you may recognize from major articles in The NY Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, or The Nation. Lord knows we haven’t been shy about highlighting his work over the years. I’m talking about none other than noted author and critic William Deresiewicz (Excellent Sheep, A Jane Austen Education).
Not ringing a bell? Take, for example, his pot-stirring 2014 editorial in The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League”:
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
Or his 2012 column for The NY Times, “A Matter of Taste?”:
“Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first. Nor do they have to. Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both… A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
And let us not forget his recent essay for The American Scholar, “On Political Correctness: Power, Class, and the New Campus Religion”:
The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution. The ante is forever being upped.
Suffice it to say, no one has a more finely tuned radar for the mechanics of righteousness (and performancism!) in contemporary culture, the ways that religious impulses find ‘secular’ expression–a la DFW’s classic “everybody worships” line–than William Deresiewicz. He not only sees “the thing beneath the thing”, but articulates it time and again with boldness, precision, and compassion. I consider it an immense honor that he’s agreed to join us on Friday afternoon, April 28th.
P.S. There is still some limited scholarship funds available. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.