Are We Losing Our Capacity for Freedom? - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities
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Are We Losing Our Capacity for Freedom?

Event to take place April 19, 7pm. Event to be held at 101 Archer in downtown Tulsa.

Bill Deresiewicz has led a fascinating career, one that spans the diverse fields of literary criticism, contemporary politics and social commentary, and higher education. If there is one through line for Deresiewicz’ thinking it is that of “flatness”: diagnosing and recognizing flatness, and working toward its opposite (depth, complexity, and enrichment).

For Deresiewicz, flatness is an intellectual concern, a state of being that higher education often encourages—i.e. students pursuing a major or degree without considering the larger questions facing them as people such as who they want to be, what kind of life they want to live, and why. This has created, according to Deresiewicz, a crisis in higher education as students feel alienated from their studies, their relationship to it being purely vocational or practical. There is an interconnected network of influences that create such a system: parental and societal expectations, economic pressures and the need for financial stability, and the university itself. These actors perpetuate a cycle that flattens our experience of the world and our relationship to ourselves. What is needed instead is what Deresiewicz calls a “moral imagination,” an intangible but necessary component of a complete education.

Similar ideas expand to the art world as well. In an article published in Salmagundi, Deresiewicz lambasts an art world that not only rewards but perhaps requires politically-oriented work. Here is where complexity is lost– in the wake of unidimensional political arguments that encourage predictable reactions rather than opening up to a range of emotional and intellectual responses. Deresiewicz contends that great art, the art we should encourage and consume, is art that resists closure by diving into questions of our own humanity. Here is where the work of art is performed—not in flattened political rhetoric but in broad, ambiguous, and complex ideas that speak to the human experience. Most recently, Deresiewicz has written on solitude and loneliness, two experiences that our current culture makes different to achieve. According to Deresiewicz, what we lose in a culture of “celebrity” and “interconnection” is our sense of self. We look outwards to others for recognition and validation, when identity can be better attained through introspection and isolation.

In a world that tends to flatten, how can we find depth? In a world that constrains ideas and ways of thinking, how can we find freedom? Bill Deresiewicz will answer these questions and more in conversation with OCH Director and TU Professor of English, Sean Latham.

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent speaker at colleges, high schools, and other venues, and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. His new book is The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society. Deresiewicz has published over 300 essays and reviews. He has won the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and a Sydney Award; he is also a three-time National Magazine Award nominee. His work, which has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and many other publications, has been translated into 18 languages and anthologized in 39 college and scholastic readers.