The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture didn’t let a little thing like a traffic jam version of a perfect storm throw their Hiett Prize luncheon on Thursday, November 21, off more than a couple of nano seconds. Just as guests were arriving at 11:30 on the Bush Avenue entrance of the Bush Center, tour bus and construction trucks threw the street into stop-action. To add to the gee-whiz situation, mammoth trees were in a holding location just across the street, preventing use of Binkley Avenue. Car parkers and police were scratching their heads as the luxury vehicles added some class to the mix.
Thanks to a little give and take on the part of all the drivers, the clog up was cleared out and guests made their way to the lower ground reception that was filled with such types as Dr. Gail Thomas, Nicole Lidji, Sally and Forrest Hoglund, Dr. Nancy Cain Marcus, Mary Vernon, Dr. Joanne Stroud, Byron Sanders, Veletta Lill, Doug Newby and Connie Harkins.
Right on schedule, Co-Chairs Marie Brehm and Ann Drumm had the doors open just before noon to the dining room and guests poured in for the presentation of the $50,000 Hiett Prize. The room was packed. Jennie Reeves insisted that son Eric take her seat. Evidently, Jennie feared that she was suffering from early stages of a cold and didn’t want to share.
DIHC Board of Trustees member David Griffin introduced just a few of the VIP’s in the audience of VIP’s. But a special acknowledgement was made of Kim Hiett Jordan, who established the prize to honor her parents by recognizing “a person who has not yet reached his or her full potential, but whose work in the humanities shows extraordinary promise.”
On cue the screens lowered and a video on the DIHC was shown. Produced by award-winning filmmaker Judy Kelly, it captured the mission beautifully.
As the video ended, DIHC Executive Director Dr. Larry Allums addressed the crowd. The screens were a little befuddled and went up and then decided to go back down. In asking the Institute fellows to stand, he said, “They’re my faculty.” He went on to explain that unfortunately Dr. Louise Cowan was unable to attend much to the disappointment of many in the audience.
The selection of the Hiett recipient is a lengthy process of evaluation and included two elimination rounds.
Before the luncheon, Larry had explained that the Hiett Prize was created to honor men and women with an exceptional commitment to the humanities, and Bill Deresiewicz is without doubt one of these people. Essays such as ‘The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership,” both in The American Scholar, are indicative of the significance of Bill’s work in the humanities.
“Both went viral and provoked overwhelming responses, having been viewed 950,000 and 650,000 times, respectively. It is this capacity for conjuring up such a public response to key cultural issues that makes Bill the perfect recipient for this year’s Hiett Prize. We are absolutely thrilled to pay tribute to his work in this way.”
A first-timer to Dallas, Bill talked about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” an essay that he wrote five years ago that has evolved into his upcoming book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Path to a Meaningful Life” (2014). He recalled how one of his Yale students asked if he was saying that they were all just sheep. His response? “No, not all of you.” When the essay hit the Internet, he was happy when it passed 10,000. It has now been read more than one million times. “It really struck a nerve.”
Since then he has been making the speaking circuit to address the issues brought up in the book. The first section of the book “expands on that whole critique and the history of why education looks the way it does and why the admission process looks the way it does.”
The middle of the book deals with “how can students save themselves, because they can’t wait for us to get our act together. Hopefully, we will, but they can’t wait. I say, ‘You need to take care of your own education and your own direction in life.’ Because they always say, ‘How can I find my passion? You keep telling me to do this, but I don’t know how to find my passion.’ Yes, of course not, because what you’ve got to do is jump through the next hoop.”
The final part of the book focuses on two main issues — “What college should be. What it should be is a liberal arts education centered on the humanities, taught by teachers in small classrooms, seminar-style teaching.”
The last issue of the third part is the larger social critique. When asked the day before on KERA if the issues are directed at the elite, he said, “It’s not about the other 90% of higher education. . . But we should all care about it (the elite), because we live in a society that is governed by the elite who are produced by this system.. . . Our elite are narrow, timid, self-serving, out-of-touch technocrats who are leading us off a cliff.”
But at the luncheon he eloquently focused his talk on the value of the humanities – “The practical utility is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you to learn to think in the widest and deepest sense.”
After the talk, Bill and Larry discussed such words as “culture”, “wisdom”, “imagination” and the reason for reading the classics.
When asked by a guest where to send students to study the humanities, Bill surprised some in the audience. “I think the liberal arts colleges do a much better job than the universities . . . . Everyone wants to go to the most prestigious schools, top 10. I would even stay away from the top 10 even among the liberal arts colleges because the students are often very similar to ones in the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke those kinds of places. They’re the straight A kids, the top 1%. . . I hear a lot of great things about Kenyon College, Bard College, Sewanee, Reed College, Lawrence College [University] in Wisconsin.”