The National Cum Laude Society named Benjamin Waldman's '16 senior thesis paper the national winner, a prestigious academic honor. Last spring, Kingswood Oxford teachers submitted Waldman's thirty page thesis, "Us" vs. "Them": The Rise and Fall of Religious and Anti-Religious Fundamentalism in Gish Jen's World and Town and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood to the National Cum Laude Society. There are eight winners each year, one in each district. From those eight, one is chosen as the national winner. The district winners receive $500 and the national winner receives $5,000. In the recent past, Emily Sullivan, '12 and Allison Lowe, '06 both won one of the eight district awards.
Waldman studied Gish Jen in the Symposium class and was so captivated by the topic of religious fundamentalism, he decided to write his thesis paper on the subject. He consulted with his thesis advisors, Lynne Levine and Meg Kasprak, who suggested Waldman counterpoise his argument with an unpacking of Flannery O'Connor's work. Waldman said both works warn of the pitfalls of fundamentalism yet with different remedies. The paper explores the ways in which the characters solve the void of spirituality. Creating the idea of a spectrum of religiosity, from the very devout to the anti-religious, Waldman maintains that the circumstances of one's background inform how one finds his or her way through life. Whereas the character in Wise Blood is propelled away from virulent fundamentalism with antithetical vitriolic expression, the characters in Jen's work gravitate towards religion as a respite from their feelings of dispossession. Waldman was privileged to consult with Jen while writing his paper, and she affirmed his reading of her work.
Waldman, a resident of West Hartford, now attends Yale University and double majors in Math and Political Science. Of his KO education, Waldman said, "One aspect of a KO education that is especially valuable is its emphasis on writing. From Middle School to Symposium, I learned how to critically evaluate others' ideas and to synthesize my own, which will continue to serve me well in all facets of my life."