William Deresiewicz, a former professor of literature at Yale, caused ripples of consternation (and hope) when he published his notorious essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” in the American Scholar, in 2008. It went viral. He had voiced what many had been thinking for a while: that something is wrong with higher education, both at the ‘Ivies,’ and in general. Perhaps more than a few somethings. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation Of The American Elite & The Way To A Meaningful Life, now out in paperback, builds on that essay, and Deresiewicz’s experiences since then, as guest lecturer and instructor at other big-time universities and colleges (there is a difference, which he makes clear in this book: universities bad, colleges good). He also compiles research from the social science and mainstream media, along with excerpts from letters of many readers, both old and young, including students at the elite universities like Harvard and Yale, who agree that their college experiences have been, or were, less than ideal.
The term ‘excellent sheep’ is a quote from one of Deresiewicz’s students, referring to the idea that today’s college students, especially those in the Ivies, are very good at getting good grades and doing the work, and even participating in all kinds of extracurricular activities, but that they are not good thinkers. They can’t think for themselves, critically or creatively, which is what a college education used to be for. Which leaves them woefully unprepared for life after college:
we have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished twenty-two-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives; no sense of purpose and, what is worse, no understanding of how to go about finding out. Who can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination—or the courage, or the inner freedom—to invent their own.
On the other hand, our current higher education model prepares them exactly for life after college: to be followers and cogs in the Machine. Because as Deresiewicz points out here, and also in a recent Harper’s article titled “The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market,” no matter how much universities and businesses claim they want ‘leaders,’ that’s really doublespeak for, in the words of another critic of our current higher education system, Mark Edmundson, “gung-ho followers”:
What people usually mean by a leader now…is someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge. Leaders tend to be little adults, little grown-ups who don’t challenge the big grown-ups who run the place.
If Excellent Sheep were only an indictment of higher education (and btw, modern parenting) it would be powerful enough, if despair-causing, but as the subtitle says, Deresiewicz offers some good advice on what to do to fix the problem(s), like for starters, in college admissions, “Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race.” And we should ditch tests like the SATs and GREs which supposedly assess intelligence, but really reward the upper-middle-class: rich people tend to do better on them, because, among other things, they can afford all the tutors and extra classes. Though ultimately, the biggest way to make higher education good, or at least equally good for everyone, is to make it free, or cheap, which is how it used to be. This may be perhaps less viable, because it would require paying taxes. And if you have the typical knee-jerk American libertarian reaction to that, think about it: tuition would go down. And the need for student loans. And student debt.
En lieu of that, or in addition (and more importantly) Deresiewicz offers advice for what current students—and really everyone—can do to make their educations, and lives, meaningful. The key, says Deresiewicz, is a liberal arts education, where one can develop thinking skills necessary to cultivate one’s self—to become a skeptical and therefore critical thinker, and where you can find the space to learn to think for yourself, to rebel against authority, including especially your parents (no matter how nice and encouraging) and learn how to live one’s life for one’s self, which is the only way Deresiewicz thinks we can be, if not happy, then content: living on our own terms, with choices—and mistakes—we’ve made on our own.
For this reason, Deresiewicz recommends that young people, especially from the upper middle class, but everyone, avoid the big universities and get their educations at smaller liberal-arts colleges, where professors still teach (because they don’t have to ‘publish or perish’) and where the cultivation of the self is still the main focus. Have no doubt, Deresiewicz is still advocating for a college education. Despite college drop-outs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a college education still is a necessity for any decent-paying job for more of us. And no, Deresiewicz doesn’t deny the importance of a decent income. He just wants students to go into a job they value, a job they actually enjoy, one where they won’t hate their lives later on.
To achieve that, you need a college education where students can have actual human contact with teachers—Deresiewicz is not a fan of lecture halls, nor MOOCs. Teachers are vital, along with access to small, seminar-type classes. The trend now in education, both higher and K-12, is to think of education as just information transfer: memorized and tested on for accountability. But what education is, what teaching is, is teaching students how to think. To use one branch of the humanities as an example: history. Because yes, there are facts one can memorize: ‘Columbus discovered America in 1492,’. But the real education comes with thinking about, critiquing, even condemning, the context around the statement. What is implied when we use the term ‘discovered’? Could we also not say, ‘began the invasion of’?
Throughout Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz models exactly what he means by the usefulness of a liberal arts education, incorporating and challenging arguments of other scholars to build his own argument. He also quotes great literature, from John Milton to George Elliot (especially, and her novel Middlemarch) for examples on how one might act in life—again modeling, this time how thinking about/with the humanities helps us think about what being human means.
If you hesitate, as I did, about the idea of a book ostensibly written directly to privileged upper-middle-class kids at elite colleges, fear not, because all the problems Deresiewicz outlines here apply very much to any university: he’s describing almost exactly the same ones I encountered in my undergraduate years at Michigan State University, and in graduate school at Eastern Michigan University, except students perhaps binge drink more where I went to school.
But as Deresiewicz also points out, we really do need to talk about the elite students at the elite colleges, because, in our American meritocracy, they, and only they nowadays, are the ones getting chunneled up into positions of power: Most of our presidential candidates in the last 20 years, most of our Supreme Court judges, most of our Department Secretaries, and most of our business leaders, all went to Yale and Harvard, both liberals and conservatives. And you think Excellent Sheep is a critique of conservative values, wait until you read Deresiewicz’s harshing of our current (elite Hawaii prep-school and Harvard grad) President.
The problems in America are systemic: The elites from Yale and Harvard and the other Ivies live in a meritocracy bubble: when there’s a problem, they just call other “high IQ morons,” none of whom have a clue how the rest of us live. Nor do they care: they’ll bail out their bank buddies, but not homeowners. They’ve set up the system for themselves, except now their children are suffering along with ours. So yes, a book, and advice, written to those children is exactly what all of us need to change the system. The current elites sure aren’t going to do anything. They don’t even think there’s a problem.