Excellent sheep The miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life

William Deresiewicz, 1964-

Book - 2014

"A groundbreaking manifesto for people searching for the kind of insight on leading, thinking, and living that elite schools should be--but aren't--providing"--

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New York, NY : Free Press 2014.
Main Author
William Deresiewicz, 1964- (-)
First Free Press hardcover edition
Physical Description
245 pages ; 24 cm
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Sheep
  • 1. The Students
  • 2. The History
  • 3. The Training
  • 4. The Institutions
  • Part 2. Self
  • 5. What Is College For?
  • 6. Inventing Your Life
  • 7. Leadership
  • Part 3. Schools
  • 8. Great Books
  • 9. Spirit Guides
  • 10. Your Guide to the Rankings
  • Part 4. Society
  • 11. Welcome to the Club
  • 12. The Self-Overcoming of the Hereditary Meritocracy
  • Acknowledgments
Review by New York Times Review

LAST OCTOBER, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a "wonder cabinet" - a day of talks and films about medicine, the human body and much more. As I took my seat for one of the sessions, I recognized two young men sitting near me. They were former students, whose senior theses I had supervised years before. It was fun to learn how they were doing, one in law and one in medical school, and to see that they still found time to hear about 18th-century anatomical models and books bound in human skin. But it was even more fun to remember them as students. During their college days my seminar read a very good - but very long - book about classical antiquity in 19th-century Germany. The two of them came in wearing enormous fake beards, switched on their laptops to play the "Ride of the Valkyries" and rose to recite a satire that began "I am the spirit of German philology." Their cheerful mockery of me and my assigned text sparked a searching and substantive discussion. Why tell this story? Because "Excellent Sheep" demands it. William Deresiewicz, a recovering English professor who taught for many years at Yale, has indicted America's elite universities. With their stately buildings and soaring trees, their star professors and even starrier student bodies, Ivy League schools look like paradises of learning. Deresiewicz describes them as something very different, and very much worse. The trouble starts at admission. Top universities woo thousands of teenagers to apply, but seek one defined type: the student who has taken every Advanced Placement class and aced every exam, made varsity in a sport, played an instrument in the state youth orchestra and trekked across Nepal. This demanding system looks meritocratic. In practice, though, it aims directly at the children of the upper middle class, groomed since birth by parents, tutors and teachers to leap every hurdle. (The very rich can gain admission without leaping much of anything, as Deresiewicz also points out.) Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they're no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. Too busy to read or make friends, listen to music or fall in love, they waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls on building their résumés. The faculty could and should push these gifted obsessives to slow down and ask big questions. But elite universities choose professors for their ability at research. Tenure-track and tenured professors teach as little as they can, and leave what used to be their core task to ill-paid adjuncts and inexperienced graduate students. Even when they enter the classroom, they offer courses so minutely specialized that big questions never come up. Students do their assigned work, often with great ingenuity and elegance, but without real engagement. At the end of their studies, they funnel like lemmings into the career services office, which directs them to finance and consulting - and doesn't let them even imagine, much less try out, teaching or the ministry, the military or the arts. It's a bleak and soulless scene. But nobody protests. Any doubts are allayed by presidents and deans, who tell students before they arrive and repeat after they graduate that they are the most dazzling, brilliant, gifted young people ever to enter whichever college they attend. And any crises of conscience or conduct are averted by a system that cuts the chosen ones endless slack, penalizes no misconduct and sees to it that all have prizes at the end. The elite university, for Deresiewicz, is the little world that forms the great one, the training ground where members of the international ruling class learn two vital lessons: that they are superior to all others, and that even if they break rules or fail, they will never suffer. He feels some nostalgia for the harsh all-male elite universities of two or three generations ago, which flunked students without undue remorse and expected their graduates to serve in the military before they started running factories, writing ads or sailing yachts in Bar Harbor, and shows far more respect for liberal arts colleges, with their engaged teachers, than for the Ivies. As he puts it, "If there is anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place - anywhere that college is still college - it is there." Much of his dystopian description rings true. American universities spout endless, sickening self-praise. Professors are chosen for their specialized knowledge and receive no serious instruction in the art of teaching. As each field of study becomes denser with argument and discovery, its practitioners find it harder to offer broad courses. Students have complained for years that career services offices point them in only two or three very practical directions. Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book. But anyone who cares should also know that the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects. He describes the structures of the university as if they were machines, arranged in assembly lines: "The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens." Yet universities aren't total institutions. Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz's philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the "exceptions" he allows. Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think. But plenty of others find their people, as one of my own former students says: the teachers who still offer open doors and open ears, the friends who stay up all night arguing with them about expressionism or feminism or both, the partners with whom they sail the deep waters of love (which, like sex, survives on campus). They come in as raw freshmen and they leave as young adults, thoughtful and articulate and highly individual. Deresiewicz observes their identical T-shirts but misses their differences of class and resources - just as he elides the differences between universities. Even the academic side of the university offers richer and deeper experiences than Deresiewicz thinks. Recreating a life or building an argument, analyzing a text or chasing a virus, in the company of an adult who cares about both the subject and the student, need not be a routine exercise. It can be a way to build a soul - the soul of a scholar or scientist, who ignores our smelly little ideologies and fact-free platitudes, and cherishes precision and evidence and honorable admission of error. One reason some graduates of elite universities look unworldly is that those universities still try - admittedly with mixed results - to uphold a distinctive code of values. When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance - places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life. ANTHONY GRAFTON teaches European history at Princeton University.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [September 7, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* It might surprise the countless students competing for admission to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford that they could be fighting for a dubious prize. But in this probing indictment, a former Yale professor accuses America's top universities of turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their resumes and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life's most important questions. Craven conformity, not free-spirited independence, is what Deresiewicz sees students learning in a campus world populated by hyperspecialized professors who pursue arcane research agendas and leave the teaching of undergraduates to adjuncts and TAs. The time has come, Deresiewicz asserts, for college professors and administrators to make students their first priority by giving them a challenging liberal-arts education. Grounded in the humanities, such an education would give students real intellectual and imaginative breadth, not just a professional credential. Besides pressing for this curricular and pedagogical realignment, Deresiewicz calls for radical reform of admissions policies, so reversing the trends that make the university an enforcer of caste hierarchies. Deresiewicz's controversial full agenda indeed means an end to rule by meritocracy and a beginning of fairness for the working class. An urgent summons to a long-overdue debate over what universities do and how they do it.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Culture critic Deresiewicz offers a hard-hitting critique of elite education. According to the author, colleges with indifferent teaching and incoherent curricula offer no guidance on intellectual development or character formation; the system reinforces class hierarchy. Reader Foster narrates Deresiewicz's jeremiad with a deep and engaging voice that commands listeners' attention and complements the weight of the overall argument. Yet his cadence is natural and manages to capture Deresiewicz's tone while smoothing over the long passages where the author might otherwise be construed as condescending. A Free Press hardcover. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

"They've learned to be students," writes Deresiewicz (What the Ivy League Won't Teach You) of contemporary American undergraduates, "not to use their minds." The difference between those distinctions is the focus of this crabby book, which also provides bitter indictments of higher educational institutions and the students attending them. The result is repetitive and interminable. A typical complaint is that few of his students "saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development, one that they directed by themselves and for themselves." A pedagog lecturing students about their inability to learn is pompous, but this is especially insulting as it is intended for an audience of hardworking students and parents paying for college. Mel Foster's even-toned delivery ameliorates the discouraging words, but the discouragement is endless. VERDICT Credit Deresiewicz for calling it like it is; college "these days" is a system concerned with class, not necessarily education. However, criticizing higher education because it no longer conforms to an anachronistic ideal of what "liberal arts" means is a willfully facile argument.-Douglas C. Lord, New Britain P.L., CT (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An extended essay about how elite colleges and universities are failing to serve students and society.Deresiewicz (A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, 2012, etc.) received an elite education at Columbia University and taught at both Yale and his alma mater. The author uses his experience to deliver an indictment of top-tier higher education, especially regarding undergraduate students. Deresiewicz does not advocate thatintelligent, motivated students eschew acollege degree. Instead, he presents a program for how the students, their parents, government officials and the private sector can push college administrators and professors to graduate truly educated citizens. The author is unrelentingly critical of students who attend college just because it is expected or might increase their future incomes. In the authors opinion, most elite college educations are merely extensions of elite high school educations, with students more interested in good grades and resume padding than in finding their true passions. Its likely that the author will reach readers who confirm his dark critique of American higher education, but its just as likely that the book will find detractorsnot only due to its deep pessimism, but also due to the authors selective supporting evidence. When Deresiewicz states that elite colleges "do little or nothing to wake students up from the values and habits they bring with them from high school, he offers little more than weak circumstantial anecdotes. Many of the authors anecdotes are interesting case studies, but even those are often presented only superficially. Deresiewiczs desire for change is admirable, and he is not mistaken about the many problems of higher education. This book has its genesis in an essay published by theAmerican Scholar, an essay the author describes as"cranky." While expanding that essay into a book, the author falls into repetition that might be construed as padding.An unquestionably provocative book that hopefully leads to productive debate. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Excellent Sheep Introduction This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish that someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college--such as what the point of college might be in the first place. I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then). I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the "next thing." You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top--in a word, "success." As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one--how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world--all this was off the table. Like kids today, I was processed through a system everyone around me simply took for granted. I started college in 1981. The system, then, was in its early days, but it was already, unmistakably, a system, a set of tightly interlocking parts. When I speak in this book of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them: the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA; and the parents and communities, largely upper middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education. What that system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it--those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second--introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before--then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, "So are you saying that we're all just, like, really excellent sheep?" All? Surely not. But after twenty-four years in the Ivy League--college at Columbia; a PhD at the same institution, including five years as a graduate instructor; and ten years, altogether, on the faculty at Yale--that was more or less how I had come to feel about it. The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it. In 2008, on my way out the door, I published an essay that sketched out a few of these criticisms. Titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," the article appeared in the American Scholar, a small literary quarterly. At best, I thought, it might get a few thousand readers. Instead, it started to go viral almost from the moment it came out. Within a few weeks, the piece had been viewed a hundred thousand times (with many times that number in the months and years to come). Apparently I'd touched a nerve. These were not just the grumblings of an ex-professor. As it turned out from the many emails I began to get, the vast majority from current students and recent graduates, I had evoked a widespread discontent among today's young high achievers--a sense that the system was cheating them out of a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn't somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them to construct their futures. Since then I have spoken with students on campuses across the country, corresponded with many others, answered these young people's questions and asked my own, and heard and read their stories. It has been an education in itself, and this book is a reflection of that ongoing dialogue. Where possible, I've used their words to help me talk about the issues we've discussed, but every page has been informed by my sense of what these kinds of students need and want to think about. A lot of books get published about higher education, but none, as far as I can tell, are speaking to students themselves--still less, listening to them. I begin the book by discussing the system itself--one that, to put it in a nutshell, forces you to choose between learning and success. Education is the way that a society articulates its values: the way that it transmits its values. While I'm often critical of the sort of kids who populate selective schools, my real critique is aimed at the adults who've made them who they are--that is to say, at the rest of us. Part 2 begins to explain what students can do, as individuals, to rescue themselves from the system: what college should be for, how to find a different kind of path in life, what it means to be a genuine leader. Part 3 extends the argument, talking in detail about the purpose of a liberal arts education, the value of the humanities, and the need for dedicated teachers and small classrooms. My aim is not to tell young people where to go to school so much as why. Part 4 returns to the larger social question. The system is charged with producing our leadership class, the so-called meritocracy--the people who run our institutions, governments, and corporations. So how has that been going? Not, it's clear by now, too well. What we're doing to our kids we're ultimately doing to ourselves. The time has long since passed, I argue, to rethink, reform, and reverse the entire project of elite education. A word on what I mean when I speak of the elite. I don't intend the term as it is often now deployed, as a slur against liberals, intellectuals, or anyone who disagrees with Bill O'Reilly, but simply as a name for those who occupy the upper echelons of our society: conservatives as well as liberals, businesspeople as well as professionals, the upper and the upper middle classes both--the managers, the winners, the whole cohort of people who went to selective colleges and are running society for their own exclusive benefit. This book is also, implicitly, a portrait of that class, whose time to leave the stage of history has now so evidently come. Excerpted from Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.