Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz, an Elitist Who Knows

His observations and analysis from inside the Ivy League are compelling, but the professor’s solution is as elitist as his career path.

William Deresiewicz argues that today’s elite educational institutions produce excellent hoop-jumpers, teacher pleasers, and masters of a system, but do they produce thinkers?  The “meritocracy” of today’s premier colleges invites only students with the best test scores and grades who successfully juggle 10+ extracurricular activities. Those who make the marks get in, but like the good old boys club of yesteryear, once they’re in, they’re in.

All of their lives, these students are told they are the best and brightest.  They expect success, have only known success, and they are rewarded for it.  College GPA has gone up consistently: 40 years ago the average college GPA was 2.6 and is now 3.0, and private universities about 3.3, and Ivy League closer to 3.4.  “At a school like Yale, students who come to class and work hard expect nothing less than an A-. And most of the time they get it.”  Dereseiwicz calls this entitled mediocrity.  “Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm – I’ve heard of all three – will get you expelled.”

Mediocrity is one disadvantage of an elite education, Dereseiwicz continues,  and another is security.  Graduates from the top tier schools line up in ever increasing numbers for jobs in finance and consulting, law, medicine, and science and seek the riches that come with it.

I would tell Dereseiwicz that these industries make up much of the economy and while Ivy credentials may secure the interview, beyond that it’s up to the graduate. Private sector job security is more fragile than the professor’s tenure track. Yes, parents and graduates see college as an investment and expect a return in  high paying jobs. The college sees this as a lucrative outcome because the more high paying graduates, the higher its endowment. As one third generation Yalie [graduate of Yale] said, “the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale Alumni.”

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training. (Disadvantages of an Elite Education link here

Dereseiwicz concludes that the liberal arts college is becoming a corporate university and students no longer grapple with ideas, explore passions, and weigh the larger issues in life.

Colleges have become a business for making careers, not minds.

Dereseiwicz makes another point about security: because students no longer have the time to consider the big things, so concerned are they with chasing the financial gratification culminating their college experience, they continue lock-step with their peers, seeking the holy grail, the ultimate career. But whose end is it?

The recipe for success which landed them at the elite college will be the same recipe for success which gets them the “right job.” What about the risk to do what they really want to do, the moral courage to try different things, ask big questions, fail?  What of the school teacher and the artist? They can live comfortably in such jobs, but they may have to “live in an ordinary house instead of a … mansion … drive a Honda instead of a BMW… or vacation in Florida instead of the Barbados.”  The same students who live by numbers like GPA and SAT, will measure what their friends are earning, what jobs they have, and what their peers will think at their reunion.

Ivy League

Ivy League consists of these eight prestigious universities, seven of which were founded in the U.S. colonial period

Here’s where Deresiewicz got to me first. A few years ago, he gave a lecture at West Point on Solitude and Leadership which was later published in the American Scholar and went viral online. (Full essay Solitude & Leadership link here)

It was good, very good.

It was the first time these ideas were discussed together in this way: that leadership requires solitude to think and to act on convictions, that the work necessary for effective leadership is solitary and demands concentration and taking counsel with yourself. As a military veteran and student of leadership, I made copies of the lecture and sent it to classmates still serving on active duty, hoping it might provide insight and comfort to those in the most difficult positions, some commanding battalions of soldiers in the Middle East.

Given this exposure, I was delighted to receive this new book, Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.   I read the book with pen in hand, nodding my head in agreement with his observations and anxious to see where he took me.  His 2008 essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” inspired the book because when it went viral, he realized that he “touched a nerve” and “evoked widespread discontent among today’s young high achievers.”  (Full essay link here)

What is a meaningful life?

Contemplating and perhaps even answering this question should be part of an education and that made sense. In the book, he explores the elite educational system and the problems in depth, as well as the students who are “excellent sheep.”

Deresiewicz spent 24 years in the Ivy League: attending Columbia for his degrees, working there as a graduate instructor, and then spending ten years on the faculty at Yale. Here is someone who knows all about the Ivies; he lived it himself.

The book is written in four parts.

  1. Discusses the system itself:  the students and their stress/pressure, the admissions process, addiction to success and fear of failure, the addiction to money in choosing majors;  history of college; the institutions
  2. The Self: what is college for? what students can do to follow a different path
  3. Schools: the Great Books (western canon) and purpose of liberal  arts, need for dedicated teachers and small classrooms
  4. Society – the college “meritocracy” today and the need for reform to “reverse the entire project of elite education”

When I began to read the book, I looked forward to his discussion on the liberal arts and his solutions. But the introduction tipped his hand when he closed with this sentence: “This book is also, implicitly, a portrait of that [elite] class, whose time to leave the stage of history has now so evidently come.”

The observations and analysis are compelling, well written, and supported, though often with anecdotal examples.  He believes that college is for developing the mind and learning to think.  However, he cites expert Andrew Delbanco but does not mention that Delbanco believed college serves  several broad purposes in history and today: to educate and inform citizens of a free democracy, to provide economic skills, and to teach one how to enjoy life. (College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco link)

As a liberal arts professor, Dereseiwicz dismisses the economic purpose because he finds the search for meaning and the development of thinking skills as the end and means of an education, that students hoping to find life skills and practical application of their four years are inferior.

Are they?

This view of college is restrictive and elitist.

The economic role of college means getting a job and going to college for the purpose of becoming marketable, productive, and perhaps acquiring skills. For Dereseiwicz the purpose of growing an economy, advancing society, and creating the means to pay professors like him a salary is mundane.  Too bad they all can’t be poets, artists, or otherwise unemployed members of society.

On page 54, Dereseiwicz confesses his reason for writing the book.

I should say that this is very personal for me. Everything I’m talking about is very personal, because I used to be one of these kids, but this above all. For years I rode the roller coaster of grandiosity and depressions, struggled to separate myself from the need for my father’s approval.  (He was both an immigrant and an Ivy League professor, double whammy.)

Deresiewicz is part of the multi generational elite.  He broke from the herd, followed his path, chose to teach. I respect that.  And this book is his therapy. He left teaching because he was frustrated with the system.  He offers suggestions for improvement, but his conclusion is as elitist as his college and career path.

He wants to ensure privilege cannot be handed down.  The admissions process would need to change, specifically:

  • affirmative action should based on class and not race
  • discard preferences for legacies and athletes
  • SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors
  • limit number of extracurriculars, increase value on service jobs
  • disregard experience or opportunity enabled by parental wealth
  • do NOT cooperate with US News (college ranking system)

More broadly, colleges should rethink their concept of merit.  Weighting SAT scores is scary, because who’s going to do that and how?  And discarding athletic recruits may hurt a good portion of economically disadvantaged students.

Dereseiwicz proceeds, saying that K-12 education is a right and higher education should be as well, that in a fair society, we need to provide free higher education. Education should be funded by general revenue and not local property taxes because that “by design, is a way for the affluent to perpetuate their privilege.”

He acknowledges his ideas will take money and says that America is rich. So, cut the “$700 billion gorilla of defense,” make businesses pay, and make the “famous 1 percent” pay.

 As for the famous 1 percent, their slice of the national income, which stayed at about 10 percent from 1953 to 1981, has risen to about 23 percent.  In a $16 trillion economy, the difference represents a premium of more than $2 trillion a year, about four times the federal deficit.  As far as I’m concerned, that money belongs to the rest of us. By manipulating the legislative and legal systems – which is to say, by buying them – the rich have simply stolen it.

The book’s conclusion exposes the weakness of his argument and his own motives. In Part I, Dereseiweicz discusses the role of envy and its dark influence in his own life.  He has shed his professorial robes, but he has not shed the gripping green mantle of envy.  Could it be that he resents his students’ financial successes and vastly larger wealth?

It’s unfortunate, because Dereseiwicz is a good teacher.  He has critiqued a flawed system and his explanations for the flaws are drawn with eloquence and powerful literary examples.

I disagree that higher education is a right, anymore than healthcare is a right. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and if the pursuit of happiness happens to mean college, than every citizen has the right to pursue college. The right to pursue college is very different from the right to college, or the right to “free higher education.”

America guarantees freedoms and liberty.  It does not guarantee an outcome.  That is up to the individual.

A better approach to helping students think and develop their minds has to do with what they actually learn. The fix should include a hard look at and revamping of the liberal arts degree and the  general educational requirements. (Why Colleges Are Failing our Students: Harvard Gets a “D” and Brown gets an “F”  link).