Who Has the Crook? On Excellent Sheep

Excellent SheepExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, is a cleverly titled dark manifesto from a former professor of English at Yale, William Deresiewicz. It is also, like so many other recently published books on academia’s failures, a critique that is about much more than higher education. Excellent Sheep is a messy jeremiad, a deeply felt complaint about the state of the world, the empty goals talented students take, and the ethical corruption of elite institutions. An exegesis on this collective failure, Excellent Sheep gets our zeitgeist exceptionally well – but only a narrow band of it, one upset about increased analytics and the conforming pressures of success. Deresiewicz writes with urgency, acidity, and candor.

The broad outlines of Deresiewicz’s argument are straightforward. In society’s collective wish to validate our meritocracy (or pseudo-meritocracy, as Deresiewicz would have it), high-achieving students – invariably the sons and daughters of successful, highly educated parents – are trained, coddled, affirmed, and pressured into becoming highly scripted, deeply unhappy overachievers who lack soul and originality. Our outstanding sheep are tortured, often by their own hands, in a desperate effort to imbue themselves and the larger enterprise of American success with integrity.

Deresiewicz’s sheep are many of the students who enroll in a few elite colleges, the Ivies – Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, where the author studied. The list could have been larger. He calls these students HYPEsters, young men and women who more often than not are members of the “lucky sperm club.” Parents, schools, and society groom these special sheep for accomplishment from conception. The HYPEsters are easy to recognize, even if the description veers towards caricature. Baby Mozart? Applications and interviews for exclusive nursery schools? Choreographed learning experiences, from swimming with the dolphins to robotics camp? After-school activities that leave children exhausted and without time to think? Success measured in tests, achievements, and a never-ending cycle of hoop-jumping and unrealized ambition?

HYPEsters reach the Ivies and are taught by scholars like Deresiewicz, smart academics with glittering pedigrees. HPYEsters often go farther than college, collecting recognition and multiple successes. They earn graduate degrees, get high-paying jobs, and live an American dream as the country’s best and brightest. From one perspective, the system works. Students succeed and parental ambitions are realized.

From Deresiewicz’s perch, however, the endeavor is rotten. He argues that these new budding elites are chock full of miserable young people. He finds them unhappy, stressed, brittle, and deeply confused. Deresiewicz argues that the excellent sheep that colleges are validating and elevating as America’s elite are poor leaders. They consistently make poor choices. for they are underdeveloped and more concerned about management than legacy. Worse, they lack the vision and reflection necessary to lead effectively. Deresiewicz believes that they can neither serving themselves or society well. It is a damning indictment that may have more than a ring of truth to it. What transcendent values motivate a management consultant?

Higher education plays a critical role in this dystopian dance, for obtaining admission to an top school validates a childhood based on performance. It is a rat race that colleges perpetuate, abide and abet, Deresiewicz asserts. He believes that a college education’s higher purpose is not management, but the soul. We should be asking students how to lead the good life, he affirms, channeling a pedagogic mixture of Socrates and John Keating, the mythical teacher from Dead Poets Society. Deresiewicz’s wants students to think for themselves, individuate from their parents, and seek authentic learning experiences in environments other than law firms and investment banks. Deresiewicz’s argument is fundamentally aesthetic, though he is loathe to admit it.

The book’s ideal is odd. There is little in today’s college curriculum prevents this kind of education from taking place. He  believes, however, that it is not happening – based on his experience at Yale. One can only wish that Deresiewicz found the time to travel in broader circles. His critiques might not be so tart but they would be better informed. Relevance and “higher” meaning can come in many guises, from philosophy, to economics, to a chance encounter with a smart person who may not come from a traditional discipline or institution.

The book has generated more than its fair share of criticism. Deresiewicz’s barbs sting and few escape his fusillades. He assails what he believes is a system gone off the rails. Excellent Sheep is not a book about social policy, though; it is a personal book grounded in individual experience. Deresiewicz states that wrote the book to his twenty-year old self. Is the author trying to write his way out of bad faith? One recurring questions is just how much the author identifies with the sheep.

Deresiewicz offers few alternatives to the ovine hamster wheel. He notes that an elite perpetuated by the landed gentry is no real solution. It existed in the past and if we do not pay attention, we may end up with just such an arrangement in our future. Deresiewicz is irritated by the careerism of his students, much more than seems fair or right. The lack of idealism sticks in his craw, as does the absence of something authentic in his classroom. In the back of Deresiewicz’s psyche is the fear that there is authenticity, but that lies outside of his reach. He admits that he did not know how to talk with a plumber, a strange aside that highlights the contours of the bubble in which Deresiewicz has worked and lived. A thread of apology is never too far from the surface.

The majority of American college students are not enrolled in elite institutions. For these students, there is opportunity and frustration, remedial coursework and brilliance. There is also hope and optimism, something that those of who choose to remain in higher education, must nurture and cherish if they are to teach effectively. Deresiewicz would do well to spend time teaching these students and listening to them. He might find that there are many equally valid ways to journey to successful adulthood.

David Potash

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