‘Excellent Sheep’ provokes

‘Excellent Sheep’ delivers a scathing review of U.S. higher education to a mixed reception. Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com
‘Excellent Sheep’ delivers a scathing review of U.S. higher education to a mixed reception. Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com

College students today are instilled with the desire for prestige, and the allure of money has sedated their natural curiosity. This is the claim of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, a book which directly calls out the College, among other peer institutions.

William Deresiewicz’s book came out this August to excessive media hype. The New Republic published an excerpt in July under the headline “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” with a picture of Harvard’s flag burning. No joke. Blusters like this characterize the entire book, which lumps the College in with the Ivies as an elitist school to be avoided. The title refers to the author’s idea that students at “prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams” intellectually resemble livestock that have become very good at allowing themselves to be herded through their lives, never questioning limits or rebelling against authority.

Beginning with an ugly history of how Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University began their traditions of exclusivity by manufacturing white, privileged student bodies, Deresiewicz argues that the college admissions model of competition leading to better and better applicants is no longer viable. These days, a very specific set of criteria is known to be expected of the college applicant: high SAT scores, straight As, a sport, an instrument, community service, articulate essays and effusive recommendations. If almost all applicants embody this ideal student, choosing among them becomes near impossible. Still, there remains a fractional hope of getting in, so any high schooler who calls Stanford University his dream school is willing to perform the extracurricular tricks necessary to make him a contender for admission. Whether or not this burns him out is irrelevant; adults who say an honest education should be enough for a person’s happiness are kidding themselves. The high value of going to Stanford University while your counterparts languish at a state school makes the application process worth its hellish nature. Deresiewicz, reasonably enough, says that this system promotes meanness and distracts from the actual point of college.

The book’s thesis seems to be that this spirit of exclusivity, as promoted by such schools’ admissions offices — see Stanford’s dismal 5 percent acceptance rate — trickles down and soaks into the very souls of its students, manifesting itself in whoever gains political and economic power later in life. Perhaps it even contributes to the new economic inequality. For example, “42 [percent] of those in government have degrees from one or more of only twelve universities,” showing that Ivy League universities and their ilk educate a disproportionate number of American leaders. Though it’s commendable to explore whether or not this signifies a loss of social mobility and regression to a class system, Deresiewicz doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. He quotes a lot of his favorite authors (especially David Foster Wallace) when making his points but forgoes any real data. The result is that these valid questions still feel unresolved by the end of the book.

Deresiewicz’s main solution is to wax poetic about the timelessness of a liberal arts education. “The purpose of college is to turn adolescents into adults,” he writes, and subsequently spends most of the book advocating for a humanist course of study that will promote free thinking and allow the opportunity to “invent your life.” This is noble but too abstract next to reality.

Deresiewicz notes that at most highly-ranked colleges, including our own Williams College, economics is one of the most popular majors, a clear indication to him that students are only passing through in hopes of making buckets of money on Wall Street. On this note, he writes that “an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.” However, if the undergraduate in question is truly a free thinker, then what constitutes a waste of time depends solely on what the undergraduate wants. Whether it’s a liberal arts or a technical degree, the outcome will reflect that student’s own goals and efforts.

The strong reaction to the ideas of Excellent Sheep is evidence that there is real anxiety about higher education in America, but books like these that rave about the crisis don’t solve anything. Deresiewicz is right in saying that any change must come from within students for it to be genuine, and he contradicts his own idea in trying to cast judgment on the different kinds of college experiences.

The best thing that comes out of Excellent Sheep is the provocation, and the worst is one more voice adding to the noise.

  • Peggy Vevang

    Amazing book review by a very skilled writer!