Ex-Yale professor William Deresiewicz published an essay called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” in the summer of 2008 that struck a societal nerve. How could attending Harvard, Yale, Stanford or any other of America’s prestigious educational institutions possibly be a bad thing?
This question is eloquently answered in Deresiewicz’s new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” (Free Press, 245 pp., $26), an extension of that essay and a sharp analysis of the dark side of the lot of a high-achieving student being groomed for a place in America’s meritocracy.
“Excellent Sheep” should be required reading for the next generation of elite school-bound high-schoolers and their parents because of the provocative questions it raises.
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Deresiewicz, who attended Columbia and taught at Yale for 10 years, claims that elite institutions prize “excellent sheep” rather than “cantankerous intellectual bomb-throwers,” a point that is not without truth.
Deresiewicz condemns this “compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students — the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can,” arguing that universities push a career-focused, checklist and cookie-cutter mentality based on conventional, economic success in order to usher them into elite professional institutions and turn them into loyal donors.
And the students drink the Kool-Aid, prioritizing résumé-padding activities and internships over relationships and emotional health. It’s no surprise, Deresiewicz argues, that an American Psychological Association survey reveals that “half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness, while almost a third spoke of feeling ‘so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.’ ”
As a current senior at Stanford University, I live and work with highly focused students who often seem to care more about grades than the educational value of their work. I recognize the doubt, fear of failure and need for external validation that he writes about, both within myself and among my peers, but Deresiewicz pushes his arguments too far.
In his telling, the only satisfying career a high-achieving student can pursue is to become an artist or a teacher. He fails to address the real diversity of interests at a place like Stanford, where many students deliberately chose to enter fields that are not considered lucrative because they have had the economic resources and institutional support to “invent themselves” and pursue their passions.
As a humanities student at Stanford I witness passion on a daily basis from professors and students alike. Among my social circle, I count prospective costume designers, Hollywood producers, software engineers and environmentalists, as well as students aiming for finance and consulting and students who don’t have any idea what they want to do.
That’s OK. We’re young. Just because we attend a well-endowed school with a fancy name doesn’t mean we are any less lost, any less confused about and terrified for the future, or any less human. Deresiewicz’s tendency to generalize and make boldly negative statements about high-achieving students’ lack of direction or passion is often too reductionist, weakening the validity of his claims about elite college culture.
Still, “Excellent Sheep” is a comprehensive, harrowing condemnation of institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford (the so-called HYPSters), whom he accuses of valuing their prestigious reputations over the education of young minds, reinforcing the widening socioeconomic inequality in the United States and churning out ineffectual leaders in business and politics.
It is here that his overgeneralization works to his advantage, and his bold statements become less personal, more polemical and more persuasive, a call to action to fix an educational system that is supposed to provide merit-based opportunity and uphold the American Dream but in fact reinforces socioeconomic class, elite privilege and the status quo.
Deresiewicz is better at asking questions than providing answers. His advice about the meaning of education spirals into the tired cliché of using the college years as a time to find yourself, discover your passion and ask the big questions.
For students already in the system, he suggests service work — waiting tables, not community service — or transferring to a public university where you can get a quality education without the toxic psychological environment. He believes institutions should continue affirmative action based on socioeconomic class instead of race.
Students who dream of attending Stanford and parents who dream of sending their children to Harvard should read “Excellent Sheep.” The book offers the kind of education it advocates for: one of intense, uncomfortable thought.
It will force you to engage in a critical re-evaluation of education’s role in your (and your children’s) development. It will help you understand why finding a school that fits your sensibilities is more important than attending one with the highest U.S. News & World Report ranking. That kind of thinking — questioning the norm and learning how to be intellectually risky — is exactly what Deresiewicz argues an education should help you do.
Katherine Schwab was an intern in the features department of The Seattle Times during the summer of 2014. She’s a senior at Stanford University.