Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I still remember my first exposure to Deresiewicz. I had recently dropped out of graduate school—full of disgust and indignation—and as a form of self-therapy I was busy reading everything I could find about the flaws of higher education. Naturally, I jumped on Deresiewicz’s essay in The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It seemed to put into words so many things I’d been thinking.
A few days later, I was in the car with my mom and my brother (we were dropping my brother off at his elite university), bitterly complaining, and at great length, about the evils of the system. My mom turned on the radio.
This book is an odd jumble. While barely more than 200 pages, it attempts to be a manifesto, an exposé, a path to tranquility, a work of cultural criticism, and a philosophy of education. Needless to say the book fails to be every one of these things, but this doesn’t mean it fails to be any of them.
Deresiewicz’s first section, wherein he talks about the flaws in the system, is the most successful, since it is what he knows about. In a nutshell, the problem with American higher education is that there is an enormous amount of pressure and prestige for precious little substance.
Young people have more hoops than ever to jump through: if they want to go to Harvard, they must be super students. They can’t afford to stop for one moment. They need to get excellent grades, take all the toughest subjects, be leaders in extra-curriculars—at least six!—maybe found a few clubs themselves, outcompete their peers in the SAT, and in general tick off all the rights boxes.
The problem, of course, is that the things that look good to the college admission office often have dubious educational value, and are most often the product of privilege as much as talent. The vignette that most stuck with me was about the “college enrichment programs” that took young people on carefully choreographed trips, so they would have some good stories for their college essays. (This is not to mention the writing assistance, sometimes bordering on ghost-writing, that the wealthy can afford.)
The ironic part is that all of this stress and effort does not lead to social mobility, since the wealthy already start with such a big advantage. Each cohort of students at elite universities is disproportionally upper or upper-middle class. This is no coincidence, since universities need a sizable number of “full-freighters”—students whose parents can afford to pay the enormous tuition costs—in order to stay afloat.
Even more ironic is that it doesn’t even lead to an excellent education. As the university becomes increasingly reliant on wealthy students, the students increasingly get treated like customers. The university cannot afford to fail them; it cannot even afford to make them uncomfortable, which is arguably a prerequisite to genuine learning. Grade-inflation is rampant. Universities focus on hiring a few research professors, because these professors bring more prestige. Though experts, these professors are often not especially good teachers; and besides, there aren’t very many of them. The bulk of the teaching gets done by contingent faculty, chronically underpaid, always underappreciated, who come and go, without the time or resources to teach to their potential.
Instead of education, these universities focus on ranking. The problem is that the ranking is not based on quality of instruction, but on things like admission rates: the more selective, the better. It benefits elite colleges to advertise to students who have a very low chance of getting in, since if they apply and get rejected, the school looks better.
The result is a system obsessed with prestige at the expense of learning. From the moment students arrive to their final graduation speech, students are praised for being the best, the brightest, the most wonderful. And yet they are enmeshed in an educational system that encourages them to put themselves into boxes for admissions, that rarely challenges their fundamental beliefs, and that leaves them with a sense of entitlement, a sense that they deserve all of the nice things their elite education will give them.
So what should an education do? This brings us to part two and three of Deresiewicz’s book, which I thought were much weaker. He has a lot to say about the value of a liberal education, about self-discovery, taking risks, questioning beliefs, developing a philosophy, finding your real passion, and lots of other nice clichés. To be fair, these are clichés for a reason: in some form or another, they are the goal of a true education. Nevertheless, I didn’t find Deresiewicz’s prescriptions particularly insightful or inspiring.
Finally, Deresiewicz aims his sights at society as a whole. What has this educational model done to our country, and how can we fix it? All the recent presidents, as products of “the system,” come in for a good bashing—especially Barack Obama, who Deresiewicz finds to be arrogant, condescending, technocratic, while totally blind to genuine ideological differences. The book ends with a widespread, sweeping, universal condemnation of the entire upper and upper-middle class. Their time has passed, he thinks, and they must be removed from the stage of history, just as the old, aristocratic WASP class had before them.
What are we to make of all this? It’s clear that the book bites off far more than it can chew. Ambition is certainly not a problem; but when ambition so far outpaces execution, it certainly is.
One weakness is that this book is so personal. By his own admission, Deresiewicz—the offspring of upper-middle class, Jewish parents, a former professor at Yale—is bitter about his experience in elite education, and it shows. For many years, it seems, he was dissatisfied and unfulfilled, consumed by feelings of envy and empty accomplishment, which accounts for both the self-help and the invective.
But emotion is a perilous guide. While at his best he is sardonic and witty, at his worst he is alternately whiney and preachy. His torrents of feeling often blow his vessel into strange waters—like the psychology of achievement addiction, or the dysfunction of government—where he thrashes about ineffectually.
This thrashing led to some tiresome writing. He has a tendency to write in epigram after epigram—none very clever—pounding and hammering his opinions into your head, while supplying few particulars and little evidence. He makes sweeping generalizations, all written in antitheses: “Everybody is doing this, and nobody is doing that,” “All of us care about this, and none of us pays attention to that,” and so on. He rarely qualifies his points, he does not address counterarguments, he does not betray even the least doubt of his righteousness and the system’s evilness. (The book’s condescending title is indicative of its fervor.) If I were his writing teacher, I would tell him it needs more work.
This book could really have been a long essay, focusing exclusively on the flaws of elite universities. The rest feels like self-indulgence and padding, an excuse to air his views and sell a book.
But for all his shortcomings, I think that Deresiewicz is making a vital point. All of his complaints boil down to one insight: meritocracy is insidious.
Now, how can this be? Isn’t meritocracy good? Isn’t is the only fair and just system? Well, there are several obvious problems. For one, what is ‘merit’? Any meritocracy must begin with some notion of worth; and this notion will always be shaped by cultural and economic pressures. You simply cannot measure the inherent ‘worth’ of a person, so you end up measuring people against some arbitrary standard—like analytical intelligence or academic pedigree—imposed by the outside.
But even if we could agree on a universal measure of ‘merit’ (which is impossible), there would be no guarantee that we could measure it perfectly. Some people will be lucky, others unlucky. And even if we could agree on a standard and measure it perfectly—two impossible conditions—we are still left with the question of reward. If somebody is in the top fifth percentile, how much wealth do they ‘deserve’? This will also be arbitrary, and whatever decision will likely not satisfy everyone.
So you see, first a meritocracy imposes an arbitrary standard, and then denies the existence of luck, and then distributes rewards along this standard arbitrarily. A meritocratic system is not necessarily fair—since people’s worth cannot be measured—nor is it necessarily effective—since chance will always play a role—nor is it necessarily just—since meritocratic systems can still be highly unequal. The most insidious part is that it makes people believe they deserve their rewards: the rich deserve their wealth, the poor their poverty.
This is essentially what Deresiewicz is complaining about. The American elite educational system tends to reward certain qualities that are not necessarily desirable (and which are usually associated with wealthy families), and then treat this unequal distribution as justified. But when you think about it, is it really fair that educational resources and prestige be concentrated in very few, very expensive institutions, instead of distributed more evenly throughout the system?
I agree with this fundamental critique. However, I am far from sure that I know how to fix it. For his part, Deresiewicz puts his faith in the old tradition of the liberal arts education.
While I am naturally very sympathetic to this idea, I always ask myself: Are the liberal arts compatible with big institutions? Can a tradition predicated on free thought, on questioning authority, and on open enquiry—a tradition that is not oriented towards job skills or economic gain—be made compatible with an organization of power and wealth? Can we really expect students to pay enormous tuitions to induct them into the life of the mind? Or can we expect tax-payers to support universities that do the same?
To me is seems that, in the United States, by asking our universities to be both liberal arts colleges and pre-vocational training, we are asking the impossible. The first tradition teaches us how to live, while the second teaches us how to work. The problem, it seems to me, is that in the United States we have come to identify so fully with our jobs that we can’t see the questions as separate. Deresiewicz definitely falls into this error, which he exemplifies by his endorsement of the “follow your passion” advice for a better life.
As I finish, I am left with more questions than when I started. And, as cliché as that sounds, that is still the sign of a good book.
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