Review: Excellent Sheep

Review: Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful LifeExcellent 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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Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Men are not born equal, they are not born free; they are born a most various multitude enmeshed in an ancient and complex social net.

The Outline of History, H.G. Wells

This is one of the most powerful quotes in H.G. Wells’s wonderful popular history book. To me it encapsulates an inescapable fact. In any complex society, however egalitarian, resources are not distributed equally. Power, money, influence, and cultural capital are usually distributed hierarchically; and having powerful parents, a rich family, or being the “right” race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever—these things you are born into.

Karl Marx makes a similar point in this famous passage:

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth: he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close as hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.

“Equality of opportunity” is a phrase we like very much in the United States. It is an ideal, and like any ideal is something we strive for but can never achieve. Yet what does it mean? People born into wealth are at an obvious advantage to people born into poverty. They have better schools, they can afford to go to elite colleges (and elite colleges often can’t afford to turn them away), and thus they are many times more likely to get high paying jobs (besides being able to inherit money). This is an obvious case of inequality.

But what could we do about it? It’s a difficult problem. Should we prevent people from bequeathing money to their children? Should we make private schools illegal? Should we make laws preventing elite universities from accepting more than a certain percentage of people from wealthy families?

Perhaps it’s better to focus on improving the opportunities of the poor rather than restricting those of the rich? We can improve the schools, legislate affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and make higher education more affordable (and less dependent on rich donors and students for their survival). These are all good things, for sure, and to a certain extent we are already striving to accomplish them.

A work in progress is all we will ever achieve. Like everything perfect, perfect equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream. And yet, even if the dream were realized, would we be living in a perfect society? This is a question worth asking.

Even if we managed to equalize the starting point of every child, there would still be the question of how they would be measured. The idea behind having equality of opportunity is that, if some people are more successful than others, we can consider the outcome fair. This is an ideal meritocracy, where everyone gets their just desserts.

In a perfect meritocracy—where opportunity is equal—we advance or fail to advance because we possess certain qualities. But these qualities are arbitrary. In the United States, for example, we tend to value certain types of intelligence, certain personality traits, and certain goals. In other cultures, they have other values.

Every culture arbitrarily chooses some characteristics to value and others to ignore. Yet even when you subtract all the environmental influence, we are still left with our genetic endowment: each of us is born with different abilities, propensities, and weaknesses. Is it really fair that these inborn qualities should determine our success? It seems not—especially when you consider that these native qualities are being measured against an arbitrary standard.

Because of this arbitrariness, I think any fair system needs a kind of social safety net. Even with perfect equality of opportunity—which does not exist—some people will always have more trouble succeeding than others. Providing a basic minimum standard of living is an acknowledgment of this fact.

Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.


Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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