Excellent Sheep:The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life

William Deresiewicz
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published August 2014

This starts out as a horror story that leaves me metaphorically open mouthed and gasping with each turn of the page.

One might say it is a stab in the heart of the revered 'education' led by the 'elite' American universities of the Ivy League plus Stanford. But this rant is more than just that. There are repeated stabs with lots of twisting.

However, the sanctity of these elite ivory towers is still secure since it is one small knife and the gravitas of these institutions is a big beast with history and momentum.

The thesis of the book is that young people, primarily of the upper middle class, are put through hoops of “achievement” largely from preschool through university with the goal of building a “resume” for the next step. Further these children readily buy into this regime, hence 'excellent sheep'. He accuses the Ivy league universities of being “rich-boy's finishing schools”.

The author William Deresiewicz, a literature professor at Yale University for several years reached the job, it seems as a product of the system he is attacking. He employs colourful and rich turns of phrase throughout. This passionate rant, an extension of an earlier paper, is a rollicking read.

With each new revelation, I reflected if that had been the way in 1966 when I entered university in Canada, but was just blind to it. Many trends in the U.S. have modified versions in other countries. In Canada, I suspected that might be the case, but we would not be so seriously off the rails.

I was allowed to continue suspecting that until nearly the last page of the book when Canada was summarily lumped with Finland and Singapore with “the best educational systems”. I suspect he threw this out with comparatively little investigation and maybe a polite assumption.

But it confirmed what I have believed for some time, that Canada has much less and less intense ranking and elitism focussed on a few universities. As such, the competition is unlikely to feature as finely honed 'resumes' as demanded in the U.S.

While he doesn't paint a completely idyllic picture of anytime in the past, he suggests there may have been a window of not as-bad-as-the-rest in the late 1960s, when I was a student. Maybe it was my hopeful imagination that I went to university in more halcyon times.

He suggests that this interval may have seen evolving values between the fraternity/sorority culture before and the intensely hierarchical one that followed. I think the author was a student of the 70s and 80s when the negative was ramping up toward the extremes he is deploring here.

Those extremes are the “jumping through hoops” to satisfy a class of expectations often revolving around status of one sort or another. With respect to the elite schools, this is an obsession of the upper middle class and their ambitions for their children, which then become the children's ambitions.

While these ambitions may be cloaked in the idea that it is giving gifted students the best opportunity to realize their potential, Deresiewicz points out that it highly correlates with class and that class's ability to pursue these ambitions. It, he says, is not the meritocracy that many buying into the game, like to think it is.

I was introduced to these ideas in Fareed Zakaria's, 'In Defense of a Liberal Education' and briefly in Malcom Gladwell's, 'David and Goliath'. But maybe more surprising to both authors, is Bobby Orr's 'Orr:My Story'. Here the parallel I saw is not in education, but with Orr's description of his laissez-faire child oriented growing up, much under the direction of the children themselves. Here the comparison is with how current elite athlete's are early primed and overly monitored by parents and other adults to focus on an ultimate, often adult-obsessed, career goal.

Here I think both Orr and Deresiewicz are directing readers to look toward character development and the importance to children of a broad more informal exposure to opportunities coupled with choice.

What may be the most disappointing revelation/interpretation is that these Ivy league schools don't deliver much of what is suggested and imagined. That doesn't mean that there is not a lot of good product coming out of the schools, but it may be in spite of what is offered, not because of it. Status and bragging rights are paramount for some in their choice of school.

In the author's characterization, “the system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they are doing but no idea why they're doing it.” In a nutshell the choice presented is “between learning and success”.

Personal loss may be huge when much is shunted aside in favour of an all consuming drive for grades and resume.

Like Zakaria he speaks of the importance of passion in determining educational direction, and how many suppress it.

Driven students may partially 'chart a course' where it seems to fit their career purpose or relate to grades, but basically they are “still colouring within the lines”

He contrasted this with a colleague educated in the late 70s when there were “passionate weirdos all over the place.... that made college interesting”.

Part of what has driven this kind of freelance thinking out is a time consuming need for extracurricular activities that go straight to the resume, often without much absorption or enjoyment.

What diversity that may occur in freshman has usually been weeded out in career-purposed seniors aiming at professions, often with little beyond status and income considered. There also seems to be a correlation with mental health problems.

With the proliferation of “extracurriculars” featuring, but not limited to sports, “leadership” was essential. Participating just didn't cut it. “The madness” as he calls it shifted into high gear at the end of the 1980s.

And another game the schools were playing was to attract maximum applicants so as to have more to reject, making admission more coveted. What was desired and acceptable became narrower.

Courses chosen would be those where acceptable success was most likely. Some courses with rigour were needed for balance. But getting As, leadership and extracurriculars are all needed. As might be expected there is an anthology of jargon surrounding the whole regime. “HYPSters” refers to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.

The author rakes Ivy League professor and author Amy Chua's parenting values in pushing hard and openly to get her child into Harvard.

With children tuned to the parent's plans for them, they never really discover who they are and what they want, possibly leading to a truncated happiness living somebody else's dream. But with some groups, notably the Jews and Chinese, parents living through the children's accomplishments is a cultural tradition. “Helicopter” parents are a more recent phenomenon. (hovering over their children)

The author takes a run at the inconsistency of service provided where professor's research is more valued by the institution than professor's teaching. He says it is “untenable housing a liberal arts college within a research university” He says, rather than providing a broad exposure to the subject, teachers are inclined to teach their research. And that problem is more serious at “elite” institutions, he adds.

Then teaching may depend on student evaluation which is higher for higher marks, contributing both to mark inflation and shoddier work, says the author. This is augmented by students having grown up in a regime of positive reinforcement and demand for perfection. And this can apply to the best students. Like a commercial relationship, give the customer what he/she wants.

This all contributes to 'top' schools not catering to educational needs, but to status enhancing jobs.

He brings up the old debate of whether university is for job preparation or an “education” for its own sake. A focus on math and science, which doesn't suit everyone, suggests the former is favoured. “For thirty years we have been loudly announcing that happiness is money, with a side order of fame.” An interpretation is that the goal is a productive employee, a gullible consumer and a docile subject, he adds.

While people can learn to think on their own, it is difficult and teachers can help send people into the world with questions, not just resumes. One characteristic of the author's idea of success is people who finds themselves interesting, with a rich inner life and are continually “inventing” it.

The 'default' major, that is overwhelmingly popular in most of the elite schools, is economics and it suggests careers in moneymaking. And while many graduates move in that direction, the author thinks it is not so much that they value it, but it is the default occupation that is consistent with the way they have been prepared all along And, he said, there has been training to pretend this is satisfying.

Essentially when a new graduate doesn't know what else to do, they choose making money. He credits this motive, more than any other, with the movement of high flying students to Wall Street.

Not having much experience (or opportunity) at failing they are 'fragile', risk averse and choose 'venture' accordingly.

Zakaria (also a former Ivy league professor) echoed Deresiewicz contention that the young people don't challenge society as much as they did in the past. There is now a “calm acceptance of established order”. On the upside, he says, things seem to better than in the 80s and 90s. “We don't need them to be radical only skeptical.”

The author says the penchant to eliminate unhappiness is “dystopian” when unhappiness is a motivator for transformation both personally and in institutions.

By this point, you will not be surprised that the author recommends liberal arts colleges with dedicated teachers and small classes when the goal is education rather than vocational training. He points out that the general education of humanities finds majors in these subjects generally outperforming biology majors in the MCAT, sociology majors in the LSAT and business majors in the GMAT tests. He calls the SAT not a measure of aptitude, but of parental income. Paraphrasing economist Paul Krugman smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree. Sometimes the GPA favours “the faithful drudge more than the original mind”.

He uses the phase “keeping those communities down” by encouraging immigrants to go into medicine and finance. Unless you have absorbed this book you might have trouble absorbing this idea.

And even in his advised liberal arts program the undergraduate specialization is narrow compared to even a generation ago. This is a handicap to thinking across disciplines and understanding complex multi-dimensional problems.

He points to limitations of the new education rage, online instruction. It sees education as a simple transfer of information and facts. But the “learning that college is for is simply not possible without teachers.” And is likely quite hard without the ambiance and collection of people found in a university. But to utilize teachers to the maximum much of the time should be in small group seminars, not replicable with on-line lectures.

But, he adds even in colleges it is hard to find good teaching because it has been eroded by other university priorities, notably research. And the more prestigious the facility, the more the bias is against teaching.

And like excellence in many endeavours the “ten thousand hour rule applies” says the author. Academic training and research actually mitigate against skills important in teaching. And he calls for making teaching the central mission and to pay teachers accordingly.

He is not prepared to concede many universities, particularly elite ones, any advantage over the others. He quips that the school colours are the biggest difference. The rest are meaningless distinctions. The students, teachers, mentality and madness are the same, which doesn't mean schools don't try to market differences.

Now despite how vigorously he castigates the current system, “college is the best investment you can make”. He recommends attending the school “you connect with” not the most prestigious one that lets you in. Then choose a major that excites you.

For a crowning condemnation and summary. “It is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is as isolated from the society that it is supposed to lead and even more smug about its right to its position as the WASP aristocracy itself.” “Propaganda machines for the class structure.” Another is that including a few poor and people of colour means students are meeting “all kinds of people”, when it is mostly their own kind.

And this has contributed to lower social mobility “than in almost every other developed country” and rather than reversing it, elite colleges contribute, he adds. Getting treated “fairly” is a form of privilege, he says, lots of people work hard without fairness and that sums up social inequality.

And with the elite schools once one gets in (a member of the club), few get cast out despite indiscretions and worse.

He doesn't blame the students for growing up affluent and sheltered , but challenges them to take responsibility for it. He tosses around “entitled little shit”.

Then he hits at leadership. He mocks the idea of 'leadership' that is associated with high marks, buffed resumes and overpaid occupations. “The contemporary meritocracy, which in all its glory is presiding over an era of unprecedented national decline, is an exact reflection of the educational system that is charged with reproducing it.”

“For the elite, there is always another extension: a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab. The fat salaries awarded to under performing CEOs are an adult version of the A-minus (the default mark handed out now).”

He says it is unsurprising that the country has lost its sense of purpose, when the leaders have none of their own. And the U.S. has contracted the job of leadership development to elite schools, creatures of the rich, that aren't up to the job, he says.

He summarizes the students as brilliant, gifted, energetic, but anxious, greedy, bland and risk-averse. The lack is “wider thoughtfulness”. “We need experts, to be sure, but we also need them not to be in charge.”

He suggests that in countries with the best educational systems more is given to the lower income students to compensate for inequities at home.

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William Deresiewicz
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published August 2014