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'Excellent Sheep': Deresiewicz slams Ivy League zombies

People walk past the Alma Mater statue on

People walk past the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus on July 1, 2013 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

EXCELLENT SHEEP: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the

Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz. Free Press, 245 pp., $26.


Congratulations, you zombies.

That is William Deresiewicz's message for all the gifted and talented young things starting at Ivy League schools this fall. And not just for them, but also for their status-mongering parents, who sacrifice their kids' childhoods in exchange for the right sticker on the back window of the Lexus; for their enabling high school teachers, who encourage the resume-stuffing required for admission to elite universities; for their future professors, so hyperspecialized that they never push students to grapple with big questions; and for their inevitable employers, the investment banks and consulting firms that fill young graduates' wallets and empty their minds.

Yes, just about everyone involved in elite higher education in America must feel the wrath of Deresiewicz, whose quarter-century as a student at Columbia and an English professor at Yale led him to a bleak conclusion: "The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and 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're doing but with no idea why they're doing it."

For generations, winning admission to elite colleges was less about padding an application than about wielding the right connections and "character" -- the WASPy look and habits befitting a Harvard man. That began changing in the 1960s, Deresiewicz writes, thanks in part to reforms by Yale President Kingman Brewster, who removed quotas against Jewish applicants, instituted need-blind admissions and stopped automatically accepting students from elite East Coast prep schools. That decade became the pivot, the author explains, "from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy."

That transformation, Deresciewicz explains, is behind today's SAT prep classes, application-essay advisers, ridiculous Advanced Placement course loads, private tutors and summer "enrichment" activities.

This consumerist vision of education is affirmed on campus, where kids are funneled into predictable majors (econ, usually) and predictable careers (law, medicine, finance, consulting). Students pick up their default A-minuses, that "emblem of entitled mediocrity," and in their rush to land jobs with Goldman or ace their LSATs, they miss the opportunity that colleges, especially the best ones, should offer: "To stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance."

Despite its populist pretensions, "Excellent Sheep" betrays a profoundly elitist worldview. Consider Deresiewicz's key advice: Rather than attend the Ivy League, the excellent sheep should flock to liberal-arts colleges, where they'll read Great Books, think deep thoughts, find true mentors. "The best option of all may be the second-tier liberal arts colleges, places like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and quite a few others," Deresiewicz recommends, "schools that... have retained their allegiance to real educational values."

Somehow, attending Wesleyan rather than Cornell doesn't feel like sticking it to the man.

More than 100 pages into the book, Deresiewicz concedes: "To everything I've been saying ... there attaches, of course, a very large qualification. You are not free to ignore reality, and the heaviest reality is money." He acknowledges that financial considerations "put an entirely different kind of pressure on your choices" and that "if you're lucky enough to graduate without a lot of debt ... you'll have a lot more room to maneuver."

Though Deresiewicz offers some policy recommendations -- affirmative action should be based on class, not race; funding for K-12 education should be equalized nationwide; universities should launch teaching tracks for professors -- "Excellent Sheep" is not a wonky book. Rather it is, as Deresiewicz writes, "a letter to my twenty-year-old self." He touches upon a troubled relationship with his demanding father ("both an immigrant and an Ivy League professor, a double whammy") and his "roller coaster of grandiosity and depression," clearly identifying with the elite kids he's so eager to help.

Because the author is a respected member of the very club he decries, "Excellent Sheep" will receive the attention appropriate to the book's class and station. A lengthy cover excerpt in the Ivy-draped New Republic. Author appearances at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. And yes, a review in The Washington Post. So let me take "Excellent Sheep" to its logical conclusion and assign it the grade Deresiewicz should expect.


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