Former Yale Professor, William Deresiewicz in his book Excellent Sheep delves into the issues facing the Ivy League admission process, the facade, the pressure on students to succeed, the American elites, and other thought-provoking insights on higher education. The book was inspired by an essay William wrote in the American Scholar: “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.”
As schools shift focus from the humanities to “practical” subjects like economics, students are losing the ability to think independently. It is essential, says Deresiewicz, that college be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success in order to forge their own paths. He features quotes from real students and graduates he has corresponded with over the years, candidly exposing where the system is broken and offering clear solutions on how to fix it.
“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.”
Here are my favourite take-aways from reading, Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz:
“Education is the way that a society articulates its values: the way that it transmits its values.”
“Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?”
what’s the purpose of being at the right point, if you’re on the wrong path?”
The Rat Race
Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping, starting as far back as grade school, that got them into an elite college in the first place—the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, “leadership,” “service”—left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college. Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus. Once they’ve reached the shining destination toward which their entire childhood and adolescence had been pointed, once they’re through the gates at Amherst or Dartmouth, many kids find out that they have no idea why they’re there, or what they want to do next.”
The Facade of Happiness
By the time they finish high school—after years of learning how to please their teachers and coaches, not to mention schmoozing with their parents’ friends—elite students have become accomplished adult-wranglers. Polite, pleasant, mild, and presentable; well-mannered, well-groomed, and well-spoken (not to mention, often enough, well-medicated), they have fashioned that façade of happy, healthy high achievement.
The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test. Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They’ve learned to “be a student,” not to use their minds.
The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can’t put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition. (If you want to increase participation in an activity, a Stanford professor told me, make entry to it competitive.)
It isn’t enough anymore to take a bunch of electives in addition to your primary focus, to roam freely across the academic fields, making serendipitous connections and discoveries, the way that American higher education was designed (uniquely, among the world’s systems) to allow you to do. You have to get that extra certification now, or what has it all been for? I even met a quadruple major once. He seemed to think it meant that he was very smart.
“With credentialism comes a narrow practicality that’s capable of understanding education only in terms of immediate utility, and that marches, at the most prestigious schools, beneath a single banner: economics.”
The boom in federal funding after Sputnik swung the balance of institutional power decisively toward research. The collapse of the academic job market in the 1970s—the famous PhD glut, which never went away—meant schools could ratchet up their expectations for scholarly productivity. As knowledge is elaborated, research becomes ever more specialized. And because professors can teach what they want—which usually means their little square inch of the field, their thesis, their book—fragmentation and specialization have overtaken the undergraduate curriculum.
“Grandiosity involves contempt for others; depression involves contempt for yourself.”
What Is College For?
Of course money matters: jobs matter, financial security matters, national prosperity matters. The question is, are they the only things that matter? Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for.
The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That’s a cliché, but it does actually mean something, and a great deal more than what is usually intended. It doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines—how to solve an equation or construct a study or analyze a text—or even acquiring the ability to work across the disciplines. It means developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice.
“It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions.“
Before you can learn, you have to unlearn. You don’t arrive in college a blank slate; you arrive having already been inscribed with all the ways of thinking and feeling that the world has been instilling in you from the moment you were born: the myths, the narratives, the pieties, the assumptions, the values, the sacred words. Your soul, in the words of Allan Bloom, is a mirror of what is around you.
Before you can learn, you have to unlearn.
The first purpose of a real education (a “liberal arts” education) is to liberate us from doxa by teaching us to recognize it, to question it, and to think our way around it.
College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of your career, and contemplate things from a distance.
The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully.
“College is the place to learn that most of what we believe (history is exemplary in this regard) is much more provisional and complicated than we usually care to admit.”
Everyone is born with a mind, but it is only through act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. And that is what it means to develop a self.
“What you should really want to develop in college is the habit of reflection, which means the capacity for change.”
The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning—the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons—then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.
Invent your Life
In order to invent your life, you need to overcome that thing the system is so good at inculcating: fear of failure. Damon repeatedly stresses the importance, not of avoiding failure, but of learning to cope with it as a normal and valuable part of development. The best reason to fail is to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.
The reason to try, the reason to invent your life—whether you aim at remarkable things or only at your own thing—is so that it will be your life, your choice, your mistakes.
Status is a funny thing. Money gets you stuff, at least. Status doesn’t get you much except the knowledge that you have it. And while money may not make you happy, it is easy to imagine someone who decides they have enough. With status, you can never have enough. It is comparative, and competitive, by its very nature. It doesn’t just not make you happy: it actively makes you unhappy. You want to make it to the top? There is no top. However high you climb, there is always somebody above you.
Status is a funny thing. Money gets you stuff, at least. Status doesn’t get you much except the knowledge that you have it.
Give yourself time. Your twenties, as Dustin Hoffman put it, are the “question-mark decade.” While I still regret the time that I wasted in college and after, I’ve come to see that some form of waste, some form of wandering, was necessary and good. Waste is not waste, just as practicality is not practical if it takes you somewhere that makes you unhappy. Out of the struggles and confusion of your post-collegiate years, unexpected new directions will arise.
“interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.” – Charles Wheelan
Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.
College is the only situation where people want to get as little of what they pay for as possible.
Private colleges and universities will only ever go so far in opening their gates to the poor and middle class, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to do otherwise. We need instead to overhaul the entire way we organize our higher education system. The problem isn’t this or that admissions practice; the problem is the Ivy League itself—the position it and other schools have been allowed to occupy. The problem is that we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act, or think they’re acting, for the common good, they will always place their interests first.
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.