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Merrily We Roll Along

William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep
Merrily We Roll Along

By Drew Trotter


Those who try to follow closely the publications relating to Higher Education in America must live in a constant state of exhaustion. New books are published almost every day on the dangers and/or opportunities provided by the digital world, on how to get a “real” education, on the importance, or the folly, of having education serve the commercial needs of society.

Anyone, though, who even sticks his or her big toe in this swamp has read the name of William Deresiewicz. It’s not because of his credentials, though they are impressive. He attended Columbia University, where he received a B.A. in Biology/Psychology, an M.A. in Journalism and a Ph.D. in English. After five years as a Graduate instructor at Columbia, he taught English literature at Yale University for ten years. He left academia to become a full–time author and speaker in 2008. He speaks often on college campuses, has published articles and reviews in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, et al., and is the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Quite a résumé.

Deresiewicz’s claim to fame in the world of Higher Education, however, comes from an essay he published in The American Scholar in 2008 entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”. Since its publication, the essay has been viewed online more than a million times, and it forms the basis of this book. In it, while praising the advantages of an elite, i.e. Ivy League, education, he outlines the disadvantages, too.

Such an education is homogenous with respect to class (almost entirely economically upper, though Deresiewicz does not use that word), while being racially and ethnically diverse. It is elitist in the worst sense, as it trains its students to believe that anyone who gets an education at a lesser university is, well, lesser—in knowledge, in skill, in social standing—in short, in anything that will help one to get ahead in the world.

One is reminded of the opening scene of The Social Network in which Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, berates his “girlfriend” Erica, played by Rooney Mara, for going to Boston University and not Harvard like him. The tragedy of the scene is that Zuckerberg doesn’t even realize he is berating her until it’s too late. Deresiewicz mentions Al Gore and John Kerry as decent men, who simply had no clue how to relate to the common man whose votes they needed to get elected.

He also accuses the elite schools of narrowing the concept of smart to those who are smart analytically, not “smart” artistically or practically or emotionally. As he puts it, “The ‘best’ are the brightest only in one narrow sense.” Quoting the ancient playwright Terence, “I am a human. Nothing human is alien to me”, he writes, “The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.”

The second disadvantage of an elite education is the false sense of self–worth it engenders in its students. Deresiewicz spends a great deal of time in the book on this aspect of “miseducation” and Christians will find here a good, if slippery, friend. At one point he even instructs those students at elite universities how they can escape the privilege and entitlement that has been given to them. “It’s not your fault you grew up affluent and sheltered. But you need to take responsibility for it. You can start by recognizing that you aren’t, in fact, more valuable than other people, no matter what you’ve always heard. Your pain does not hurt more. Your soul does not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say that God does not love you more” (loc. 2931).

Lest one think Deresiewicz understands and affirms faith, he makes clear that he affirms secularism and thinks it has replaced religion and that art has replaced God. In true Matthew Arnold fashion, he writes, “The humanities are what we have, in a secular society, instead of religion. They are compatible with religion, but they have also, in important ways, supplanted it.…The change was actually a form of continuity. Most colleges had been founded as church–affiliated institutions; now they sought to carry on their spiritual mission under the secular dispensation” (loc. 2044–2059). Art knows us better than we know ourselves; “Everything we find in life we find in art” (loc. 2146).

In his last chapter, Deresiewicz says he is going to reveal how he thinks the system should be changed to provide the education he feels really prepares one for life, but in the clumsily titled “The Self–Overcoming of the Hereditary Meritocracy”, he largely gives us more of the same, listing off leader after leader, trained at our elite universities, but practicing “entitled mediocrity” in their offices as leaders of the free world.

In his defense, Deresiewicz does not lean left or right; for example, Condoleezza Rice and Elena Kagan are both ”résumé jockeys devoid of discernible passion carefully maneuvering their way to the top” (loc. 2977). Focusing on the presidential candidates of the last three decades, he finds that eight of the ten candidates went to elite, private universities. By comparison, of the fourteen nominees between 1948 and 1984, only three went to elite colleges. (In my view the two most influential presidents of the last half–century were Lyndon Johnson, who went to Southwest Texas State Teachers College and Ronald Reagan who graduated from Eureka College. So much for the elite schools producing our greatest leaders.)

Deresiewicz does finally, though, make some suggestions without really outlining any way in which these suggestions should be practically implemented. “The new dispensation must ensure—this is the essential thing—that privilege cannot be handed down” (loc. 3076). Then, after listing standard suggestion after standard suggestion—basing affirmative action on class, not on race; doing away with preferences for legacies and athletes; imposing a limit on how many extracurricular activities a student can list on their application—he slips back into recommending platitudes: “[Admissions offices] need to rethink their conception of merit” (loc. 3090); “We need a different kind of brain” (loc. 3105); “The changes must go deeper, though, than just reforming the admissions process at selective schools…. We need instead to overhaul the entire way we organize our higher education system” (loc. 3105). And that reorganization? Public institutions with money. What a novel idea.

No, Excellent Sheep is not the final answer to the woes of Higher Education. It is, however, an interesting, if flawed, approach to it that raises most of the questions that need to be raised, if we are going to stop the flood of leadership mediocrity, which has taken over the arts, politics, education, business and all the other major social institutions of our world. Anyone working with students, faculty, administrators or any other people associated with the universities and colleges of America will find here a useful summary and approach to the problems facing Higher Ed, and a stimulant toward the answers to those problems, which are so desperately needed, but remain so completely elusive.


The references above are to the Kindle edition of Excellent Sheep.



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