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

  • William Deresiewicz
  • Free Press
  • 256 pp.

The history of educational policy development in the United States reflects a time-honored tradition of lurching ineffectively from one trend to another, most recently from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core.

Such recent perspectives like The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, “The Questions We Share” by David Bornstein, or “Plato and the Promise of College” by Frank Bruni discuss the architecture and aims of education while understanding the huge challenges the system faces. These include the fact that the number of ill-prepared high school graduates has soared; local control and funding come into conflict with national aspirations; international assessments compare our students unfavorably; and fragmented teacher preparation undercuts educational consensus, quality, and rigor.

But what the system does not ask is what the outcomes of the process should be at every level. What does a life well lived look like? What is rigor? What is creative disequilibrium in the life of the mind? What is the role of character, of habits of the mind in education at all levels? Based on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership,” William Deresiewicz tries to address these issues in his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

Born of Jewish immigrants, he taught English at Yale and was an instructor at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. He argues that “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 are doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”

In fact, Deresiewicz admits his student experience was no different from those that he now criticizes. Like so many others, he reports he went through college without self-examination or thought about its purposes. He traveled a well-worn path without asking what it meant “to actually get an education, and why you might want one — how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world — all of this was off the table.”

In analyzing the problem as he sees it, Deresiewicz characterizes young people as having “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” Students have a “passion only for success.”

Deresiewicz faults schools that train young people to “be a student, not to use their minds.”He decries “high achievement addiction,” the emphasis on “credentialism,” and a rampant consumer-service mentality that results in students graduating “without a sense of inner purpose.”

Part of this shortfall stems from, in Deresiewicz’s view, the current obsession with professional training/specialization. “Instead of humanities, students are getting amenities” and job training, not a life of learning.

Deresiewicz then advocates for more spiritual and intellectual purposes to education, those that require rigorous examination of self and one’s place in the larger community, about a journey of lifelong learning, and about finding a calling to meaningful work.

To accomplish those goals, the author elaborates on the benefits and centrality of a liberal arts education that fosters reflection “for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.” He asserts colleges must make teaching the core of their labor.

Finally, Deresiewicz maintains that because of societal stratification, the caste/class system is endemic to the perpetuation of elite colleges and the concretizing of entitlement and superiority. He espouses several solutions, including a kind of affirmative action in admissions “based on class instead of race”; changing the credentialing requirements for applicants; developing a different definition of merit; eliminating “hereditary” inequality in K-12; and reforming school funding throughout the country.

Deresiewicz has written an enormously provocative book, revolutionary rather than incremental in its direction. As such, it prompts serious thought about the aims of education. And while he is explicit about the essential failures of elite colleges, he implies the entire kindergarten through college system needs radical change.

But for such an ambitious argument, the book falls a little short. In his discussion, Deresiewicz primarily uses an anecdotal approach. While that provides a sense of narrative rather than sheer data, he has not cited sources for the statistics and perspectives he does include. In addition, the author uses the first person often, perhaps in the hopes that, as a reliable narrator, he can give advice to the reader.

Unfortunately, Deresiewicz can appear cynical, referring to the presence of so-called losers as “a constant salve” to the elite, or mocking, calling Michael Dukakis “a high-IQ moron if there ever was one.” I am, finally, left with a picture of Deresiewicz in the faculty lounge venting to colleagues and a couple of their college-bound offspring, a picture that, at several levels, undercuts an otherwise powerful thesis.

Still, Deresiewicz shines when he discusses his own teaching. His use of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness models the very “meaning making” he espouses in education and in the essential role of the humanities/liberal arts to encourage a purposeful life well lived.

Russell MacMullan is a former English teacher and head of several independent schools. He has written extensively to school communities on educational issues. He also writes poetry and short stories.

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