Reading “Excellent Sheep”

On Friday the conversation at the Adaptability Project seminar briefly turned to a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. It sounded like something I needed to read, so I downloaded it to my iPad and have spent the last two days devouring it.

The book is a deadly accurate takedown of the ridiculousness of elite education in the United States, which, as you probably already know, flows backwards from U.S. News and World Reports “Best Colleges” to the admissions offices of the elite colleges and universities, to the test-prep industry, and finally to high schools. Deresiewicz’s particular contribution is to focus on what this system is doing to the intellectual development (and psycho-emotional development) of the students at the top of the heap, the students who are at the elite institutions, earning straight A’s. Deresiewicz provides ample first-hard evidence, and heaps of anecdotal evidence, that those students are unhappy, not intellectually engaged, and missing the only opportunity they’ll get to develop a life of the mind.

Deresiewicz is a sympathetic guide for me, since we both attended Columbia (albeit eleven years apart) and both have taught English (him at Yale, me at a couple of prep schools). He doesn’t need to work hard to convince me that all students need to study the humanities. It is interesting that he goes out on a limb and seriously counsels students today to avoid the Ivies, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst, and suggests that their best chance to receive a serious education in college probably lies at the second-tier liberal arts colleges. (He mentions Kenyon, Wesleyan, and Mount Holyoke as examples. Good schools, if you ask me.) Exactly who his intended audience is seems to keep shifting; sometimes I feel like the book is being written for other educators, sometimes it wants to address students, sometimes it reads like a warning to parents raising teenagers. That’s okay; I’d recommend that everyone connected to a preparatory school read it.

Ultimately, the book affirms the choices that I’ve made for myself. I didn’t chase after grades in college, didn’t throw myself at competitive internships, and didn’t take a job in consulting or on Wall St. just because everyone else was doing it. I dropped off that path, as Deresiewicz recommends, and ended up as a humble school teacher. Deresiewicz is right: you aren’t a “loser” if you aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company by the time you reach middle age. Framing adult outcomes for our teenagers as a binary with only “winner” or “loser” as the possibilities is no doubt contributing to the increased diagnoses of anxiety and depression that we are seeing among high school and college students. (Once you get over the homesickness, if you experience any, college ought to be the best cure for depression available!)

I’ve been reflecting on the issues that Excellent Sheep presents all year during the run-up to the Adaptability Project’s summer seminar. I keep coming back to the insidious wickedness of the college rankings racket and the negative distortion beam that they cast on America’s phenomenal higher education industry. Solving this problem is beyond my limited influence, but I must continue to think about ways in which I can use my career to lessen the impact of the collateral damage.

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