It’s easy to despair about the state of higher education. William Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, has spent a good chunk of his adult life in the Ivy League, both as a student and as a teacher, and he has a few bones to pick — with his “careerist” and “sheep”-like students, those “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s],” a “race of bionic hamsters” who “color in the lines,” but also their helicopter parents, the elite college admissions process (“squatting like a dragon at the entrance of adulthood”), over-specialized professors, Goldman Sachs, lawyers, economics majors, ineffective career services offices, Teach for America, the Ivy League (with special digs against the “notoriously anti-intellectual” Princeton and Dartmouth), the U.S. News rankings, admissions consultants (“ghost-writers”), degree-collecting James Franco, Tiger Mom Amy Chua, and even the well-meaning soul who wants to improve access to drinking water through clean technology… because he must just be checking some box to get ahead. Whew.
That Deresiewicz wants to burn the whole house down doesn’t make him wrong about some of the underlying problems. He is only the latest in a long line of critics of elite American education, and like many before him, he yearns for a golden age of education that I’m not convinced has ever existed among name-brand schools: a world where people seek only a life of the mind and self-exploration, where they are motivated primarily by a sense of justice and revolution, and where they pursue their education without any concern for grades or employment or the conventional (if sometimes hollow) markers of success.
IVIES DON’T ALWAYS SNAP UP THE ‘PASSIONATE WEIRDOS’
Like any manifesto worth its salt, his proposals to fix the system are well meaning and mostly quixotic. His advice to young people is to find the moral courage to opt out of the competition to attend an elite college, to break up with their BFF parents, and maybe even to transfer to state school. Indeed, there are numerous references to morality in this book, as if it were immoral to want to attend Harvard or Yale. Of course plenty of students already opt out of the race to the Ivies. The fact that many of them wouldn’t get into Harvard or Yale is not an indictment of those students, but it shouldn’t be an indictment of the Ivies, either.
He is right that the Ivies don’t always snap up the “passionate weirdos,” the brilliant autodidacts who “approach the work of the mind with a pilgrim spirit.” And if those students do end up at the Ivies (which is really just a shorthand for the big and famous American research universities that everyone has heard of), it’s true that the real visionaries and outliers like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elizabeth Holmes don’t always stick around to graduate. Of course some of the passionate weirdos happily graduate from those brand-name schools and go off and do interesting things. I’ve encountered enough of them to know that they are not unicorns.