I permit myself one new book purchase a month outside of those I have to purchase for school. (Let’s not even talk about how many I purchase from the PTA Thrift store’s never-ending Book Sale.) And usually I know exactly what book it will be. In July it was this one; in August, this one. But this month I walked into Bull’s Head open to anything, and I gravitated within five minutes to William Deresiewicz’s new book with a hell of title (which of course makes excellent use of a colon). It is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life. What a title! I had read Deresiewicz’s recent and provocative essay on The New Republic and had enjoyed it in that it broadly extols the virtues of the public university while lambasting the Ivy League. I started the book knowing I would like it.
Surprise: I did not like the book. Last weekend I went to the beach with a friend I’ve known for eleven years (and rather symmetrically, since I was eleven). My friend and I met when our parents chose to enroll us in the highly academically gifted program in our county (the only one in state, which should serve as one example of its absurdity) and we followed up that hilarity as members of the same Honors and AP classes throughout high school. We’ve studied together for years, and she has done exceptionally well academically. In May, she graduated from UNC Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in economics and journalism. After spending the summer in an excellent internship, she began the search for a full-time job. With such practical majors and relevant work experience she was a shoe-in almost everywhere she applied. The problem was that she didn’t necessarily want a journalism job and she didn’t want a finance job. While we got sunburnt and ate barbecue chips, we talked about how her majors had only interested her occasionally, and although she applied to almost every relevant job posting she saw, she wasn’t excited by the job descriptions. But she needed a job. Since last weekend she has received a job offer at an ad agency which she has taken, and I am quite proud of her.
Back to the book. I took it for a long walk this Saturday and came home feeling excavated. I finished reading the first half (Part 1. Sheep and Part 2. Self) feeling as though I’d finally seen my friend (and myself, along with so many others) in perspective for the first time. It was a constant mantra of my young adulthood that I needed to work hard in middle school to work hard in high school, which leads to a better university, a better job, and a better life. So it was important not to screw up this geometry test. And for years too long I believed this, as did many of my peers. It’s what’s at the heart of Excellent Sheep, and why the book derailed me. I don’t mean to suggest I was not aware that this pipeline to emptiness exists, rather that I’d never heard other students explain their own experiences. For example, this was also pretty much true for me until I reached college:
“Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one—all this was off the table.”
When a book attacks the system that you’ve been living in, you tend not to like it, but I also cannot stop thinking about it. Particularly, I can’t stop thinking about this:
“High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”
One of ways Deresiewicz would have us fix the problem of these rectangular-pupiled eighteen-year-olds moving steadily towards the green grass of the Ivies (followed by Wall Street and eventual breakdown) would be to have these sheep turn into goats and go to public schools and second-tier (but not second rate, he assures us!) liberal arts colleges. But I’m not convinced that the solution lies in that switch. UNC (which, I know, I know, one could argue is a public Ivy, or at the least, one of the “elite” universities with an acceptance rate below 30%), also creates the elitist environment that is so toxic. Further, the belief that public universities are places where true and authentic diversity propagates, low-income students are finally able to rise to new heights, and the professors are the best teachers out there (because as Deresiewicz tells us, the celebrity research professors, who are bad at teaching, get snatched up by more prestigious institutions with enormous endowments) is erroneous. Public universities are not the solution to Deresiewicz’s Ivy problem. And even though he calls for “a genuinely fair society” where we’ll have “free first-rate public higher education,” that world feels inconceivable from where I’m standing (the library of a public university). Of course that’s what I want too, but is the solution to the brainwashing that happens along the Ivy track to send your kids to a dumb-downed state school, where the student will be the big fish in a big pond?
But there’s so much else to agree with: Affirmative action should be based on class. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discontinued. SAT scores should be weighted on a scale that accounts for socioeconomic status. Admissions councils should impose a limit on the number of extra-curriculars an applicant can list. More value should be placed on the kinds of jobs that lower-income students often take in high school. There needs to be a reevaluation of merit, one not based solely on SAT and GPA. And both colleges and students need to forget the U.S. News Rankings (whose 2015 list was released today, but I will not link to).
I didn’t like this book, because it terrified me. Past college now and in a humanities graduate program, I spend a lot of time thinking about The Crisis In Higher Education. I’d forgotten how much that crisis is informed by the sheep that wander blindly through four years of college, never learning why they went, just that they had to, coming out on the other side certainly without critical skills, but also without a sense of history and gratitude that every graduate should have.Both quotes are from William Deresiewicz’s article in The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid To the Ivy League,” which is comprised of sections from Excellent Sheep.