Like the high achieving students who are its centerpiece, Excellent Sheep* is nothing if not ambitious. In the book’s opening chapters, William Deresiewicz, a writer and former English professor at Yale, derides virtually every aspect of the country’s most prestigious colleges. In the next hundred pages, the author serves up his own ideal vision of a liberal education. And in a closing section ominously entitled “Society,” he critiques our nation as a whole.
Deresiewicz’s deplores the endless admissions hoops Ivy League students jump through, the subjects they choose to study, the activities that fill their time, and the jobs they pursue upon graduation. These students, claims the author, are status-seeking, prestige-obsessed, unimaginative, incurious, passionless, cautious, conformist automata. Although hard-working and energetic, they have little interest in questioning cherished assumptions, acquiring real knowledge, and embracing high ideals. They seek neither personal inspiration nor social improvement but a safe berth. Above all, the Ivy League fails at the central mission of liberal higher education, which the author claims is “soul craft”—the search for the authentic self, the discerning of true passions, and the discovery of a worthy, meaningful life. According to Deresiewicz, our universities exist to serve this grand quest, but in shaping generations of “excellent sheep,” they have decisively let us down.
Like Saul Steinberg’s famous map of the nation drawn from the Manhattan resident’s view, this bold indictment of higher education looks out from the rarified precincts that constitute the author’s world and inform his perspective. At once grandiose and narrow, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is strewn with unexamined assumptions, parochial preoccupations, half-baked observations, and unsupported claims. While Deresiewicz enshrines “soul craft” as higher education’s goal, the experience of reading his book points toward a humbler but no less exacting objective: to learn how to recognize humbug. Intended to offer a theory of what a sound liberal education is supposed to achieve, this book serves as an example of what it should inoculate us against.
How does Deresiewicz arrive at his unrelentingly gloomy portrait of Ivy League life? He relies mainly on his own haphazard impressions, quips from teachers and administrators, and disgruntled banter from random students. He also trots out a few grasped straws of objective evidence, including Ivy students’ tendency to reject majors in the humanities and their surging preference for work in consulting and finance. As a basis for the author’s indictment, none of this would pass muster in a third-rate social-science department. Deresiewicz touts the importance of intellectual integrity and a probing mind, but he himself displays neither one.
That he exhibits many of the shortcomings he deplores should not surprise us. His ideal of a liberal education is based on what David Brooks calls “expressive individualism.” According to this paradigm, higher education must be judged by how well it serves the personal bildungsroman. Knowledge and critical thinking are not ends in themselves, but rather facilitators of navel gazing. Aided by the faddish offerings in the typical course catalog, students should pursue their passions and draw their own conclusions, untrammeled by received wisdom. Authority and tradition are the enemies of self-discovery, impeding the journey to the true and authentic self.
The author’s exposition of his soul-craft ideal abounds with muzzy platitudes and flowery banalities, emblematic of the jargon beloved of college educrats everywhere. Although the author never spells out where the quest for self-knowledge should lead, it is not hard to discern where it should not. A 1960s ethos, proudly bohemian and relentlessly progressive, suffuses the book. It is a safe bet that Deresiewicz’s version of the good life does not include standing athwart history yelling “stop,” working to defend age-old wisdom, or supporting the existing order.
In large measure, Deresiewicz’s gauge of worthiness rests on whether someone would make an amusing dinner-party companion. He makes no secret of his preference for the cool, creative, and countercultural. His heroes are refuseniks, crusaders, and grand reformers. For Deresiewicz, the well-worn path is never worth taking and the pursuit of money, status, power, or security is proof of shallowness and inauthenticity. The mainstream professions and businesses are suspect not only for being lucrative but also for being dull. Finance and consulting—the go-to choices of a large number of Ivy Leaguers—come in for special contempt because, well, everyone’s doing it. (Deresiewicz shows not the slightest interest in what people in these fields actually do.)
The author’s hostility toward the establishment comes through in many throwaway observations. He praises the small liberal-arts college Lawrence University for sending only a handful of its graduating students to law school. It’s not that becoming a lawyer is bad, exactly, but that it just doesn’t qualify as a legitimate “goal.” In what might be the book’s most obtuse passage, he disparages Asian and Latino students’ pursuit of financial or medical careers as “just another way of keeping those communities down.” One can only surmise that group advancement and upward mobility are, by definition, antithetical to personal self-realization. Teach for America gets slapped down as an elite résumé-builder that condescends to the lower orders. And Deresiewicz warns students that parents are the enemies of soul craft. Their priorities are oppressive, and their advice poison. He claims that top Ivy colleges are filled with too many rich students because the SAT “measures parental income,” not aptitude. Correlation, however, is not causation, and this well-worn knock on the SAT is simply false.
Occasional good sense does turn up. Deresiewicz recommends working in local governments, as opposed to heading straight to Washington or to trendy nonprofits. He urges Ivy graduates to forsake the coasts for heartland cities such as Dayton, Ohio. But, for the most part, the future can wait and prolonged adolescence is de rigueur. Go out and implode the present order, and don’t worry about how to pay for it. As for marriage, if the word appeared once in this book, I missed it. Soul craft apparently does not include finding a soul mate. Traditional family life would only interfere with the open-ended journey of self-discovery.
The book’s final chapters border on the ridiculous. According to Deresiewicz, the country is infused with corruption and greed, and the Ivies are to blame. Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, he maintains, are driving American economic inequality. That rich, mediocre students have better odds of attending elite schools than their qualified low-income peers is central to his understanding of our national dysfunction. But Deresiewicz never mentions that the absolute number of such highly qualified, underplaced students is actually small, suggesting that other initiatives like rebuilding the family or expanding vocational options would do more good than jiggering college admissions.
Excellent Sheep has hit a nerve. In July, Deresiewicz’s New Republic essay (drawn from the book) warning parents and students away from the Ivy League garnered a record number of online readers. His speaking tour of elite colleges drew legions of worried students. Why so much attention to this jeremiad? First, the Ivy League is a source of obsession and an easy target. These institutions are supposed to educate a leadership class, but that class seems to be failing us. Our economy is in the doldrums, our foreign policy adrift, and our lives increasingly polarized by class and race. The consensus on the worthy life has fractured, and the verities of family, faith, and self-reliance, once taken for granted, have been under lengthy attack. The best and brightest can no longer look to a cohesive set of precepts for their own conduct, let alone for leading society. The growing economic volatility of American life—an important but risky source of our dynamism—means that the country’s winners are riding a bucking bronco, unsure whether they will continue to enjoy their success, let alone whether they can secure success for others.
It is therefore not surprising that our most accomplished graduates are anxious and uncertain. This uncertainty highlights Deresiewicz’s greatest sin, that of omission. The most damaging corruption of higher education today is not mentioned in his book: the smothering weight of extreme, left-leaning political correctness that bears down on nearly every campus. Especially in the humanities, but increasingly in the sciences and social sciences, an obsession with race, class, gender, sexuality, identity, and multiculturalism holds sway, crowding out other priorities and stifling alternative opinions. Anyone who doubts this should try pointing to inconvenient facts during a lecture or challenging academia’s cherished items of faith. Although tenured professors might dare, undergraduates risk ostracism or official sanction. The message is clear: Build your soul, but watch your mouth and steer clear of sacred cows.
Students are exposed only to a narrow range of positions on important public issues. Too many leave with utopian beliefs that ill equip them for reality. In the grip of a catechism dictating that discrimination is the root of all evil, bad behavior is society’s fault, bureaucracy is your friend, government spending solves problems, and social engineering works, our leading graduates cannot help but experience moral vertigo once they leave the Ivy bubble. And the prevailing creed of non-judgmentalism—except toward the ultimate sin of discrimination—doesn’t help. Ivy graduates are hard-pressed to acknowledge, let alone address, the personal and policy choices that actually stymie efforts to elevate the less privileged. The resulting frustration yields a hypocritical inward turn. Elites wall themselves off in ritzy zip codes while continuing to mouth progressive pieties about social justice and change.
As for alternatives to the Ivies, Deresiewicz’s praise for small liberal-arts colleges is based on trifling distinctions that don’t withstand analysis. Apart from offering no relief from political correctness, these schools mostly draw students from the same narrow, well-heeled socioeconomic sector that dominates the Ivy League. Although students might choose a school such as Oberlin or Kenyon out of a desire for greater individual attention or better teaching (despite no reliable evidence they will get it), plenty land at these schools because they didn’t get into Harvard or Yale. Small colleges may attract more contemplative brooders, as opposed to the hyper-energetic, ultra-high-IQ résumé-stuffers found in the Ivies, but so what? Which students are more likely to achieve greatness or do what really matters? In light of the multiple demands of modern life, the overloaded denizens of Princeton and Yale might have the edge.
Deresiewicz’s relative enthusiasm for big state universities is similarly unfounded. While less insular and more diverse than the Ivies, these schools teem with students whose intellectual indifference perfectly matches the unbearable lightness of the academic programs they’re offered. As Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton document in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, the bacchanalian, sports-obsessed, anti-intellectual atmosphere of large state schools is hardly conducive to soul craft.
Excellent Sheep has also attracted outsized interest because college admissions have evolved into a high-pressure, high-stakes rat race. As a mother who has thrice run this gauntlet, I can attest to the need for a thoughtful analysis of how we arrived at this fraught status quo. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t provide it.
Excellent Sheep could benefit from a broader perspective on the elite students it so roundly indicts. Deresiewicz disparages Ivy students for making all the wrong choices, but as Charles Murray documents in his masterful Coming Apart, their lives appear to be going mostly right, and not just because of their superior earning power. Graduates of four-year colleges, and especially elite schools, are far more likely to be married, employed, churched, and law-abiding than the rest of the population. Men with college degrees tend to live with their children, and educated parents are investing more time in family life even as they have highly demanding jobs. Deresiewicz’s excellent sheep are prospering greatly in their mostly straight-laced lives.