- Simon and Schuster
Reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz‘s polemic against Americans’ obsession with getting into and educated by prestigious universities was a disconcerting experience. Deresiewicz is an engaging writer. I enjoyed his previous book, A Jane Austen Education, and I would probably have enjoyed being in his class at Yale, where he taught for a decade (provided I could get in, which I could not, even in the prime of my overachieving youth). I agreed wholeheartedly with “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” the 2008 American Scholar essay that was the seed of this book. Yes, yes, we, as a culture, confuse prestige—which, as Cheryl Strayed pointed out in an excellent “Dear Sugar” column, is derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means “conjuror’s tricks”—with true intelligence and capability.
So why, why, why did reading this book feel like sitting in an unair-conditioned gym on a hot day listening to a particularly turgid commencement speech?
Here is the Cliff’s Notes version of Deresiewicz’s argument:
High school students (well, the smart and wealthy ones anyway) drive themselves to the brink of madness trying to make themselves paragons of perfection in order to get accepted. The lucky ones who do get in drive themselves to the brink of further madness trying to keep up with one another and don’t spend nearly enough time loafing or bullshitting with one another or reading for fun or to satisfy their intellectual curiosity or other aspects of soul-building. Too few study liberal arts, which is too bad because the liberal arts are useful, though their uses may not be immediately obvious. Too many of them lack imagination when it comes time to choose a career and settle for finance, management consulting, and law school. Their professors are too busy with their own research to waste time on teaching or mentoring. We’re too guilty of trusting the intelligence of our leaders just because they have degrees from fancy schools. The Ivy League is ruining America! It is killing our souls! THE WORST THING YOU COULD EVER DO IS GO TO YALE!
Deresiewicz came to this epiphany after obtaining a couple of degrees at Columbia, including a PhD in English, which got him his job at Yale. And, after all that education, he still could not have a conversation with his plumber. This filled him with despair. (But was it a gap in education that prevented him and the plumber from having a satisfying and meaningful conversation? Could it have been a mutual ineptitude with small talk? Don’t consider any specific cases. It’s not germane to the argument here.)
Deresiewicz’s initial essay was successful because it was filled with generalities that flattered its audience, who could say, “Well, even if I went to an elite college, at least I managed to transcend dirty grade-grubbing and remain an engaged, intellectually curious person who is not repelled by a publication called the American Scholar.” Or, at least, I’m sure I’m not the only reader who said that, even as I felt pangs of regret for how unfun my high school years were because I devoted most of my energy then to getting into college.
Expanded into book form, though, the generalities become tiresome. Deresiewicz has done some reading about the history and philosophy of the Ivy League and has traveled to elite colleges around the country canvassing the population about its collective unhappiness. Then he cherry-picks quotes that back up his points. The sentiments are all the same. To thine own self be true! Conformity is dangerous!
There is not one dissenting voice here, not one student who says, “I majored in econ because I enjoy it.” (Since Deresiewicz relies so heavily on anecdote, I will, too: I have, in fact, known people like this, who were as excited about economic theory as I was about the novels I was reading as an English major.) And there is not one person who doesn’t mind conforming to society’s expectations, except for a literary example: Celia, the conventional sister of Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch, who marries the country squire Dorothea rejected, has a baby she adores, goes on to lead a thoroughly uneventful life that would make a really boring novel, and is the happiest character in the entire book. Deresiewicz dismisses her as a “little cupcake” and a “little wifey.”
A Jane Austen Education covered similar territory, but was far less annoying because it was rooted in specificity: Deresiewicz’s own personal journey, with the help of solid readings of Austen’s novels, to a happier, more fulfilled existence. It was full of questioning and searching, which is necessary to keep a 200-page book interesting.
Excellent Sheep, by contrast, hammers the same point home over and over. If my liberal arts education—and my Facebook feed—taught me anything at all, it’s that the world is filled with all kinds of people, most of whom are not like me, don’t even agree with me about what makes up a good life, and yet have somehow stumbled into lives that don’t make them want to kill themselves and that they even find meaningful. (Yes, I am aware, that is part of middle-class and upper-middle-class privilege and many people don’t even have choices at all. But are there people who were assigned their lives and are still happy or at least content?) It’s also taught me that writers and philosophers have been railing against conformity for at least 2,500 years. But history and literature favor the malcontents, because their struggles are easier to identify and dramatize than the stories of people who conform perfectly to the societies where they grew up. What kind of book could Deresiewicz write about a top student who was also a terrific athlete with musical talent who excelled at Yale and then went on to a happy life as a management consultant?
It would have ruined his overall point. Still, that’s a story I might have been interested in reading.