It’s Sheep We’re Up Against

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American
 Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz

Each of us has an Achilles’ heel, so I find no embarrassment in sharing mine: I’m a sucker for almost every form of biting the hand that feeds you. It’s comforting, somehow, to know that as operating modes go it’s an evergreen.

Admittedly, some corners of the world offer a safer refuge than others for hand-biting. As long as they move units, bands and songwriters can say almost anything they want about record companies and executives. Graham Parker did. Nick Lowe did. The Sex Pistols did.  Pink Floyd and Jay Z did. Even Pink  did!

Penning poison-pen pop songs for an audience primed to distrust everything adult and established, though, is a far cry from walking away from a teaching slot at an Ivy League university and offering up an indictment of those institutions in cold hard type. William Deresiewicz, a former faculty member at Columbia and Yale universities, did just that.

A most excellent sheep.

The present volume, published in 2014, puts between hard covers the charges Professor D laid out in The American Scholar in 2008. His original essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” may mark the first time an author linked elite status and disadvantage so nakedly in a title.

I might blame an editor for that. Just as I’m blaming an editor for this book. For me, at least, the original essay did a fine job. The expansion to book-length did little to strengthen the primary argument and the need to pay off the back-end of the subtitle arguably weakened it. That’s before we get to the ever-shifting audience. I count students, parents, professors, school administrators, politicians and policymakers as targets, in addition to the author at times speaking to himself.

The additions are understandable, at least from a commercial point of view. I can’t imagine the market for jeremiads is especially large. Aspiring elites and their parents, however, that’s a nice-sized group. Even a modest pick-up could move the needle.

Excellent Sheep cansheep are prestigious.
Courtesy Richmondshire Today

I don’t, for a minute, believe Deresiewicz even considered the commercial impact. Whatever criticisms I have of the book, I’m certain the author believes passionately that something’s gone wrong and the results aren’t good for anyone. It’s all right there in the alliterative structure of the book. Four sections composing three broad subject areas: sheep/self, schools and society.

It’s a quite simple argument, really, and it draws its foundations liberally from related Laschian works, which is my term for books suggesting that things just ain’t what they used or ought to be. Because Prof D is a scholar rooting arguments in sources is a requirement. What sets this book apart are the extended quotes from the sheep, er, students themselves that he uses to make his points.

Let me encapsulate the complaint. Our most precious educational institutions–and for these purposes that includes not just the HYPSter quartet and the other 4 vine-clad schools, but also the highly selective liberal arts colleges (think Amherst) and the most selective state universities (think Michigan)–have become the ultimate positional good.

Excellent sheep are a worldwide phenomenon.

Admission to a proper school is the golden ticket of upper-middle-class American life.  If you’re an alum or reside in certain Zip Codes, it’s almost a given that your children will attend such a school, too, and you’ll move heaven and earth to make that happen. I’d like to believe a friend who, after confiding the not unknown fact that she was an Eli proceeded to say the Ivies are “done,” but I’ve no doubt her own kids will be steered thataway.

There is a ton of validated research to support this. The “best” schools are less diverse, economically, than they were a half-century ago. The race to gain admission incurs years of costs: tuitions, taxes, training. The admitted students are completely goal-driven, certain their admission guarantees they will assume a rightful position atop out nation’s largest institutions. They are, in fact, a conservator class that believes the rest of the nation is lucky to have them.

Radical egalitarian that I fancy myself, such malarkey has always stuck in my craw. But I’m a blue-collar kid. The good professor suggests students should turn their back on academic Xanadu and consider experiences, such as waiting tables, that will enable them to understand others as equals. Amusingly, in the course of offering this advice, he calls Michael Dukakis a “high IQ moron” and fingers Barack Obama as just another technocrat.

Such things are typically not said out loud by club members. I consider its appearance progress of a sort, but only a sort. I’m with the professor on the dignity of man. I’m less certain about the institutions man builds, especially in today’s winner-take-all society. Somewhere between Buckley‘s 2000 names in the phone book and taxing Harvard into non-existence seems a desirable corrective.

Sheep can achieve amazing things.
Photo (c) Tait Schmall

Perhaps I’d think better of the service Deresiewicz has done if the editorial process hadn’t required proffering solutions. Or maybe I just find the offered solutions fanciful and fruitless. People will abandon the advantages of privilege as quickly as nations will beat swords into ploughshares. The American upper classes hardy throw forth many Thomas Mertons.

As I read, I found myself thinking about how the length available in a book had hardly improved on the original essay. It’s a publishing phenomenon I’ve encountered before, and it always depresses me. I also found myself smiling every time Deresiewicz promoted the study of humanities or suggested education ought to be much more than vocational.

No one is more sympathetic to that idea than I am. But that’s not the way education is viewed in this country, in any social stratum. I understand that the professor teaches English, and so looks to the literary arts for guidance, but those social sciences he seems to take a wary stance toward would help here. I recommend Randall Collins‘ masterpiece as a start.

“Sheep … can do more than just grow wool.”

In a book of social criticism filled with literary quotes, one anecdote caught my eye. ” ‘One friend of mine recalled taking the T into Boston,’ a Harvard student wrote me, ‘and, while looking at the other passengers, feeling that these people would never hope to be her intellectual equals…”

Professor Deresiewicz may not have recognized this or chose to admit he did, but I recognized it immediately. It’s a thinly veiled reworking of Carol Kennicott’s journey by train from Minneapolis to Gopher Prarie, and her observation of her fellow travelers, right down to this damning sentence from the original: “They do not read; apparently they do not think.”

Sinclair Lewis, no longer in favor, won the Nobel Prize in part for the satirical novel in which that journey appears.  One wonders if the Harvard undergrad saw an opportunity to tweak a Yale prof?

Maybe Lewis would know. After all, he was an Eli, too.


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