Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @CarlosLozadaWP
Congratulations! You suck.
That is William Deresiewicz’s message for all the gifted and talented young things starting at Ivy League schools this fall. And not just for them, but also for their status-mongering parents, who sacrifice their kids’ childhoods in exchange for the right sticker on the car window; for their enabling high school teachers, who encourage the résumé-stuffing required for admission to elite universities; for their future professors, so hyper-specialized that they never push students to grapple with big questions; and for their inevitable employers, the investment banks and consulting firms that fill young graduates’ wallets and empty their minds.
Yes, just about everyone involved in elite higher education in America must feel the wrath of Deresiewicz, whose combined quarter-century as a student at Columbia and an English professor at Yale led him to a bleak conclusion: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
The truth-telling apostate is a set piece in America’s political and intellectual theater. Think of the political partisan who bravely declares that his side has lost its way. Or the courageous whistleblower decrying her institution’s misdeeds. Or, as with “Excellent Sheep,” the Ivy League insider who dares tell all about the rot in America’s top universities.
And what a dark, angry telling it is. Deresiewicz assumes the worst of everyone. Any fortunate young people engaging in service to their communities are simply acting out their deep-seated noblesse oblige. The president of the theater club is an “oligarch in training.” Students “commodify” their experiences to impress an admissions committee or hiring meeting. Achievement is no longer achievement, it is “credentialism” — the box-checking path to the conventional success Deresiewicz so despises.
For past generations, winning admission to elite colleges was less about padding an application than about wielding the right connections and “character” — the WASP-y look and habits befitting a Harvard man. That began changing in the 1960s, Deresiewicz writes, thanks in part to reforms by Yale President Kingman Brewster, who removed quotas against Jewish applicants, instituted need-blind admissions and stopped automatically accepting students from elite East Coast prep schools. That decade became the pivot, the author explains, “from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy,” when admissions criteria moved from caste to grades.
But Deresiewicz believes that’s not necessarily an improvement. “The genteel bigotry of the old boy’s network gave way to an egalitarian war of all against all,” he writes. That transformation, he explains, is behind today’s SAT prep classes, application-essay advisers, heavy Advanced Placement course loads, private tutors, summer “enrichment” activities — the trappings of the admissions game that are increasingly available only to the upper classes. “Wealthy families, by pouring resources into their kids’ educational development, start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment that they are born.” (And don’t take solace in the racial and gender diversity of incoming classes, which has become little more than “a cover for economic resegregation.”)
This consumerist vision of education is affirmed on campus, where kids are funneled into predictable majors (econ, usually) and predictable careers (law, medicine, finance, consulting). “Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think,” Deresiewicz writes, but that just means training them “in the analytical and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions.” College kids are treated less as scholars than as clients, with schools highlighting what they can offer new students — great athletic facilities, luxurious dorms, travel opportunities — rather than what they will demand of them. “Instead of humanities, students are getting amenities,” Deresiewicz laments.
It is a harsh vision, and one that I suspect may only aggravate the overparenting and competitive instincts that so bother Deresiewicz. (More chess camps and fencing lessons for Junior!)
Always expanding their donor alumni bases, the HYPSter schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford) have little incentive to produce many “seekers and thinkers” — defined by the author as poets, teachers, public-interest lawyers, nonprofit workers and professors. Instead, they churn out a new breed of graduate: the “out-of-touch, entitled little sh--.” Students pick up their default A-minuses, a grade Deresiewicz deried as “the emblem of entitled mediocrity,” and in their rush to land jobs with Goldman or ace their LSATs they miss the opportunity that colleges, especially the best ones, should offer: “To stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.” And from that distance, “to start to answer for yourself that venerable pair of questions: what is the good life and how should I live it?”
Deresiewicz knows that students don’t ask themselves big questions in college anymore because the book is packed with thoughtful and reflective letters, comments and papers from students at Yale, Stanford and elsewhere telling him so. Also, because cultural critics — Deresiewicz loves quoting cultural critics — such as David Brooks and Lewis Lapham have lamented the “death of the late-night bull session, the scarcity of spontaneous intellectual discussion” on campuses. (I may be alone here, but my personal vision of hell is an unending late-night bull session with David Brooks and Lewis Lapham.)
Despite its populist pretensions, “Excellent Sheep” betrays a profoundly elitist worldview. Deresiewicz is dismissive of business and professional work; becoming a law partner, running a hospital department, ascending to senator or even to college president — that’s all just “climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to.” (Because, of course, there’s no careerism or status envy among artists or professors.) He too-loudly laments his own “high-achieving mentality” as a young man. He exoticizes state schools and their students, encouraging the Ivy Leaguers to reach out and glean their homespun wisdom. He refers to “a friend who went to Cleveland State” as one might speak of a friend from Mars.
Deresiewicz’s book is a how-to guide to anti-elitism, except it caters to elites themselves. Consider his key advice: Rather than attend the Ivy League, the excellent sheep should flock to liberal-arts colleges, where they’ll read Great Books, think deep thoughts, find true mentors. “The best option of all may be the second-tier — not second-rate — liberal arts colleges, places like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and quite a few others,” he recommends, “schools that . . . have retained their allegiance to real educational values.”
Somehow, attending Wesleyan rather than Cornell doesn’t quite feel like sticking it to the man. The conceit falls apart further when Deresiewicz pines for the old days of the Ivy League, when schools sought to instill “aristocratic values” of duty, honor, courage, toughness and graciousness in the “fortunate sons of the upper class.” And when he suggests that a liberal-arts education is a smart move because, according to the Harvard Business Review, it is highly valued in the business world — yes, the same business world he spends so much time excoriating. And more so still when he encourages students to take time off before, during and after college — a luxury that becomes much harder to indulge without financially supportive parents.
More than 100 pages into the book, Deresiewicz finally goes there: “To everything I’ve been saying . . . there attaches, of course, a very large qualification. You are not free to ignore reality, and the heaviest reality is money.” He acknowledges that financial considerations “put an entirely different kind of pressure on your choices” and that “if you’re lucky enough to graduate without a lot of debt . . . you’ll have a lot more room to maneuver.” He notes, admiration mingling with condescension, that “if you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less” and that “is itself a kind of freedom.” Ah, the noble freedom of relative deprivation.
But there’s no need to dwell too long on the relatively deprived, when the privilege-checking youth of America’s upper classes need so much attention. “It’s not your fault you grew up affluent and sheltered,” Deresiewicz consoles them. “But now you have to take responsibility for it.” A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, especially if it belongs to a sophomore at Yale.
Deresiewicz offers some policy recommendations: affirmative action should be based on class, not race; funding for K-12 education should be equalized nationwide; and universities should launch prestigious teaching tracks for professors. But “Excellent Sheep” is not a wonky book. Rather it is, as Deresiewicz writes in its opening sentence, “a letter to my twenty-year-old self.” He touches upon a troubled relationship with his demanding father (“both an immigrant and an Ivy League professor, a double whammy”) and his own “roller coaster of grandiosity and depression” as a student, clearly identifying with the elite kids he’s so eager to help.
So, does that make William Deresiewicz an entitled little sh--? At most, I will say he has written an entitled little book, more passion than persuasion. Yet, because the author is a respected member of the very club he condemns, “Excellent Sheep” will receive the attention appropriate to the book’s class and station. A lengthy cover excerpt in the Ivy-draped New Republic. Author appearances at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, among a few lesser institutions (you know, state schools). Interviews and write-ups in suitably erudite outlets.
And yes, a review in The Washington Post. So let me take “Excellent Sheep” to its logical conclusion and assign it the grade Deresiewicz should expect.
The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
By William Deresiewicz
Free Press. 245 pp. $26