Your defense of ‘Excellent Sheep’ further proves my point

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

“A Gathering of Sheep” by Maggie Stewart (Carlos Lozada, second from right).

Hey, remember a few weeks ago, when I critiqued an excerpt of William Deresiewicz’’s “Excellent Sheep”that ran in The New Republic?  I noted the following:

Well, this [essay] is a damning indictment, and I was looking forward to seeing the evidence to back it up and… and… there really isn’t any in this essay.  Just his assertion.  Maybe his assertion is correct, but we have no way to know without further inquiry.  If you’re going to throw around grandiose claims like that, you need to back them up with some empirics. 

I see that I was not the only one to critique his essay.

Deresiewicz has responded to some of these critiques in TNR, and his opening part is a bit… odd:

The criticisms fall into several categories. The first asks, What’s your evidence for all these claims? Here is my evidence. I first sketched out these observations in an essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” in 2008. The piece went viral. Since then, it has been read over a million timesnot all at once, but steadily, at the rate, after the initial surge, of about 10,000 page views a month. In other words, people have been reading it and passing it along for the last six years, an eternity on the Internet. It’s clear that I tapped into an enormous hunger to discuss these issues.

Yeah, so, I’m beginning to get a sense of Deresiewicz’s evidentiary standards, and I’m a bit underwhelmed.  First of all, tapping “into an enormous hunger to discuss these issues” is not the same thing as being right about those issues.  Otherwise, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg have simultaneously identified exactly what women are thinking, and Rebecca Black is a musical prodigy.

To be fair, Deresiewicz goes further in his response than, “my argument went viral so it must be true!”  His next paragraph:

To judge from the hundreds of emails I’ve received in response to that piece, that hunger was greatest among young people, students and recent graduates of selective colleges, almost all of whom have told me some version of: Thank you for putting my feelings into words. Add to that the hundreds of students I’ve met at events (often student-initiated) at campuses across the country. I’ve also talked with parents, professors, administrators, older alumni, and employers. Nearly all have concurred with my observations. So have many of the people who have also written on these mattersHarry R. Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, and Terry Castle, a long-time professor at Stanford, to name just two.

I’d feel more comfortable with Deresiewicz’s assertion here if I also knew that he understood concepts like “confirmation bias” and “selection bias.”  He acknowledges that this sort of evidence is “not systematic, but very substantial,” but I’m not sure he understand why that’s the case.  This is actually tied to another of Deresiewicz’s laments, the tendency for undergraduates to major in economics rather than, say, English literature.  But one of the good things about social science majors is that they learn about the implications of confirmation bias and selections effects.

I argued a while back that the center of gravity for public intellectuals in the United States has shifted from the humanities to the social sciences: “economics has supplanted literary criticism as the ‘universal methodology’ of most public intellectuals.” As a public intellectual who comes from the humanities, I suspect that Deresiewicz is keenly aware of this trend and doesn’t like it very much. This might be a key source of his discontent for the state of America’s elite students.  It’s not that they’re not thinking — it’s that they’re thinking in ways that are alien to Deresiewicz.

Deresiewicz’s book arrives tomorrow with a buzz and an Amazon Sales rank that must be making his editors at Free Press do cartwheels.  But it’s not a coincidence that both Dwight Garner and Carlos Lozada, in reviewing “Excellent Sheep,” suggest that it is, as Lozada puts it, “more passion than persuasion.”

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Merlin Chowkwanyun · August 18, 2014

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