American higher education has been lambasted in recent years for all kinds of problems and abuses.
In “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, broadens and deepens the critique, while attempting to defend the humanities as the intellectual and moral core of higher education.
His principal target is the people and institutions implicated in the “miseducation of the American elite.” But to whom is he referring? Deresiewicz sometimes suggests he is talking about what he calls the “HYPsters” (Harvard, Yale and Princeton); sometimes, the Ivies as a whole; and at still other times the “Golden Dozen” (the Ivies plus Stanford, Duke, Williams and Amherst). And he sometimes extends his gaze to incorporate many of 100 “highly selective” schools (which would include UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State) and those who strive to gain admission into them.
The miseducation of elites begins well before college, in Deresiewicz’s view. As children, they were brought up in pressure-cooker atmospheres by affluent and well-meaning, but suffocating, helicopter parents, who forced them down the one road to “success” – admission into a top school, graduation with a professional degree, and, then, either a high-tone job on Wall Street or further education at a prestigious law or med school. Sounds pretty good, right? Not to Deresiewicz, who sees this road as overly narrow, and this class-based definition of success as intellectually stultifying, morally corrosive, and ultimately, as shallow as it is hollow.
Early on, he argues, such children are trained to please adults and forced to jump through artificial high-school hoops in pursuit, like female gymnasts, of an “anorexic perfectionism” marked by stratospheric grade point averages, off-the-chart SATs, eight to 10 Advanced Placement classes, leadership roles in a dozen activities, including “condescending” service activities (preferably an “internship” in a less-developed country), and, ideally, the establishment of at least one NGO.
Traveling this thorny path comes at considerable psychic cost, and those that complete it successfully, the author claims, are often depressed, dispirited and cynical by the time they become HYPsters or, for that matter, Blue Devils, Tar Heels or members of the Wolfpack. And college just means more scheming and hustling by these highly networked “resume jockeys,” who are as uninterested in learning as their distracted professors are in teaching. Do they get superior grades? Certainly, but largely because of grade inflation and “mutual nonaggression pact(s)” at highly selective schools, whereby students “do as little as possible” for their grades and their professors “spend as little time on their classes as they can.”
What, then, to do?
The long answer, Deresiewicz believes, would entail creation of a different society marked by greater equality, less competitive child-rearing practices, and broader definitions of success. The short answer would start with a commitment to the humanities by both students and institutions of higher learning, for such a commitment would enable both – and eventually, perhaps American society as a whole – to learn how to think clearly and critically and to re-establish the moral compass that has long been lost.
“Excellent Sheep” lacks nuance and is overstated, and some will dismiss it as sour grapes by Deresiewicz, who was denied tenure by Yale in 2008. That would be a mistake, for the author correctly identifies types and tendencies, and his argument contains more than an element of truth. Anyone interested in higher education would benefit from reading this hard-hitting and passionate book.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.