“Excellent Sheep” Delivers More Platitudes than Polemic



William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is built around a damning thesis: America’s elite universities (such as Yale, where the author taught) are failing to produce principled graduates, instead nurturing box-checkers who have many superficial accomplishments and technical skills but no passion or vision. This furthers inequality in the form of “hereditary meritocracy,” in which elite students appear to have earned opportunities that others never had a chance at, and pay lip service to diversity while growing more out of touch with the working class.

A book on such an important issue should be passionate, insightful, and intelligent. Unfortunately, Excellent Sheep fulfills only the first of those requirements. The book is full of statements that are initially striking but, upon second thought, are unconvincing or so vague as to be meaningless.

Deresiewicz often ascribes to contemporary elite culture what’s true of institutions of power in general. After noting the failures of the past few decades’ presidents, he writes that the leadership class “is trained to operate within the system, never to imagine that we might create a better one.” This is, he continues, because they lack the values that used to be instilled in leaders through a liberal arts education. But don’t leadership classes think within the lines, even if they have strong values?

Likewise, Deresiewicz writes of his former Ivy League students, “Most of them seemed to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas.” But haven’t most people for most of history, including elite American students of previous generations, been content to “color within the lines”? (Like most of the generalizations here, the statement above is tenuously supported by correspondence from someone who wrote to Deresiewicz agreeing with his essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” from which this book was developed.)

Those statements are shaky, but at least offer something to disagree with. Excellent Sheep is also full of self-help platitudes, especially in the section titled “Self,” in which Deresiewicz urges elite students to follow their callings and not simply jump through hoops.

As I provide examples of these platitudes, it may help to imagine Deresiewicz as the mentor figure in a mediocre young adult novel so as to alleviate their mind-numbing dullness. When the main character—an affluent adolescent like those addressed in Excellent Sheep—is wondering whether to take a road trip to clear his head, Deresiewicz tells him, “[t]o find yourself, you must first free yourself.” When the main character is in tears after a mediocre performance on his midterms, which he fears will hurt his chances at Harvard Law, Deresiewicz is there to comfort him: “[W]hat’s the purpose of being at the right point, if you’re on the wrong path? Take time off after college. Though now, of course, it’s just called life.” At the end, Deresiewicz drops off our protagonist, who is embarking on a backpacking tour of Europe, at the airport, and tells him “The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.” The young man waves goodbye and walks toward security, his backpack full of camping supplies and Kerouac.

Platitudes can be true, and some deserve to be repeated because we forget them too easily. A good young adult novel, for instance, packages them in compelling characters and plot without drowning them in irony. Yet polemic, like fiction, needs to use such corny-but-true statements sparingly on top of new insights. Deresiewicz fails to do so here.

(To his credit, the platitudes about following one’s own path and inventing oneself come with disclaimers about how hard, and often fruitless, doing so is. These disclaimers keep the platitudes from being selfish, but don’t make them any more interesting.)

Occasionally, Deresiewicz makes a good point. Addressing millennials’ distrust of institutions, he writes that as edgy as start-ups can be, systemic change is also necessary, because “what happens at the edges stays at the edges.” He also skewers the concept of “service” as demanded by the college application process, which is more about the appearance of charity among “middle-class messiahs” than actually doing good.

In the last, most constructive section of this book, Deresiewicz shifts his gaze to higher education as a whole, and lays out a plan for improvement—more seminar-style teaching, with smaller class sizes and dedicated teachers; more funding; more job security for teachers; and broad curriculums instead of hyper-specialization. Here, too, he generalizes: a breathless passage comparing “a good teacher” with an “academic” is especially simplistic.

At its best, Excellent Sheep says nothing new. At its worst, it substitutes moral outrage for the depth of thought that Deresiewicz rightly says should be fostered more widely.

–Published on 8/19 by Simon & Schuster


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