Last October, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a “wonder cabinet” — a day of talks and films about medicine, the human body and much more. As I took my seat for one of the sessions, I recognized two young men sitting near me. They were former students, whose senior theses I had supervised years before. It was fun to learn how they were doing, one in law and one in medical school, and to see that they still found time to hear about 18th-century anatomical models and books bound in human skin.
But it was even more fun to remember them as students. During their college days my seminar read a very good — but very long — book about classical antiquity in 19th-century Germany. The two of them came in wearing enormous fake beards, switched on their laptops to play the “Ride of the Valkyries” and rose to recite a satire that began “I am the spirit of German philology.” Their cheerful mockery of me and my assigned text sparked a searching and substantive discussion.
Why tell this story? Because “Excellent Sheep” demands it. William Deresiewicz, a recovering English professor who taught for many years at Yale, has indicted America’s elite universities. With their stately buildings and soaring trees, their star professors and even starrier student bodies, Ivy League schools look like paradises of learning. Deresiewicz describes them as something very different, and very much worse.
The trouble starts at admission. Top universities woo thousands of teenagers to apply, but seek one defined type: the student who has taken every Advanced Placement class and aced every exam, made varsity in a sport, played an instrument in the state youth orchestra and trekked across Nepal. This demanding system looks meritocratic. In practice, though, it aims directly at the children of the upper middle class, groomed since birth by parents, tutors and teachers to leap every hurdle. (The very rich can gain admission without leaping much of anything, as Deresiewicz also points out.)
Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they’re no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. Too busy to read or make friends, listen to music or fall in love, they waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls on building their résumés.
The faculty could and should push these gifted obsessives to slow down and ask big questions. But elite universities choose professors for their ability at research. Tenure-track and tenured professors teach as little as they can, and leave what used to be their core task to ill-paid adjuncts and inexperienced graduate students. Even when they enter the classroom, they offer courses so minutely specialized that big questions never come up.
Students do their assigned work, often with great ingenuity and elegance, but without real engagement. At the end of their studies, they funnel like lemmings into the career services office, which directs them to finance and consulting — and doesn’t let them even imagine, much less try out, teaching or the ministry, the military or the arts.
It’s a bleak and soulless scene. But nobody protests. Any doubts are allayed by presidents and deans, who tell students before they arrive and repeat after they graduate that they are the most dazzling, brilliant, gifted young people ever to enter whichever college they attend. And any crises of conscience or conduct are averted by a system that cuts the chosen ones endless slack, penalizes no misconduct and sees to it that all have prizes at the end.
The elite university, for Deresiewicz, is the little world that forms the great one, the training ground where members of the international ruling class learn two vital lessons: that they are superior to all others, and that even if they break rules or fail, they will never suffer. He feels some nostalgia for the harsh all-male elite universities of two or three generations ago, which flunked students without undue remorse and expected their graduates to serve in the military before they started running factories, writing ads or sailing yachts in Bar Harbor, and shows far more respect for liberal arts colleges, with their engaged teachers, than for the Ivies. As he puts it, “If there is anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place — anywhere that college is still college — it is there.”
Much of his dystopian description rings true. American universities spout endless, sickening self-praise. Professors are chosen for their specialized knowledge and receive no serious instruction in the art of teaching. As each field of study becomes denser with argument and discovery, its practitioners find it harder to offer broad courses. Students have complained for years that career services offices point them in only two or three very practical directions.
Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.
But anyone who cares should also know that the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects. He describes the structures of the university as if they were machines, arranged in assembly lines: “The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens.” Yet universities aren’t total institutions. Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz’s philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the “exceptions” he allows.
Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think. But plenty of others find their people, as one of my own former students says: the teachers who still offer open doors and open ears, the friends who stay up all night arguing with them about expressionism or feminism or both, the partners with whom they sail the deep waters of love (which, like sex, survives on campus). They come in as raw freshmen and they leave as young adults, thoughtful and articulate and highly individual. Deresiewicz observes their identical T-shirts but misses their differences of class and resources — just as he elides the differences between universities.
Even the academic side of the university offers richer and deeper experiences than Deresiewicz thinks. Recreating a life or building an argument, analyzing a text or chasing a virus, in the company of an adult who cares about both the subject and the student, need not be a routine exercise. It can be a way to build a soul — the soul of a scholar or scientist, who ignores our smelly little ideologies and fact-free platitudes, and cherishes precision and evidence and honorable admission of error. One reason some graduates of elite universities look unworldly is that those universities still try — admittedly with mixed results — to uphold a distinctive code of values.
When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance — places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life.
The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
By William Deresiewicz
245 pp. Free Press. $26.