By Chet Yarbrough
Excellent Sheep (The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life)
By: William Deresiewicz
Narrated by: Mel Foster
William Deresiewicz (American author, essayist and literary critic.)
William Deresiewicz offers a view of life and education in “Excellent Sheep”. The author begins by arguing students of the Ivy League are disadvantaged in their acceptance by the best universities in the world. One presumes Deresiewicz comes from a wealthy family because he is a student, and later, professor at Yale.
When listening to any audiobook, one thinks of titles of a review for what one hears. In the first few chapters of “Excellent Sheep”, Deresiewicz’s book might be titled “Mostly Baloney”. However, “Mostly Baloney” is disrespectful, and somewhat unfair, as becomes clear in later chapters.
Toward the end of his book, one finds Deresiewicz is raised in an upper middle-class family but with no college graduates. A listener begins to realize Deresiewicz’s acceptance at Yale comes from hard work, and good grades, even if his family could afford the Ivy League. The author’s presumed hard work and good grades demands respect and fairer evaluation of what he has to say.
Many (if not most) Americans go to college because it is a ticket to better paying jobs, not to become better educated citizens.
To a large extent, this critic went to college to get a ticket for better pay—of course, not to the ivy league but to a State University and graduate education at a midwestern university. The point being most American’s purpose in higher education is to get a ticket for higher paying jobs, and only secondarily, to become better educated. The “ticket mentality” is part of what Deresiewicz is trying to explain.
Deresiewicz explains Ivy League students are pushed throughout their lives to strive for admittance, not to become better educated but to have the best job opportunities in America.
The author suggests that push makes them unsure of themselves because they are constantly measured at every point of their life by the artificiality of SATs, class grades, student activity, and the wealth and influence of their families. What Deresiewicz misses is that despite these student pressures, those who go to any school beyond high school have more tools to help them cope with life. College, contrary to Deresiewicz’s opinion, is not a transition from childhood to adulthood. College is only a continuation of childhood.
Deresiewicz is prescient when he explains how important it is for students to follow their passion.
However, not all people are motivated by passion. Most follow paths of least resistance. The path of least resistance is influenced by education, but not formed by it. To infer that is a bad thing is unreasonable because most of society follows rather than leads. The followers are not motivated by passion. It is leaders who have passion. That, of course, is a two-edged value because leaders can lead to the worst, as well as the best outcomes in life.
An added criticism by Deresiewicz is that upper income families push their children to achieve good grades for admittance to the Ivy League and are damaged by the experience. That seems false.
Basic liberal arts and sciences for adolescents (before college) are exposure that may or may not become passions for the geniuses of life. Parents should encourage, if not push, their children to get good grades in school. That is where passion is born.
No one would deny Sir Isaac Newtons, Einsteins, and Diracs are needed as much as the George Eliots, Dostoyevskys, and Tolstoys of life. Without knowing if they were pushed by their parents is not the point. It is the passion each had for a discipline they were exposed to early in life. Undoubtedly that exposure is either encouraged tacitly or directly by parents or guardians.
What Deresiewicz attacks in his last chapters is the nobles oblige of Ivy League graduates who dominate America’s leadership class. That domination reinforces class distinction and exacerbates the gap between rich and poor.
The author notes many Presidents of the U.S., before the mid-twentieth century did not go to Ivy League universities. With few exceptions, a majority of American Presidents after the 1970s are Ivy League graduates. Deresiewicz suggest the Ivy League aggravates class distinctions in the U.S.
More importantly, Deresiewicz argues Ivy League education narrows the thinking of American leadership because graduates fall into a camaraderie trap and fail to understand the needs of most Americans.
Deresiewicz suggests higher education fails to teach the value of liberal arts. Whether true or not, emphasis on liberal arts seems superfluous. Most who listen to the author’s book cannot feel sorry for Ivy League students that are fearful of what life has in store for them. Every student transitioning to adulthood has that fear. Teaching liberal arts is not going to change that fearfulness. Of course, that is not Deresiewicz’s point, but America’s attention needs to be focused on improving liberal arts and science education for all, not just Ivy League students.