The Problems With William Deresiewicz's New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.
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Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.
Yale University. (Photo: Pete Spiro/Shutterstock)

Yale University. (Photo: Pete Spiro/Shutterstock)

The liberal arts in America have reached a unique impasse. Humanities professors, to the detriment of their teaching, are expected to produce “research” at an unprecedented clip. Meanwhile, adjuncts work for peanuts, endowments tumesce, student debt soars, executive salaries become ever more plush, and the executives in turn appease corporate trustees with goosed statistics about how many financiers the school will mint that year. Students respond by abandoning the modern languages for the social sciences, and parents respond by enrolling their kids in the credentials race while said kids are still in utero. Everyone genuflects to the actuaries at U.S News & World Report.

The result of all this jockeying is a blinkered generation of students, morally and emotionally exhausted from winning blue ribbons; a generation of well-meaning and unbearable “helicopter parents”; a university system that considers teaching a distant afterthought to peer-reviewed research; and an ethos of “entitled mediocrity” whereby the upper-middle-class continues to arrange itself in new but fundamentally not-new ways.

Deresiewicz is getting the op-ed jargon down. He appears to be grooming himself as a “thought-leader,” to pillage a logism from the Atlantic, and this indwelling editorial unctuousness does not bolster the appeal of the critique.

This is the sad arrangement that William Deresiewicz describes in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, a vigorous broadside against a process that flattens high-school juniors into overachieving, under-curious conformists while burdening these teens with stress and misery—ailments which, for more and more kids, last into early adulthood and beyond. To illustrate how we find ourselves at this regrettable juncture, Deresiewicz chronicles the distinct historical phases in the development of our university system (derived alternately from the Oxbridge “college” and the German research university), from classics and clerical provincialism in the 19th century to WASP aristocracy to pluralist meritocracy (beginning in the 1930s) to the current arrangement that Deresiewicz not inaptly calls “credentialism”—the carefully curated appearance of overachievement, without any of the attendant rebellious curiosity.

Meanwhile, good teaching is ever more difficult to find: As of 2011, Deresiewicz reports, just 25 percent of U.S. faculty held tenure-track positions, the bulk of the burden falling to adjuncts and graduate students. At commencement, we tell our graduates that they will go out and change the world, but by then they're all sheep who think alike so everything just gets worse. Without being original, the argument is strong enough to give a parent pause. The book is also one of empathy, born of Deresiewicz's travels among academe and its discontents over the past six years.

Deresiewicz, who took degrees at Columbia and taught for 10 years at Yale, offers perceptive remarks about the professoriat (kids need “a real faculty, not a class of academic helots”), but his book is primarily about students, and how a campaign of misinformation has robbed them of a true education, landing them all in some post-apocalyptic death match over who has the most extracurriculars. “Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today's elite students have learned to project,” he writes, “and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression.”

Yet to this plausibly unified theory of the decrepitude of U.S. colleges we must append certain significant asterisks. The first problem is that in writing a book of social criticism, Deresiewicz chooses dubious role models. In the first paragraph of the first chapter—a short paragraph, in fact—he quotes a passage from David Brooks and a line from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. If we're seeking currents beyond the mainstream (ostensibly the purpose of opening the book), these are grim signs. Brooks, in fact, is a sort of Marley's ghost for Deresiewicz, appearing in lugubrious fashion every few pages. The result is less laziness-by-association than affected self-help chatter, an awkward glut of irresponsible generalizations and bad start-up jargon (from the chapter on leadership: “The goal is to leverage learning as an agent of social change.”). Ross Douthat's Privilege, on his nightmarish years at Harvard, is something of an authoritative touchstone for Deresiewicz. Phrases such as “points of inflection” and “post-emotional generation” rub shoulders with a weird misreading of Odysseus' moral education in the Odyssey. (There is also quite a lot of Allan Bloom, that fierce and rather conservative protector of the canon against the destabilizing march of postcolonial literatures and identity studies.)

In short, Deresiewicz enjoys the simplicities of op-ed jargon. He appears to be grooming himself as a “thought-leader,” to pillage a logism from the Atlantic, and this indwelling editorial unctuousness does not bolster the appeal of the critique. “Instead of humanities, students are getting amenities” could come straight from George Will. Students who become consultants, we learn, must master “being smooth at cocktail parties, playing office politics, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it's time to stab him in the back.” Has Deresiewicz been reading the McKinsey playbook, or merely re-watching Wall Street?

But the problems run deeper than the author's choice of referents. Moments of heady generalization and partial reportage obscure a tantalizingly important argument. Deresiewicz cites “studies” without any specifics, as though each page contained hyperlinks. He diagnoses a morally stunted generation, and we are meant to find evidence in anecdotes. In delineating a generation of “excellent sheep,” who seek “the front of the herd that's heading toward the cliff,” Deresiewicz overlooks awfully important factors on the administrative and corporate levels of the university (he doesn't really have much to say about executive salaries). Nor does his narrative address the shameful way that students and administrators alike conspire to a pathological degree in covering up rape charges. When he discusses “the self-protection of the old boys network, updated to include the other sex,” he doesn't wonder whether the “sense of entitlement” that defines elite institutions might extend to the bedroom in aggressive ways.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Deresiewicz quotes a passage from David Brooks and a line from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. If we're seeking currents beyond the mainstream (ostensibly the purpose of picking up the book), these are grim signs.

Indeed, the “elite institutions” that Deresiewicz targets are a hazy bunch. At first it's the Ivy Leagues, as the condensed version of his book makes clear, but soon the argument dilates to include “first- and second-tier” liberal arts colleges, though for all his complaints about the U.S. News rankings, his own notions of first- and second-tier education present a fuzzy distinction. “If you go to Johns Hopkins or Bowdoin, or even Emory or Bates, you are already very fortunate,” he assures us. Indeed. His wholesale dismissal of TFA—hardly worth recapitulating—is imbalanced and noxious. Nor is there a single mention of the Greek system, a crucial constituent of the corporate anti-intellectualism that Deresiewicz skewers convincingly elsewhere. The author's treatment of race is likewise negligent. “Diversity of sex and race has become a cover, even an alibi, for increasing economic resegregation,” he writes; not once does he pause to note that black men between 18 and 24 are as likely to be in prison as to be in college.

And these elisions speak to the obvious point that Deresiewicz is writing for a very slender audience indeed—that is, overachieving upper-middle-class parents and the children at risk of becoming them. As a memento mori, this approach has merit, and the book's blind spots and general overreach are those of its author. After a series of essays in the American Scholar and the Chronicle of Higher Education, most of which deal with moral crises in U.S. colleges, Deresiewicz became the de facto disaffected Ivy Leaguer—four years undergrad at Columbia, five years in graduate school there, 10 years as an assistant professor at Yale after which he did not get tenure—and he took to the streets with his message of idealistic gloom.

In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz refers to “hundreds of young people who have written to me” and whom he has met on a series of barnstorming, rabble-rousing national tours, during which he was daringly invited by elite universities to tell students what a bum deal they were getting. The author perceives zero irony in his position as the guy universities bring on stage when they want to prove something. He is the academy's own firebrand, successfully defanged, molded into the sort of middlebrow public thinker he so generously quotes. He proposes an ostensibly radical revolution in education. And he is in essence the establishment left's anointed apostate.

In the summer of 2008, Deresiewicz published the first germ of this book in the American Scholar —an essay on “the disadvantages of an elite education.” The lede was all about how the author had reached the age of 35 without learning how to speak with plumbers:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work.

“So unguessable his values, so mysterious his language”! The thing reads like a conquistador's report from the New World. (One wonders what the plumber made of Deresiewicz.) On its publication, the piece was justly maligned for its snobbish heresies, but hardly any critics took time to praise its candor. More than a few academics have trouble socializing beyond the academy; this guy merely admitted it. The essay, as Deresiewicz reports in the book, “started to go viral.... I had evoked a widespread discontent among today's achievers.” He acknowledges that some readers found this admission off-putting but offers a rebuttal: “You may not be quite as down with the regular folks as you like to believe.” As for today's high achievers? “They aren't meeting any plumbers, either.” Decorum prevents me from repeating what my fireman-buddy said to that one.

After surfacing from Excellent Sheep, it is tempting to puncture Deresiewicz's weaker generalizations with a volley of exceptions. (Here I should disclose that I took a degree at Yale, and my manservant assures me I have something of “the common touch.”) Are there more “entitled little shits” at Yale than at Colgate? Possibly, but entitlement probably means different things at the two schools. As for public universities, I am one of the graduate-student serfs at a famous state school and can report that we chart very high on the BMW index. But the thing is, we don't need to point out the exceptions when the author contradicts himself so frequently. He praises the free-thinking that “religious schools” supposedly enable much better than secular ones, then observes that “now we teach the Bible not as scripture, but as culture.” He writes that the Founding Fathers “risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in order to build a better society by speaking truth to power.” Two pages later: History “is much more provisional and complicated than we usually care to admit.” At Yale, he saw no tattoos, “no hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis” (he wasn't looking very hard), and later he counsels us that “getting a piercing, growing a mustache, moving to Austin—these do not make you an individual.” All well and good, but should the prospective student get tattooed or not, Bill?

To be sure, the Ivies are a den of self-congratulation and deadly orthodoxy, and I agree with Deresiewicz that the legion failures of late capitalism were overseen by poster-children for Harvard and Yale. But to take his injunctions seriously—Don't send your kid to the Ivy League—is to indulge in the same flat thinking that Deresiewicz would rid us of. His is an important but flawed attack, blunted by self-regard and undone by overstatement—in short, very ambitious and slightly flailing, much like the students to whom he writes.

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