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Why Did 'Excellent Sheep' Alienate So Many Readers?

William Deresiewicz’s new book appears to have touched a nerve.
(Photo: bjarkis/Flickr)

(Photo: bjarkis/Flickr)

In his new book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz takes elite higher education to the woodshed. He characterizes its smug beneficiaries as members of the Lucky Sperm Club, obedient automatons “heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” Predictably, the club—which includes not only students but also professors, administrators, and parents—has taken umbrage. Reflective of their pedigrees, they’ve fought back in the nation’s loftier media outlets. Deresiewicz’s critique, in turn, has quickly evolved into that enviable literary phenomenon: a book for which the reviews now constitute their own genre.

To be sure, lots of nice words have been written about Excellent Sheep—and for good reason. It’s an honest and inspiring work. I can only imagine the relief that precocious college freshmen destined for professional prestige will experience after getting permission to derail, wander afield, and discover a more soulful path into “the real world.”

Soulful? Yes, soulful. Deresiewicz—who implores students to take risks and professors to support them—insists that college be a soul-searching endeavor, a relatively lazy and contemplative sliver of time when tender creatures on the cusp of adulthood can mold characters rather than careers. Many reviewers were duly charmed by the idea. Others—most of them wielding fancier quills—acted as if Deresiewicz was pushing crack rather than Coleridge.

In the New Yorker, staff writer (and relatively recent college graduate) Nathan Heller wrote a particularly revealing review. Heller insightfully discovers an unresolved tension in the book that, admittedly, I glossed over: Deresiewicz’s simultaneous collegiate call for upward mobility and playful slackerdom. The review is not only incisive, it’s unfailingly diplomatic, buffering critical barbs with reassurances that the arguments are “sound,” the author “a caring and inspiring teacher,” and the writing “charismatic and elegant.” And, of course, the review is terrifically clever. Heller, to wit, calls Excellent Sheep “a prickly graduation tassel of a book.” All in all, an A paper—even at the Ivies.

But that brings us right back to the very problem that preoccupies Deresiewicz. Heller’s A-level work might be smart, but it’s incurious, not unlike the sheep who the book skewers. Nothing in Heller’s review suggests that he made a genuine effort—even skeptically so—to imagine Deresiewicz’s alien educational territory, a reformed landscape where soul searching and character building thrive. To the contrary, Heller practically falls over himself in a panicked retreat from all of Deresiewicz’s mushy soul talk. He mocks Deresiewicz’s “risk seeking soul person,” rolls his eyes as his “almost religious belief” in higher education’s potential, scoffs that “the stresses of an era can’t be wished away” (as if Deresiewicz had written a self-help book), and even places his initial reference to that terrifying word (“souls”) in scare quotes, as if he was referring to a rare disease.

Deresiewicz’s critique has quickly evolved into that enviable literary phenomenon: a book for which the reviews now constitute their own genre.

Instead of grudging respect for Deresiewicz’s perspective, Heller, for whom irony appears to be sacred, offers a stream of witticisms. Deresiewicz’s work is reduced to a “boomer era bromide,” “brochure balladry,” “something closer to therapy than scholarship,” and, in a follow-up piece, “a steam-whistle blast.” To his credit, Heller states at least one reason for not crossing over to the more soulful side of the Rubicon. And it speaks volumes: “the markets wait for nobody.” Deresiewicz’s point exactly.

SEASONED ACADEMICS—THOSE HYPER-SPECIALISTS also caught in the crosshairs of Deresiewicz’s polemic—reacted in telling ways as well. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rutgers historian Douglass Greenberg pretty much blew a gasket. After accusing Deresiewicz of “making shit up,” and then dismissing the book’s concerns as “white people problems”(even though whites are technically a minority at most Ivy League schools), he delivers nothing short of a tirade against Excellent Sheep. Deresiewicz’s tone, he explains, is “egocentric and intemperate,” his context “narrow and sensationalistic,” his outspokenness a form of “academic sado-masochism,” his portrayal of students “astonishingly cruel” and, again on the book’s tone, “almost embarrassing to confront.”

In fact, as Greenberg claims early on, the book “might not merit a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books if it had not already received so much attention in the national press.” That’s odd logic, as it assumes that pre-existing national exposure somehow justifies a review in a serious literary magazine. In any case, he proceeds to call Deresiewicz “a snob” beset by “self-regarding pomposity,” and condemns his “anecdotal evidence” before relying on his own anecdotal evidence—“I have marveled at both the human and academic achievements of my students and colleagues”—to deliver a counter-punch.

Needless to say, it’s hard to discern Greenberg’s real critique in this fog of anger. The result is that you leave the review wondering if Deresiewicz might have, you know, struck a nerve. (You also kind of wonder when Deresiewicz will go out to Jersey and play Norman Mailer to Grenberg’s Gore Vidal.)

Another Los Angeles Review of Books review—this one by Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor at Pomona College—is less strident than Greenberg’s. But not by much. He calls Excellent Sheep “fluff,” a “book that doesn’t deserve our careful attention on its own merits,” a study “full of “fables passing as fact,” “an anthology of rhetorical and logical fallacies,” and a work that’s “lazy and dishonest.”

As with Greenberg, it appears that the personal sting of being targeted by a high-profiled critique has led to a review that not only implodes on its own anger but, as we’ve seen, inadvertently confirms Deresiewicz’s key arguments—the ones these guys are claiming is a pile of fabricated shit.

Yet again, what we don’t get from the review is exactly what Deresiewicz’s book so clearly demands: an honest discussion about an elevated educational strata that requires the best and the brightest to be tirelessly successful, overly self-assured, and automatically beyond criticism by virtue of their diplomas. These people, it should be noted, often go on to make horrible choices from their pedestals of power, choices that affect lives globally.

Refusing to even go there, Dettmar swings all over the place at low-hanging fruit. He dedicates an entire paragraph to Deresiewicz’s supposed misinterpretation of the Biblical origins of the word “service.” A longer paragraph blasts Deresiewicz for misrepresenting the faculty’s role in core curriculum development. These issues, please note, have nothing to do with the gist of Excellent Sheep. Inching closer to what matters, Dettmar lambasts Deresiewicz’s sources as “hearsay, word of mouth, campus rumor,” effectively condemning him for relying on his own impressions at Columbia and Yale for much of his analysis. Then, after lambasting this first-person assessment, he writes, “That’s not been my experience, teaching elite college students for the past six years.” Well then. As my own advisor would often say: fine, then go write your own book!

Dettmar at least articulates the cause of his crankiness. Excellent Sheep is at heart a personal and impressionistic book, one that relies on the author’s extensive experience in the Ivies to highlight in provocative and impassioned prose what ails this demographic. It really never claims to be anything else, least of all an academic book. (The thing doesn’t even have footnotes.) But Dettmar mistakenly sees it as another sort of book altogether. He does not want a personal critique of higher education. He does not want a single powerful voice, and a character, and a setting, and some stories, and some strong opinions. Instead, he wants a rigorous and disinterested sociological crankshaft; as is so often the case in book reviewing, he evaluates Deresiewicz on the basis of what he wants rather than what he gets.

The result is kind of like watching a plate umpire officiate a tennis match. Dettmar writes, “A social scientist would say that Deresiewicz has an n problem: for his most sensational ‘evidence,’ the n, the sample size, is one.” After (thankfully) acknowledging the irony—that those in the humanities are supposed to love the “n”—Dettmar snaps his fingers and decrees: “the book’s genre is actually social science, not humanities. And in the social sciences, different rules of evidence obtain.”

Huh. Not humanities? Any doubt about that question is clarified in Excellent Sheep’s opening line: “This book is, in many ways, a letter to my twenty-year-old self.” If that’s not indicative of a purely humanistic endeavor—one dating back to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—then what is? Dettmar’s tortured appeal to the scholarly rigors (as it were) of social science further leads me to suspect that Deresiewicz, in savaging a risk-averse and narrow-minded professoriate, hit the bulls-eye.

EXCELLENT SHEEP, AS YOU might imagine, resonated deeply with me. Specifically, it illuminated a blip of a personal story that I go back to all the time. In 1998 I spent a dark and lonely year in an archive researching my absurdly specialized dissertation: 700 pages on the emergence of local trade patterns in Essex County, Massachusetts, between 1630 and 1690. My days passed indoors with other scholars who lacked a residue of self-doubt. We were the best and the brightest, writing works of subtle insight, legitimated by the prestige of our programs, and on the fast track to academic stardom (or at least a job). In short: We thought highly of our intelligence. Our board scores, institutions, letters of reference, and publication record left little room to think otherwise.

Then I met someone who was truly intelligent. One evening, after my library closed, I trudged through the snow to a local bar, sat at a stool, took out my worn copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (a novel I’ve read at least a dozen times), and was immediately engaged in conversation by a paint-splattered, tattoo-covered, dreadlocked—and, frankly, pretty rough-looking—dude in overalls.

He was a house painter. And a reader. A real reader. After a couple of hours of steady conversation, not only was it obvious that this house painter had devoured, and could intelligently discuss, virtually every significant American novel, but that he had allowed these books to help him navigate life. So much so that he worked strictly to save money so he could have more time to read. He literally structured his existence around literature. When I asked him about his educational background, he got kind of squirrelly and said that he tried out some courses at a college in Boston but it didn’t work out because he “felt out of place.”

Of course he did. And Excellent Sheep tells me why. Unfortunately, if the reviews of this book are thus far any indication, we are a long way off from appreciating the hidden dangers of an educated elite who are as averse to criticism as they are to the risks that can make the intellectual life a truly soulful one—for house painters and college professors alike.

For a counterpoint, here's Ted Scheinman on "The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto."