• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Those "Excellent Sheep" Run the World: Part I

Excellent Sheep is an intramural squabble, but the rest of us have a stake in the outcome.

August 24, 2014

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that lack of ambition coupled with a congenital lazy streak saved me from becoming one of William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”

A child of the upper-middle class, I attended a top public school in the Chicago suburbs,[1] had a brother already enrolled at Duke, and a shockingly good score on the PSAT that triggered an avalanche of glossy brochures to the house during my junior year.

But with a class rank that was good, but not great, and a profile of extracurriculars that started at hockey, and ended at lacrosse[2], I suspected that any effort towards elite college admission would not be met with reward, so I didn’t even bother to try.

I also looked at the kids who were going East, and I knew I was not them. They seemed smarter. They worked harder. I now know that this lack of ambition was not the attitude of a young iconoclast, but that of a chickenshit conformist. It’s not like I was going to turn my back entirely on college and the pursuit of the upper-middle class comfort to which I’d become accustomed.

I could be a very good sheep, just not an excellent one.

I applied to two schools, Duke (soundly rejected, despite the legacy connection), and the University of Illinois, where I knew I would get in the moment I filled out the application.

According to William Deresiewicz and his recent release, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, opting out of the race to the top of the meritocratic heap was the right choice. I guess I agree, though I’m not sure that I was all that engaged with the choice at the time.


It is hard not to respond to Deresiewicz’s book through the lens of personal experience, partly because these issues are personal for the multiple Ivy-degreed and one-time Yale professor author, and also because when it gets right down to it, Deresiewicz offers very little hard evidence for his claims.

He discusses the steady rise in student anxiety and depression year after year, and the disproportionate share of Ivy graduates heading to Wall Street, but most of his evidence is anecdotal, collected by Deresiewicz in the wake of his opening salvo “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” published in The American Scholar in 2008, after which he heard from hundreds and thousands of students that echoed his concerns that an elite education was producing empty vessels, primarily floating toward careers in finance.

The problem of reader response is further exacerbated by the number of fronts on which Deresiewicz presents his argument. In different chapters, among many other topics, he discusses the shortcomings of: students themselves, the admission systems of elite colleges and universities, contemporary parenting, the “meritocratic” system, prioritizing research over teaching at elite universities, and President Obama, who, with his cautious and technocratic approach, is implicated as one of Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”

The specific advice also ranges freely. Deresiewicz counsels students to choose a state university over an elite private school, to take a gap year, to not talk to your parents too often, to eschew majors in finance and economics, to take personal risks that carry the risk of harm, and to not mistake activism for genuine caring in addition to many other bits of advice.

Because of the range of argument, it is easy to find fault in some portion of Deresiewicz’s message, to pick off the sentiment that doesn’t gibe with your own experience.

For example[3], writing in the New Republic, recent Yale graduate Andrew Giambrone points out that, as the son of a laborer whose family is making “unsteady progress from working- to middle-class,” turning down an Ivy League education would have been ridiculously foolish. Additionally, he is not, in Deresiewicz’s words, an “entitled little shit.”

For sure, it’s easy to find exceptions to Deresiewicz’s rules, and yet, reading Excellent Sheep I find myself in sympathy – which passes for agreement in this case – with Deresiewicz’s message.

We may find fault with Deresiewicz’s description of some of the trees, but it’s hard not to agree with the forest of his argument, that when it comes to selecting, educating, and sending our elite into the world to do what they will do, something is seriously messed up.


One of the reasons I am sympathetic to Deresiewicz’s argument is because I see all of the same traits that Deresiewicz identifies in his elite students – timidity, a consumer mindset, anxiety, depression – in many of the students with which I’ve interacted at the selective (but not quite elite) schools[4] where I’ve taught for the past fourteen years.

I too have noticed students who are anxious, whose faces crumble at bad grades, who appear wracked by anxiety over their future prospects. I have had twenty-year-old students tell me that they can’t wait to retire so they can get off the treadmill. I have witnessed the aversion to risk, and the doubt over choosing a major one might be interested in, as opposed to a more practical path.

I have seen world views curiously devoid of considerations of ethics, even as the students profess to want to “do good.”

Where Deresiewicz and I differ somewhat is in the amount of blame to place on the students themselves. To me, students are almost exclusively victims of a system that is designed to destroy them. Their sheep-dom is virtually demanded, and to stray from the flock is a genuine act of bravery.

And I have seen students that marched so thoroughly to the beats of their own drummers that I couldn’t even recognize the tunes. They tend to be happy, if not always successful by the conventional metrics valued by the system. They are the exception, though.

I see less joy, less curiosity, less adventurousness in my students from one year to the next. I was a sleepwalker. My students are part of a zombie march.

I don’t think this is the exclusive fault of elite (or non-elite) universities, so much as the symptoms of a consumerist culture where education has shifted from a public to a private good and the sense that success results from out-competing others. We have designed a system predicated on scarcity, a race to the top. The increasing cost of college attendance has only made this worse.

At the three Research I universities where I’ve worked, I also have witnessed another charge Deresiewicz levels at the elite schools, the institutional and administrative indifference to quality teaching, and the privileging of research prestige over undergraduate education. This is not to say I didn’t see great teaching in those places, just that great teaching was done in the face of institutional priorities, not in concert with them.

I also have seen the moral bankruptcy of a Wall Street – a culture larded with Ivy-educated CEO’s - that tanked the economy, but somehow managed to recover (and then some) ahead of the rest of us.

I have witnessed the performance of our governing class, which appears progressively less functional and capable, even as more and more of them come out of elite institutions.

My chief criticism of the book, one apparently shared by others, is that Deresiewicz doesn’t go far enough in extending his critique to the larger system the perpetuates these problems of which the “excellent sheep” of the Ivy League are perhaps only a symptom.

But his message is not intended for people like me who would like to see much less of our so-called elite maneuvering the levers of power, or people like Andrew Giambrone who looks to have negotiated his way into the in-group.

Deresiewicz is speaking directly to the children of privilege heading towards the Ivy pipeline, and the professors that are tasked with shaping those students’ lives during their undergraduate years.

He is asking these people who profess to be idealists to examine and then live up to those ideals. He is not necessarily preaching to the choir, more like the ready-to-be-converted. He is asking them to unilaterally disarm, for their own sakes, but for the rest of us as well.

Judging from the amount of blowback, the elite students and faculty Deresiewicz targets appear slow to fully grok his message.

Also writing at the New Republic, which has apparently made a cottage industry of the book, Yishai Schwartz declares in his title that “An Attack on the Ivy League Is an Attack on Meritocracy Itself.”


Deresiewicz believes that the system, and its products like Yishai Schwartz, mistake “achievement” for “excellence” and substitute “being in charge,” with “being a leader.”

To Schwartz, leadership is something that can be measured, for example by achieving a leadership position. Even Schwartz’s criteria for which students are “genuine,” and which are not is peer approval. “In my experience, students who genuinely cared about the course material for its own sake won respect quickly. And those who had interesting ideas to contribute, or who devoted themselves seriously to the causes and organizations they cared about, were recognized and valued. At least at Yale, prestige and accolades seemed to track with those qualities universities ought to value.”

Schwartz doesn’t seem to conceive that values can and perhaps should come from within, independent of the approval of others, that good leadership isn’t necessarily measured by the number of followers. He seems to have a difficult time conceiving that the degree of admiration and approval of one’s Yale peers may not be such a fantastic metric for determining one’s value. To me, Schwartz is the kind of cautionary tale that Deresiewicz identifies in the book, the scoreboard striver whose attitudes are perpetually validated by an insulated culture.

Deresiewicz wants a different caliber of leader for our futures, and he knows that it’s only going to happen inside the elite schools, because let’s face it, these people are going to be in charge of our society for the foreseeable future.

So those of us on the outside need not take offense, or even worry about where Deresiewicz falls short in his indictment of the system. This is an intramural squabble.

Most of us are spectators, though not disinterested ones, since we will be subject to the rule of the winners.

In Part II I will examine the ongoing destruction of the American education system at the hands of some of William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”


[1] Not quite a feeder to the Ivies on par with the East Coast prep schools, but out of a graduating class of 600 each year, more than a handful would be sprinkled among the Ivy League, as well as Stanford, Duke, M.I.T and the like.

[2] Neither of which I was good enough at to merit notice by admission committees.

[3] Two other examples, out of many. J.D. Chapman, another Yale graduate from Roanoke, Virginia, who did not decamp to Wall Street, but instead returned to the region to start his own school at which he now serves as academic director, believes that “very few” of the families he works with “share the prejudices William Deresiewicz assumes.”

Daniel Drezner, a Tufts professor and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution thinks Deresiewicz is piqued over the supplanting of humanities scholars by economists and other social scientists, who use evidence-based arguments for their conceptions of the world, rather than the airy philosophizing of people like Deresiewicz.

[4] They’re represented in the iconography on the trunk at the top of the page.


There's lots of Twitter chatter in my feed about Excellent Sheep.




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