October 5, 2015

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite

Yale Professor William Deresiewicz delivers a groundbreaking manifesto that skewers the elite colleges, their brainy soulless students and pushy parents.

BERKELEY, CA, October 5, 2015 – William Deresiewicz, author of a controversial new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, will present the argument that the culture of elite education stifles risk-taking and independent thinking, in a conversation with Carol Christ, Director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, at Berkeley, on Oct. 7th

After spending ten years as an associate professor at Yale, and serving on its admissions committee, Deresiewicz was troubled by what he observed: his students were not able to think critically and creatively.  Deresiewicz argues that college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, their own morals and moral courage, so they can forge their own path.   Instead, elite colleges are turning out conformists without a compass.  He feels that far too many graduates are going into the professions of finance and consulting and they show a lack of curiosity, interesting rebellion, or “passionate weirdness”.  We’ve spawned a generation of polite, striving, praise-addicted, grade-grubbing nonentities - a legion of “excellent sheep”.

 In his book, Deresiewicz takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw firsthand as a member of Yale’s admissions committee.  He delivers an account of a scene from an admissions committee review:

 Only five or six extracurricular activities? Those are slacker numbers.  Does the applicant have “good rig” (academic rigor)?  What about “top checks” (highest check marks in every conceivable category)? Is he or she “pointy” (insanely great at one thing?) How are his or her PQs (personal qualities)?  Or is the applicant, as one committee member said, “pretty much in the middle of the fairway”?

 Deresiewicz argues that we’ve created kids who throughout high school are unable to do anything they can’t put on a resume.  They are “blinkered overachievers”.   Once these students are in college, they don’t know what to do with themselves and are drawn to the only path that offers a clear road to success: finance.  He argues that many miss truer and more satisfying callings.  He also notes that at many of the top liberal arts colleges – places that are supposed to be about a different sort of education - economics is the most popular major.  Colleges conspire in this “sheepherding” and he writes,

 “They are working to line up the major gifts a generation hence.  As for the smattering of future artists and do-gooders, they’re here to balance the moral books (as well as furnish a few alumni to brag about)”

Upon reading the book, Deresiewicz hopes that students will think about what they really want, well-meaning parents will do some soul-searching, and educators will take action and address these issues. 

He proposes that the elite colleges offer smaller classes, teachers who are more committed to their students than to their research, and basing affirmative action on class rather than on race.

 Students can find their way to a meaningful life, argues Deresiewicz, if we re-focus higher education on the development of self.

 Carol Christ, Director of Center for Studies in Higher Education, will moderate the presentation by William Deresiewicz at 300 Wheeler Hall, from 12pm- 1pm on Wednesday, 10/7.  Lunch will follow the presentation.


William Deresiewicz received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and was an associate professor of English at Yale University from 1998-2008. He is a widely published book critic and his reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Book forum, and The American Scholar.  He was nominated for National Magazine awards in 2008, 2009, and 2011, and the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2010, 2011, and 2012.  David Brooks gave one of his essays a "Sydney" award for magazine writing in 2010. He is a frequent speaker on college campuses, and his essay "Solitude and Leadership" has been taught across the U.S. military, in the corporate world, at schools of business, and at the Aspen Institute. He is the author of the highly acclaimed A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, which has been optioned for development as a television series.

 Carol ChristisDirector, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley; former President, Smith College; and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, UC Berkeley.

 Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) was established in 1956 and was the first research institute in the United States devoted to the study of systems, institutions, and processes of higher education.  The Center’s mission is to produce and support multi-disciplinary scholarly perspectives on strategic issues in higher education, to conduct relevant policy research, to promote the development of a community of scholars and policymakers engaged in policy-oriented discussion, and to serve the public as a resource on higher education.  http://cshe.berkeley.edu