Twilight of an Idol
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale University, is not a fan of American elite education. He says that it “manu- factures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” The entire system of elite edu- cation, he argues, reproduces an American upper- middle class and its aspirations, distorted values, and sense of entitlement. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale no longer form purposeful, reflective young adults; they reproduce aimless, credential- craven zombies––the final products of a cultural system whose only end is the relentless pursuit of prestige and perfection. The path from preschool to Princeton is strewn with these lifeless over- achievers who live off the validation of others.
Is he wrong about today’s “elite” students? The students that Deresiewicz describes—high- strung, stressed out, obsessed with credentials and with being “the best”—are certainly real. (I teach some of their public-university kin at the University of Virginia.) Although they are sheep, Deresiewicz approaches them with pity as much as scorn: “I used to be one of these kids.” He compares his past self, devoured by ambition, to Satan in Paradise Lost. In providing a typology of this kind of student, Deresiewicz performs a valu- able service. And in his disdain for the modern university, which “does nothing…to challenge the values of a society that equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success,” he gives voice to a moral criticism whose real object is American elites.
But there’s still something suspect about Excellent Sheep, and the whole growing genre of books lamenting the decline of the college. [read the review in the Hedgehog Review]