Getting Dirty with Deresiewicz: On being an ‘Excellent Sheep’

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William Deresiewicz, ex-Yale professor and Columbia graduate, has accused me of being an excellent sheep. The worst part? He’s not wrong.

Deresiewicz, who gained notoriety for his 2008 essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” published “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” this summer. “Excellent Sheep,” an extension of the viral essay, is a sharp analysis of the dark side of being a high-achieving student groomed for a place in America’s so-called “meritocracy.” But really, he argues, students at elite institutions like Stanford are all entitled little shits. Think you were accepted to Stanford because you’re smart? Think again. “Merit” is only a small piece of the privilege puzzle.

I read “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” as a senior in high school, innocent to both the joys and difficulties of attending a university like Stanford. The tendency of elite institutions to push their students toward conventional, career-based, economic success, as Deresiewicz argues in his essay, didn’t seem to apply to me. His arguments were insightful but far away from the immediate reality of SATs and APs. And besides, who says no to Stanford?

Four years later, one of my sharpest skills is time management. I’m a pro juggler — of activities, not bowling pins — and have spent the last three years focused on building a resume. The future is this enormous, lumbering animal I wrestle with daily, its insidious fingers crawling up my back while I clumsily shove it off. I feign nonchalance. Reading Deresiewicz again, this time in book form, was like slamming into a concrete wall I hadn’t seen coming.

Once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. After work one day I sat in a coffee shop down the street, devouring Deresiewicz’s provocative claims that elite institutions prize “excellent sheep” rather than “cantankerous intellectual bomb-throwers,” horrifyingly fascinated as I recognized the qualities he described in myself, my peers, and in Stanford culture.

The most difficult aspect of Stanford culture is the rat race, which Deresiewicz calls the “compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students — the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can” (I call it Stanford mode). This “compulsive overachievement” is necessary to reach Stanford’s career-focused, check-list and cookie-cutter version of success, which is really all about winning: landing the internship at Goldman, effortlessly acing your classes, doing research, running your nonprofit, all the while maintaining a flourishing social life. We’re all trying to have it all.

Deresiewicz argues that universities push a mentality based on conventional, economic gain (accomplished by constantly juggling academics, interviewing for internships, and extracurriculars) in order to usher students into selective professional institutions and turn them into loyal donors. In this model, educational value is based on grades and future earnings instead of real intellectual engagement and thought.

And the students — myself included — accept this definition of success without much push back, prioritizing resume-padding activities and internships over relationships and emotional health. It’s no surprise, Deresiewicz argues, that an American Psychological Association survey reveals that “half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness, while almost a third spoke of feeling ‘so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.’”

While reading “Excellent Sheep,” I was convinced that Deresiewicz is right. His descriptions of overachievement, anxiety, and the superiority complex of young people like me were eerily recognizable. Stanford itself is aware of this issue — The Resilience Project, which consists of a collection of videos where prominent Stanford faculty and administrators discuss their academic and professional failures, was founded in 2010. Failure will make you strong!, they say. But consistently being told that I’m better than other people because of my ability to take tests or give authority figures what they want debilitates my ability to cope with failure. I’ll take CS106A pass/fail instead of letting a C near my transcript; I’ll accept the mediocrity of A-’s; I’ll do summer jobs that Stanford pays for. I might try failing outside of the classroom, putting on my running shoes and hiking eight miles, reading books I don’t understand, traveling alone in foreign countries, pushing myself out of the high-achievement box I’ve lived in my entire life and into the smoggy air.

But the validation feels good and I’m addicted to the praise. It’s a support system for my self worth. Who am I if not “smart”? And so I continue to buy into Stanford’s elitist values because they reflect a perfect image of success to the outside world while I, as puppet and puppet master, hold the strings between my toes and carefully maintain the mirage. The show must go on. The only thing at stake? My sanity and my personal relationships. No biggie.

It’s true that Stanford’s culture isn’t the perfect collegiate environment it claims to be. Still, Deresiewicz pushes his arguments too far. He fails to address the real diversity of interests at a place like Stanford, and the fact that many students are deliberately choosing to enter fields that are not considered lucrative because they have had the economic resources and institutional support to “invent themselves” and pursue their passions. Dismissing the dreams of 7800 undergraduates because he deems them tainted by the desire to make money is over-simplistic, if not irresponsible.

As a humanities student at Stanford I witness passion on a daily basis from professors and students alike. I know passion as the intellectual cousin of excitement, physically manifested in a tingly feeling I get in my chest.  I can sense it in the room during a particularly potent discussion, a crackling energy as people push themselves and push each other and create earthquakes in their mental landscapes. Better yet are the aftershocks, the ripple effect where learning and life press up against each other.

Deresiewicz’s tendency to generalize and make boldly negative statements about high-achieving students’ lack of passion or direction is often too reductionist, weakening the validity of his claims. I have a friend who is vitally interested in plankton and another who spent one summer reading every novel from the 1920s. I also have a friend who might want to be an English professor but will go into investment banking. I might chide him for selling out, but maybe he’ll do what the most influential teacher at my high school did: work for years on Wall Street so that he can comfortably teach English to teenagers. Dear Deresiewicz, get off your high horse. Don’t condemn people for wanting to make money. Passion and money aren’t opposites and value-judging those who have different priorities than you makes you seem like just another academic writing from an Ivory Tower.

“Excellent Sheep” is also a comprehensive, provocative condemnation of institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford (the so-called HYPSters), whom he accuses of valuing their prestigious reputations over the education of young minds, reinforcing the widening socioeconomic inequality in the United States and churning out ineffectual leaders in business and politics. It is here that Deresiewicz’s overgeneralization works to his advantage, and his bold statements about society become less personal, more polemical, and more persuasive, a call to action to fix an educational system that is supposed to provide merit-based opportunity and uphold the American Dream but in fact reinforces socioeconomic class, elite privilege, and the status quo.

Deresiewicz is better at asking questions than providing answers. His advice about the meaning of education spirals into the tired cliché of using the college years as a time to find yourself, discover your passion and ask the big questions (though he carefully acknowledges that the ability to think of higher education as an opportunity for self discovery is a highly privileged and entitled mentality). For students already in the system, he suggests service work — waiting tables, not community service — or transferring to a public university where you can get a quality education without the toxic psychological environment. He believes that institutions should continue affirmative action based on socioeconomic class instead of race and that all resources for K-12 education should be redistributed equally. Both idealistic suggestions, presented in 8 pages at the end of a 242-page book, offer little consolation after his condemning arguments about the elite higher education system’s flaws.

Stanford students, disillusioned and otherwise, may find it difficult to read such a thorough take-down of the kind of education we have all opted into. Deresiewicz will call you an entitled little shit, and you most likely will deserve it (we’ve all laughed at Arrillaga’s name on yet another building, criticized dining hall food, and groaned about the clunkiness of Axess).

But Deresiewicz will also force you to engage in a critical re-evaluation of education’s role in your development. He will help you rethink your priorities and your relationship with Stanford. And that kind of thinking — questioning the norm and learning how to be intellectually risky — is exactly what Deresiewicz argues an education should help you do.

My challenge to you: we might be compulsive over-achievers, but let’s not let that define us. Let’s slow down. Let’s be cognizant of our priorities and reflect on our decisions. Let’s stop pushing ourselves to do more and start letting ourselves sink deeper. Let’s roll around in the mud, get dirty with a desire for life, not just success.

Let’s prove that we aren’t just excellent sheep.

A previous version of this review appeared in The Seattle Times

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