In Excellent Sheep, author William Deresiewicz takes aim at America’s most elite universities, critiquing the current educational system. What do these institutions encourage in prospective students through their admissions policies? How does the university environment impact students? And, finally, how do these two dynamics combine to influence graduates?
In Part 1, Deresiewics begins by focusing on high performing students and their well-being, both in high school and college. In what seems, in hindsight, an increasingly prescient observation, he describes students at elite institutions (defined as Ivy League and their peer universities) as becoming more and more depressed, anxious, and lonely. Since Deresiewics’ original observation in 2014, this trend has only continued, and may have even accelerated. So, what is the cause of this phenomenon? Deresiewics argues that it stems from the college admissions process, which encourages talented and ambitious high schoolers to be like “an alien species or super people” because of the constant success and broad set of activities that are required to gain admission. The author references his own experience with college admissions in the 1980s, when top students had taken three AP courses and participated in around three extracurriculars. At the time of Excellent Sheep’s publication (2014), he highlights that seven or eight AP classes and ten extracurricular activities were expected, and today, the number of AP classes is likely closer to ten. In addition, students pick courses and activities based upon what they believe will improve their resume rather than what truly interests them, robbing them of a chance to grow as people and become more independent. The “resume arms race” has replaced genuine learning and interest, and the hyper competitive battle for perfection among students has left no room for personal development or mistakes, a recipe for anxiety and other mental health challenges.
Once admitted to an elite university, Deresiewics claims, it doesn’t get any better. These institutions are increasingly run like businesses, looking more to increase their endowment and prestige than truly teach. Professors are rewarded for bringing in research money and for fueling reputational gain, not for teaching undergraduate students. Undergraduate learning suffers as students are trained in extremely narrow specialities, matching the professor’s expertise. There is no time for exploration, self-discovery, or critical thinking. Another complaint is that when students arrive on campus of these top universities, they are taught that they themselves are elite and deserving of success, simply because they managed to be admitted. This fuels entitlement and causes many students to become out of touch with reality. Overall, students lose out on holistic teaching and a chance to learn more about themselves, robbing them of the true education they should have received.
What does this mean for the next generation of graduates? According to Deresiewics, they will “have many achievements, but little experience, great success, but no vision.” Their academic careers, built more on avoiding failure than on true learning, motivated out of a love of success rather than a desire to grow as a person, will have completely failed to prepare them for life. Students have been miseducated by universities and graduate with no real direction or purpose. This is why, Deresiewics argues, there are increasing numbers of students entering finance or consulting: jobs that are viewed as high status but aren’t typically tied to a defined purpose or life goal.
After a rather interesting dissection of the problems with elite universities, the book progresses into its weaker part, which is a discussion of potential solutions to these issues. Deresiewics’ solutions are thin and lack real insight; for instance, he advocates for all students to reject elite universities and instead attend smaller liberal arts colleges (like the one he currently works at, incidentally). This idea may be beneficial for some, but does not necessarily address the powerful incentive structures that are currently in place which motivate students to apply for Ivy League institutions. Some of his other advice is simply cliche and overdone (“Be yourself!”), which he himself even admits, though admitting this fault does little to make up for filling so many pages with the stuff.
Overall, Excellent Sheep presents an interesting and convincing case that elite universities are in need of reform, but unfortunately presents little in the way of credible solutions to the problem.