EXCELLENT SHEEP: THE MISEDUCATION OF THE AMERICAN ELITE & THE WAY TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE
By William Deresiewicz
Deresiewicz was a professor at Yale until 2008. He contributes regularly to scholarly journals. This groundbreaking work provides insights about how to lead, think and live an authentic life, and illuminates the fact that elite schools are not providing said insights to their students.
Much of the information below is either a direct or indirect quote. Sheila's comments are generally pretty obvious.
Today's students are expected to be 'super people' - have a double major, play a sport, a musical instrument, speak a few languages, do service work in distant corners of the globe, have a few hobbies, and be master of it all. These kids seem to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But a large body of evidence demonstrates that the stressed out, over-pressured high school student fares no better once she enters college.
Many students are consumed by their drive to make it to the top (whatever that is), isolated from others, sacrificing their health and personal relationships, bypassing opportunities for exploration in areas of interest in a never ending drive to be #1. A former student at Yale puts it this way, "I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn't be at Yale." Arghh.
Endless hoop jumping - APs, SATs, coaching, tutoring, service, leadership - often leaves children no time or tools to figure out what they even want out of their college experience. The ultimate goal seems to be acceptance, with no time for thought about what one wants to achieve/explore/expand about oneself once in college.
One Cornell student summed up her life like this, "I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, I expect to hate my job, and this is just how it's going to be for the rest of my life."
(One of my Drake students, when I asked what would bring her joy, told me that she expects to forego all joy until she graduates from college - six years from now. Until then, she has a packed schedule of studying and activities that she hates, but intends to continue, as college is the only goal in her - and her families - sights.)
P 108: Risk: The Importance, not of avoiding failure, but of learning to cope with it as a normal and valuable part of development. The best reason to fail is to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world. It’s possible to blow a test or two and still survive to adulthood. Cite Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong which “advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom.”
Never to have failed is a sign not of merit but fragility; it means your fears have kept you from doing or becoming what you might have. “Fail better,” Samuel Beckett famously wrote. If your standards are as high as they should be, you will fail again and again. That is the difference between mere success and true excellence.
P 110: Fear means go! Some fears are legitimate, but the ones that are born from insecurity are signals telling you to march resolutely toward them. Stop trying to prevent kids from taking the same kinds of risks (personal, professional, about work or sex or whatever) that not only you survived, but that made you who you are.
Oliver Cromwell: “A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.”
Instead of success, make the work itself the goal. Everything undertaken for its own sake is worthwhile, irrespective of the outcome. Aim high, to be sure, but do it for the love of the work. The work and the love – that’s all that’s going to be there in the end. The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.
P 123: Here are a few suggestions about the way you ought to conduct yourself when you go off to college. Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them your grades on papers or tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term. Don’t ask them for help of any kind. If they try to interfere with course selection or other aspects of your life, ask them politely to back off. If they don’t, ask them impolitely. Make it clear to them that this is your experience, not theirs.
P 125: How about not enriching yourself for a change? How about doing something that you can’t put on your resume (or brag about on Facebook)? How about just wandering, literally or metaphorically, or holing up and reading somewhere? How about getting a lousy apartment with a bunch of friends (or a bunch of strangers who need a roommate) and supporting yourself with a part-time job? P 127: Do not choose once and for all. Do not set an ultimate destination. You tack a course, moving from point to point in a general direction. You gradually find out, as you work and study and reflect, as you meet new people and discover new places, what the world has to offer and what you have to give. Thinking too far down the road gets you into trouble. Believing you have all the answers now is part of the problem. Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years. That person will have her own ideas.
P 133: Apocalype Now – description of the manager: “He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it? Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust – just uneasiness – nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. He had no learning and no intelligence. His position had come to him – why? He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going – that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.”
Around the 15th time I read that paragraph, I realized that it was a perfect description of the kind of person who prospers in a bureaucratic environment, because it finally struck me that it was a perfect description of a boss I used to have. She also had a smile – hers was like a shark – and she also had a gift for making you uneasy, as if you had been doing something wrong, only she wasn’t going to tell you what it was. And like the manager, she had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or even for creating order, no particular learning or intelligence, almost no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, her position had come to her – why?
Why are the best people so often mired in the middle, while nonentities become the leaders? Because what gets you up the ladder isn’t excellence; it is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Being smooth at cocktail parties, playing office politics, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Getting along by going along. Not sticking your neck out for the sake of your principles – not having any principles. Neither believing in the system nor thinking to question it. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like Conrad’s manager, you have nothing inside you at all.
What people usually mean by a leader now is someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge. Leaders tend to be little adults, little grown-ups who don’t challenge the big grown-ups who run the place – gung ho followers.
P 137 It takes a willingness to be unpopular – independent thinking and leadership. Kips today are raised in an atmosphere of constant affirmation. Cheerful, flexible, conciliatory, compromise. So intent on avoiding painful feelings that we’ve ended up with kids whose edges have been sanded off.
P 144: The first thing that you need to do in college is THINK. The point is not to have a high IQ. The point is to use it. Intelligence is not an aptitude. It’s an activity.
P 150: Historian Simon Schama tells a story of a student who complained that his father hadn’t sent him to Harvard to become more confused. Yes, Schama answered, he did, or at least, he should have. College is the place to learn that most of what we believe is much more provisional and complicated than we usually care to admit. The world is full of immensely intricate things. Despite our urge for clear and simple answers, the truth is very hard to come by.
P 152: Part of what you learn from majoring in something that actually interests you is that there are more fulfilling ways to spend your time than trying to be rich. A proper education prepares you for your whole career.
P 154: Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, notes that even high-tech companies “place comparatively little value on content knowledge” CEO of The Carlyle Group, David Rubenstein, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “H = MC. Humanities equals more cash.” Information is freely available everywhere now; the question is whether you know what to do with it.
P 168: when a student studies English, he majors “in becoming a person.” It is not about action versus contemplation, but a combination of the two.
MOOCs (massive open online courses) - online instruction embodies an idea of knowledge that has been shaped by the Web - by Google & Wikipedia - a confusion of information with understanding. MOOC is a sexy textbook, one that promotes a range of practices and behaviors that higher education ought to fight against: passive learning, diminished attention, the displacement of reading by watching. He likens replacing traditional courses to taking children away from their mother and handing them to a wire monkey. Teaching takes time, challenging students, takes time; commenting and correcting take time. A 2005 survey found that less than one in six college freshman were "very satisfied" with the teaching they experience.
Think carefully about who you surround yourself with in college. Are you only associating with students who look and think like you, who were raised in a similar fashion with the same economic status? Diversity is a key to understanding and collaborating with those of different viewpoints and expanding your own - it is more often found at the public and state universities than at elite institutions.
Once in college, don't passively observe. Actively direct your own education, follow your instincts, choose a major that excites you. This is YOUR time, your chance to become the person you have not yet dreamed of being.
These numbers are interesting. In 1985, 46% of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55%. By 2006, it was 67%. American higher education is economically stratified. 100 high schools account for 22% of the student body at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (and Drake ain't one of them!). Of those, 94 are private schools.
(Now you should go to my Parenting Article section and read the report that Harvard got behind in terms of teaching students to be kind people, instead of overachievers. It has some great ideas, but the proof will be in the pudding, as they just keep accepting the same students from the same SES group and the same private schools, and ratcheting up the anxiety levels of the rest of the kids in the country.)
Colleges should remember that selecting students by GPA more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind. The same goes for quantity as opposed to quality - of APs, extracurriculars, etc. Excellence requires single-mindedness as well as the freedom to follow one's intuition, not a willingness to fill in every box.
Deresiewicz wraps it all up with a call for social justice and more equal opportunity. Are we going to be a winner take all society, where those who start out with the most resources (for coaching, private school, tutoring) end up with the most opportunity?
If we are to create a decent society, a just, wise and prosperous society, then we must believe that ALL children have the right to access and educational opportunities, not just our own biological ones. Time to try democracy.Posted by Sheila Souder on 03/28/2016.