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Deresiewicz diagnoses a serious cultural issue, but his prescription and techniques are far from ideal.
When I saw William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” I jumped at the opportunity to read it. As a partial Ivy League apostate myself, the thought of somebody — a former Ivy League professor at that! — calling out the cultural problems within these institutions excited me. The piece made waves, with students and professors alike responding, which got people excited for Deresiewicz’s upcoming book, Excellent Sheep. It worked. I bought his book and worked my way through it, hoping for an intricate analysis of a serious cultural issue and a nuanced solution.
While at an Ivy League university — the University of Pennsylvania, in my case — I see many of the issues that Deresiewicz identifies in his New Republic piece and in interviews in the book. Students who came to school wanting to change the world and make it their own place – to be in the driver’s seat of their lives – quickly fell into an assembly-line-like mold. They may have entered school wanting to start a business and offer a new service, or to write a book, or to become a professional speaker, but by their second or third years, many had their eyes set on the crown jewels of the Ivy League experience — On Campus Recruiting (OCR). They designed their resumes and schedules around exactly what recruiters from Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley would want and slowly extirpated the things they had passions for coming into school. They became barely identifiable with their starry-eyed freshman selves. It wasn’t infuriating as much as it was sad.
The problem is not necessarily that students want to go work on Wall Street after their time at school — if that is truly your dream and what you believe will make you come alive, then by all means, please go pursue that! The problem is something at these schools is driving young people to settle and choose careers they don’t find fulfilling. I was hoping Deresiewicz would identify what that something is.
In short, I was disappointed. Deresiewicz correctly diagnoses the disease that is this cultural issue, but his diagnosis is shallow, lacks detail (he relies almost entirely on anecdote and quoting English literature), and misses the deeper issue of pre-college schooling almost altogether. Even worse, his prescription for the problem — accessible liberal arts education at schools like public honors colleges (outlined in Part III of the book) — stems from his romanticized view of the academy, an unrealistic view of how public honors colleges operate, and an economically illiterate view of admissions reform (please see Steven Pinker’s review here. Pinker points out that the issues that students face at elite schools — anxiety, depression, unfulfilled potential — are suffered at higher rates by students at public universities, and that Deresiewicz’s admissions reform recommendations would fail to address the perverse meritocracy he attacks, among other things).
I go into some of the things I enjoyed and was concerned about in greater detail below. Pinker’s review adequately addresses Deresiewicz’s recommendations, so I focus primarily on Parts I and II of Excellent Sheep — “Sheep” and “Inventing Yourself,” respectively — for this review.