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The very fact that somebody is talking about this cultural issue is excellent news. Students at elite schools go for years wondering if they are insane for not wanting to conform to a conveyor belt to finance, consulting, and general pre-professionalism. To hear another person who was raised in this environment (Deresiewicz is a two-time Columbia graduate and a former Yale professor himself) address this is reassuring. Part I of the book, titled “Sheep,” is an overview of the students at these schools, the history of elite schools, the kind of training students get from their parents, and the institutions themselves.
For being notoriously high achievers, students at elite schools are incredibly risk-averse, especially by the time they graduate. He quotes one Yale student:
“My friends and I didn’t run sprinting down a thousand career paths, bound for all corners of the globe. … Instead, we moved cautiously, in groups, plodding down a few well-worn trails so as to ensure that two or four years down the road, we could be stem cells again, still undifferentiated, still brimming with potential.” (19)
Students enter elite schools wishing to become something amazing but aren’t willing to take the leap to do that. The author points to the fact that being something other than a consultant or an analyst is considered “a waste of an Ivy League degree” by friends, family, and society, and that schools themselves cater to students who are already predisposed to this kind of career, by moving away from a blatantly oligarchical system in the 19th century to a faux-meritocracy — one defined by getting good grades, doing plenty of extracurriculars, and participating in “service”-packed summers — something that automatically selects for those who can afford those things.
Beyond the history of the institutions, Deresiewicz points to parenting as a major cause for students to be risk-averse sheep. Helicopter parents and Tiger Moms alike are to blame for creating a generation of cowards, he says, taking particular aim at Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Students are pushed to do things that are safe and will set them up for the best options in schools, but not necessarily the things they enjoy doing (if they ever even have the opportunity to figure out what they enjoy doing). This, in turn, creates a group of teen students who view success as simply jumping through the right hoops. “Rather than developing an inner self with its own goals and values,” he notes after pointing to the fact that Chinese parents actually view children as extensions of themselves, “they become dependent, for their sense of who they are, on authority figures and the tokens of approval they distribute.” (56) Among many (but certainly not all) high-achievers, this is the case. Students are looking to be told what to do and to succeed in doing that, in large part because they don’t know what else to do. An adolescence of being told by authority figures and parents that following their instructions is what constitutes success leads to a young adulthood grasping at straws to find new authority figures by whom to be patted.
Deresiewicz succeeds in his attempts to inspire the young reader in some sections. He takes up the mantle of convincing high-achieving young people that they need not go to school and study accounting, when in reality they want to give themselves to the fine arts. He decries the need to follow the well-worn trail mentioned above, and encourages students to try non-conventional approaches. This could mean majoring in fine arts rather than biology, or it could mean taking a gap year to pursue a passion and “develop a self.” Rather than double majoring, perhaps take a few electives to explore what one really loves.
These are all well and good things to say, but it’s not particularly useful. It is when he talks of moral courage that one is most likely to be moved to action:
You also need courage, moral courage, the bravery to act on your imagination in the face of what your family and friends are going to say to try to stop you. Because they’re not going to like it. The morally courageous person tends to make the individuals around him very uncomfortable. He doesn’t fit with their ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and he makes them insecure about the choices they themselves have made — or failed to make. … People don’t mind being trapped, as long as no one else is free. But stage a break, and everybody else begins to panic. (92)
For plenty of high-achievers adrift, it is just hearing somebody else reassure them that things won’t be easy if they decide to “stage a break,” but that it is worth it in the end. Too often, as the author himself notes, universities will exhort the need to “think different” and to “leave a mark on the world,” while pushing people in relatively traditional paths. They rarely tell the young person to do the hard thing and break from convention.
He also warns them against becoming a bureaucrat —whether a government or a corporate — and giving up on their values. Painting a terrifying (and seemingly accurate) picture of the bureaucrat with help from The Heart of Darkness, he goes after a path many young people follow after graduating from their elite school (e.g., graduate, go intern in Washington, get a job with the DoJ, work there, etc.). It is here that the practical value of Deresiewicz’s book really shines through and where his literary finesse is a boon to his case.