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Unfortunately, beyond identifying an actual problem and occasionally rallying the troops, the book falls into problems time and time again. These problems make it read more like a long-form rant than an erudite analysis, and the ugly parts of the book only exacerbate them.
As other reviews have noted, Excellent Sheep is missing one notable thing for being a commentary on a social issue: citations. Nowhere in the book can a “Notes” section or footnotes be found. The citations made throughout the book are mostly to 19th Century English literature (unsurprising, considering the author was an English professor) and anecdote.
It’s not that these citations aren’t out there — Pinker links to a few in his review and other critiques of higher education list them extensively — it’s that Deresiewicz prefers to argue this way. The frustrating part about this is that those who agree with Deresiewicz’s core cultural complaint are let down by his flimsy argumentation. It is easy to find a fulfilled Ivy League graduate working on Wall Street for every unfulfilled one he cites.
As he mounts a defense of the humanities and liberal arts in Part III, one expects citations to studies showing the cognitive effects of studying liberal arts (read: majoring in liberal arts) on the mind. None are to be found. Most of the citations are to articles written by other humanities professors about the value of a liberal arts degree in the marketplace (again, cherry-picked data makes up many of these arguments) or to authors about the inherent value of art. For every student who is happy and fulfilled with their liberal arts degree, one can, once again, find a student who went through the hoops and loops with it just like others did with their biology or finance degrees. His case would be considerably more persuasive and stronger if it were more than pleading with students to consider the value of what he himself studied.
An extension of the under-sourced issue is that the book’s analysis is quite shallow. Part I — where the author attempts to diagnose the problem — is a paltry 63 pages long. In this brief analysis, he points to Tiger and helicopter parenting as major causes for young high-achievers being unfulfilled, but seemingly doesn’t consider the problem of traditional schooling itself to be a cause. Young people who are vying for their parents’ adoration and approval are not only looking for their approval. At least 8 hours of every weekday for 8-9 months a year, and oftentimes much more than that with extracurriculars and summer programs, they are looking for the approval of their teachers, school administrators, and government bureaucrats pushing standardized curricula and testing regimens on them. Deresiewicz attacks the way in which elite prep schools reflect elite universities, but doesn’t even gloss over the way in which traditional schools themselves reflect this regimented, hierarchical, politicized system.
Peter Gray notes in his excellent Free to Learn, that traditional schools are, by their very nature, prone to making a group of risk-averse non-creatives who settle for what they are given rather than create their ideals. It is no wonder, then, that the students who excel in these institutions, full of hoop-jumping and loop-navigating, are driven to the top and matriculate into elite universities, where they eventually crack. It’s neither just parents nor prep schools, it’s schooling itself. Schools, and academia, self-select for people who are good at following guidelines, working within systems, following rules, and not disrupting things (which maybe explains his own contempt for innovation and markets detailed below).
Since the core issue in the book (at least the first part) is a cultural issue, and since cultural issues are complex, multi-faceted systems, I don’t expect a totally systematic analysis. I’ve certainly read better analyses on similar subjects (Gray’s, for example), though, and was disappointed by what I felt was a mere glossing-over of the landscape at play.
There are sections throughout the book in which the author begins to engage in armchair-economic analysis, but his ignorance of economic facts shows through. This is most striking in two intertwined sections.
The first is his commentary on the commodification of the college education. He decries the observation that “policy makers had initiated an effort to transfer higher education into a consumer market by funneling money to students (through grants and loans) rather than to institutions,” once again without any citation. (67) He goes on “the worst effect of the commercialization of higher education is the way that it has changed how institutions see their students. Now they think of them as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged.” (69) Students are not, in fact, customers. They are input. Parents and government agencies are the customers. Universities need students in order to get their parents’ money and to get the government loans following those students. Beyond that, universities get a good chunk of their money from government grants that aren’t directly attached to students.
A fine mistake to make, perhaps, if it weren’t for the fact that most universities do not treat their students like customers once they are roped in. Most elite universities ignore their undergraduates, pile more work on their graduates, and send their presidents off to expensive donor galas. For example, the University of Pennsylvania has been notoriously bad at responding to the demands of students to provide better mental health and counseling services after a rash of suicides has plagued the campus for several semesters. Yale and Cornell have suffered similar problems. School bureaucrats don’t respond — why should they? It’s not like students are really going to take their money elsewhere, and even if they do, the bureaucrat won’t personally suffer for it. Professors aren’t much better, with many focusing on their research or graduate seminars. It’s not like a bad review from an undergraduate is going to make them lose their job.
His second major economic folly comes with his recommendation that we need to drive more students to affordable, robust liberal arts degrees. He himself admits that it makes sense for more and more students to be driven to elite universities as the value of a BA diminishes, but he apparently misses why the value of the BA is falling. In large part, it is because more people have BAs than ever before. Most students pursue degrees to get a job (a point I address below) — to show employers that they have passed a minimum bar and that they are a minimally-qualified candidate for a job (see: signaling theory of education). As more and more students have BAs, the signal becomes weaker. If everybody has a BA, then it doesn’t show employers anything other than that the student sat through four years of schooling and was given a piece of paper.
A better solution in Deresiewicz’s framework of liberal arts would be to push more people to pursue the liberal arts outside of college — with mentors in a truly intellectual, and not credentialing, environment.