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Contemptuous and Contradictory
Deresiewicz exhorts students to stop working within the system (e.g., going to work for a nonprofit in the summer, coming home to do a mission trip to Guatemala in the Spring, etc.) in one paragraph, but goes on to disparage them for not working in the textbook-system he romanticizes: politics. In this truly strange contradiction, he decries working for startups and nonprofits, and then goes on to say why students should run for public office and engage in political work.
If anything, the fact that fewer young people are engaging in politics is a sign that they are working outside the system. They’re creating their own systems and innovating new solutions. Isn’t this the definition of working outside of the system? Politics is a remarkably slow and easily-corruptible way of (not) getting things done, so why romanticize it? Young people have thrown off the psychological chains of Generation X and the Baby Boomers — they have seen how politics works slowly and usually just to screw them over at the behest of Deresiewicz’s generation and retirees. If he should give credit to young people anywhere in the book, it is here. If anything, fewer elite graduates should get involved with politics, not more.
There’s a sort of contempt expressed by his tone towards entrepreneurs and startups (but not “social entrepreneurs,” weirdly enough). In one section, he says young people shouldn’t go out to “solve a problem,” unless that involves “social entrepreneurship,” like inventing an app to make your local government more effective. For-profit entrepreneurship, he says, is merely “taking an advantage of an opportunity,” a claim he fails to defend before moving on. What Deresiewicz doesn’t realize is that market opportunities identified by entrepreneurs are almost always problems to be solved. Entrepreneurs, whether they are opening up a bakery or inventing Uber, solve problems and create value. They make lives better for others and make the world easier to navigate. Why he is so quick to laud teaching, academia, and social entrepreneurship while disparaging for-profit entrepreneurship is beyond me. If anything, it just further exposes his lack of basic economic literacy and further backs up the complaint that many have against the academy as not being “the real world.”
He also seems to think that the only life in which somebody can do philosophizing is the life of a liberal arts major. Here it is clear that Deresiewicz has never actually talked to an entrepreneur, as the vast majority I have are not only value-creators, but they are simultaneously incredibly philosophical people. They know how to identify problems and synthesize new solutions (the core of a philosophical mindset) and many are well-read in the humanities, though they may not devote their lives to them.
The question arises: why not laud both social and for-profit entrepreneurship? The jabs the author makes at the latter are totally unnecessary to his case and only work to make him look detached from the world he is begging young people to understand holistically.
For Whom The Bell Tolls?
There is a chapter titled “What is College For?” A good question and one which requires dispassionate analysis. That is nowhere to be found in this book. Assertion after assertion, Deresiewicz says college is for becoming a fuller person. He says college is the place to study the liberal arts (without ever considering whether or not that can be done outside a college atmosphere). He operates with a romanticized view of the academy — of one that is announced every year by liberal arts professors defending their disciplines in newspaper columns.
But most students don’t view college that way. If Deresiewicz wants to say they should view college that way, he has to make a stronger case than he does. To illustrate this point, consider an analogy.
“What is exercise for?” is a silly question if analyzed the way Deresiewicz analyzes college. Exercise is for what the person who is exercising wants it to be. If they want to exercise to lose weight, that is what it is for. If they want to exercise because it makes them feel better, that is what it is for. How people exercise is up to them, as well. Some people focus on cardio for their specific needs, while others focus in strength training. If somebody were to come along and tell exercisers, “no, exercise is for becoming your full human potential!” that would seem absurd. For some it may be this, but for others it may not.
In the case of college, most students pursue an education for the degree. They want the degree because it will help them get a job. As noted above, the degree shows employers that they have passed a baseline and that they are a minimally-acceptable candidate.
If that is not what Deresiewicz thinks college should be for, then he has a much greater cultural issue to overcome than just telling elite students not to go to school. Why not encourage people to become lifelong learners outside of the college paradigm? Why not question the entire system? He exhorts students to think big and work outside the system, but falls back into small, system-based thinking himself.
Excellent Sheep has sections that are worth reading, and can be an enjoyable book at times, but the reasoning and argumentation behind it is flimsy and frustrating. Once one digs through the literary fluff that makes up a good half of the book, one walks away dissatisfied.
If a reader is interested in something on each of Deresiewicz’s main goals — the unfulfilled lives of young people, finding one’s passions, and higher education reform — there are better books out there. Consider Peter Gray’s Free to Learn, Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work, and Bryan Caplan’s forthcoming The Case Against Education.