Reviewing “Excellent Sheep”

Two legs may be bad, but I hear having four legs means you don't have a soul.

Two legs may be bad, but I hear having four legs means you don’t have a soul.

This summer, I wrote a short response to William Deresiewicz’s July 21 New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” On the whole, like those of many other Ivy League students, my initial response was a generally negative one: I wrote that “he conflates – for maximum shock and outrage – a bunch of basically unrelated social, economic, and psychological issues into a singular, self-righteous attack on an easy target – in this case, the ‘bubble of privilege’ – and the driven, soulless young people inside.” I thought, in short, that the article was little more than well-written clickbait.

But his article was meant to gather attention for the coming release of his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press: New York, 245 pages). I suppose it succeeded – I am reviewing it right now.

The book has an almost entirely different tone from that of the article. In contrast to the latter, which seemed a blithely contrarian condemnation of the Ivy League and its students, Excellent Sheep is generally more nuanced. Deresiewicz abandons his earlier vitriol in favor of an almost tender tone; he seems genuinely concerned, more than anything else, about the “souls” of the young adults that make up America’s elite universities. Now, he speaks more of redemption than condemnation, and this promise of a second chance initially draws us, excitedly, into his narrative, feeling much as we might at 3 A.M., looking up possible cures for some rare neuromuscular disease (that we are sure we have) on WebMD.

But Deresiewicz steps in to assure us that the condition is treatable, that soullessness can be cured. What he argues, above all, is that elite colleges have in recent times stripped the ability of students to discover themselves, to develop a truly individual identity. His first chapter is simply titled “The Students,” and in it he gives an eerily accurate description of the modern American high achiever. He deconstructs the pillars of what elite students innately deem “success,” connecting their prominent place with what he terms a widespread crisis of confidence on campuses. An epidemic, to be sure, but thankfully contained; restricted to the leafiest of quads, and virtually unknown anywhere else.

Deresiewicz takes care to note that, like every other group of intelligent eighteen-year-olds in recent history, today’s more privileged college freshmen generally arrive on campus “idealistic and curious, but beset by psychological demands that are inevitable products of the process that propelled them to college in the first place.” What makes the process so toxic, he believes, is the overpowering presence of “credentialism,” which Deresiewicz terms variously as the “accumulation of gold stars” and “jumping through hoops.” He argues that students have been conditioned to value themselves “in terms of the measures of success that mark your progress into and through the elite,” everything from SAT scores to the right college acceptance to the top job.

And this system, he argues, has led to a generation of confused young adults who have little known purpose in life but to collect that next gold star. Founding a club to prove “leadership” on an application or CV, taking a job at Goldman Sachs, double or triple-majoring – the prime importance of getting that extra accreditation has come to define not just what elite students do, but who they are. This process, argues Deresiewicz, eventually rears its ugly head as even the most successful within this system eventually have some sort of identity crisis, often in mid-life after all the “prizes” have been won.
Unfortunately, the book generally declines after the first thirty pages or so. Though his picture of the American elite student is a mostly accurate and heretofore obscured one, his analysis of what led to the current state of affairs, and what is to be done about it, ventures into murkier territory and is considerably less powerful.

The book is divided into four parts – “Sheep,” “Self,” “School,” and “Society.” The first, and best, contains the aforementioned “Students” chapter, and also ones titled “The History,” “The Training,” and “The Institutions.” All are generally insightful and interesting, but it soon becomes clear that Deresiewicz is a former English professor – most of the book’s evidence is based on anecdotes. This works well when he explains the particular mindset of today’s college students, but not quite as well when he attempts to describe what led to it. We are reading, in essence, his educated guesses. They are interesting enough, and in many cases, likely correct, but do not make for a particularly convincing book.

Much of the rest of Excellent Sheep is aimed squarely at elite college students themselves, as Deresiewicz attempts to explain exactly how they can extricate themselves from this culture. As is par for the course of the book, he uses a plethora of short tales to show how students can, have, and have failed to truly develop (or save) that elusive “soul.” He generally advises them to learn only for the sake of learning, with no other underlying purpose or drive – basically, to live without the singular motive of acquiring that next credential. He specifically focuses on the career options and choices of elite students, imploring them to ignore the strong psychological impulses to take the name job and to commit to some kind of deeper-seated personal development. Then surely, the purity of such a non-purposeful undergraduate experience will end the scourge of elitism, bring peace to the ivybeleaguered, and restoreth their souls.

Again, the book is interesting enough, but its substance does not account for Deresiewicz’s recent popularity. More than the students it describes, Excellent Sheep, itself, lacks a soul. What has garnered his work such attention – and what stands out most about the book as a whole – is its novelty. Commentators have, of course, in recent times decried, to various degrees, the outflow of elite students into investment banking and consulting, the supposed decline of the liberal arts, and the cutthroat college admissions process. Excellent Sheep connects these seemingly disparate phenomena into a comprehensive critique of the popular perception of modern American elite education, and therein lies its power. He has taken a thoughtful step back, pointed out the absurdities of modern Ivy League life, and recorded the sometimes horrible, anxiety-provoking consequences they can have on students’ lives, even if they are buried well under the surface, and only come out in the deep quiet of 3 A.M.

Deresiewicz’s book is flawed and excessively anecdotal, but it ought to be read by most students here at Dartmouth. It takes a conversation that had been simmering deep within many of our own minds and makes it a public one. I am not sure whether or not Excellent Sheep is ultimately a good book, but it’s certainly an important one. Hopefully, Deresiewicz is the first of many authors to tackle this subject.