In his recent talk, William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” received applause, laughs and the occasional collective groan from an audience of current Stanford students, alumni and parents Thursday afternoon.
Deresiewicz’s book, which was just published this August, highlights the problems with a goal-, or “hoop-,” oriented system of education that Deresiewicz argues takes the love of learning out of students. There to moderate the discussion was Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, former Stanford Dean of Freshman, who has a book coming out in 2015 titled “How to Raise an Adult.”
Deresiewicz believes that too many students are turned into “sheep,” or rule-followers, to an extreme that they will go through every motion at the wish of someone else and are lacking a purpose in their education and their lives. Deresiewicz argues in his book and discussed during his talk that children need time and room to grow, make mistakes and find something they love. Children across the world, Deresiewicz explained, are losing the ability to find a passion and instead are jumping through one hoop after another to satisfy a higher authority. Lythcott-Haims dubbed this a “checklisted childhood.”
To Deresiewicz, the most troubling and most prevalent criticism of his book was not, “The Ivies and Stanford do offer a real education,” but rather, “Who wants a real education anyway?” Deresiewicz explains this “real” education involves learning to think, finding a purpose and dedicating yourself to that thing, regardless of how much money you might make from it.
“You will likely have to sacrifice some status or wealth to find fulfillment,” Deresiewicz said.
In an essay in the New Republic composed of excerpts from Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz calls Stanford out by name as being one of the problems with our educational system. In his talk on Thursday, Deresiewicz explained that the majority of his qualms are with the admissions process to get into Stanford and other prestigious universities.
When pressed by Lythcott-Haims for a solution for students who don’t want to be “sheep,” Deresiewicz said, “I said you might have to choose between success and fulfillment. That might mean choosing between Stanford and fulfillment.”
Deresiewicz also attacked parents who push their children to the extreme in order for their child to be admitted to a top-tier university.
“Just as students judge their self worth as a human being on what grades they make, parents judge their self worth on where their child gets into college,” he said. “It’s the final examination of being a parent.”
In the question and answer session following Deresiewicz’s talk, Stanford student Nick Burns ’18 questioned Deresiewicz’s assumption that all Stanford students are “excellent sheep,” by claiming that the students he observed from his elite private high school getting admitted to top tier schools were more than “sheep” and seemed to have some special spark that separated them from the masses of “sheep” present in high schools across the country.
Burns pointed out that Stanford even has a name on its application for this spark: “intellectual vitality.”
Likewise, Tyler Weitzman ’18 told Deresiewicz that if there was an exception to the idea that you must choose between fulfillment and success, Stanford students would be the exception. In contrast, a Stanford senior stood up to describe how much he felt like a sheep and to ask Deresiewicz how he could solve the problem.
Deresiewicz pointed out that the two students who had questioned his assertions were freshman as opposed to the senior who knew exactly what Deresiewicz was referring to. He also pointed out that the angriest responses he received from readers were 18-year-olds who had just been admitted to the Ivy Leagues.
“Your whole sense of self worth is ‘I just got into Stanford! I just got into Stanford! That’s so great,’” Deresiewicz explained of newly admitted freshmen. “So for someone to try to take that away from you would be problematic.”
Solutions that Deresiewicz explored in his book mostly involved public universities where Deresiewicz heralded the diversity of ideas, types of people and individual interests contrasted with the absurd narrowness and homogeneity of elite institutions.
In the excerpt of his book in the New Republic essay, Deresiewicz writes, “It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open and far less entitled and competitive.” Another idea Deresiewicz discussed was that of the honors college at many large universities.
“You’ve basically got a top-20 liberal arts college within a large, public university,” he said of the University of Mississippi’s honors college he recently visited.
Deresiewicz ended his talk, telling the audience that China may plan to build “100 Harvards,” in their quest to improve their system of higher education, but he believes the better option would be “100 Berkeleys.”
Contact Elizabeth Wallace at wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.