Revisiting Deresiewicz, Part I: Addressing criticisms of ‘Excellent Sheep’ author

Opinion by Nick Ahamed
Oct. 29, 2014, 11:05 p.m.

In July, The New Republic published an essay titled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” by former Yale professor and now writer William Deresiewicz. That piece was controversial, needless to say, garnering almost 200,000 shares on Facebook and prompting many students of elite universities to respond (UChicago, Yale, Dartmouth, and Stanford 1 and 2).

To address some of these criticisms, I sat down with Mr. Deresiewicz last week. In what follows, I will try to faithfully put Mr. Deresiewicz in conversation his critics. Then, I will shift away from this superficial conversation to highlight the discussion that we should be having.

First of all, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” must be understood for what it really is – a series of excerpts from his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. So, what’s in the book that’s not in the essay?

[box type=”shadow” ]The whole positive side of the argument. I mean, I think that essay is not an essay. It was a set of excerpts woven together by the magazine that I didn’t have a lot of input into. I mean all the words are mine. I would have done it a little differently. But the main point is that it’s mainly the critique, and this whole second half of the book – the second half of the subtitle – is about what college should be for and how students can find the sense of the direction that I think their education is so bad at helping them find, and then maybe also larger societal solutions.[/box]

Given that the essay is so partial and incomplete, it comes off as hypercritical of students at only elite universities. In it, these students are referred to as both “excellent sheep” and “entitled little shits” – neither a term that anyone wants to be called and which appear contradictory. On the one hand, students have no control while the other assumes students have some agency.

[box type=”shadow” ]I’m very clear right in the introduction, like on page 2, that I don’t blame students. I don’t blame an 18-year-old for who they are. [In the book,] I say I know it’s hard to hear these things as a privileged young person. It was very hard for me to hear them when the knowledge started to be thrust upon me. I was an entitled little shit, probably still am. It’s not your fault you grew up affluent and sheltered. It’s not your fault you grew up affluent and sheltered. But, now you need to take responsibility for it. So there are two things there. First of all, entitled little shit is not the same as excellent sheep. Entitled little shit is about being in this bubble of privilege and not realizing it. An entitled big shit would be Mitt Romney. It is his fault because he’s old enough to know better. So it’s not your fault that you’re an excellent sheep and it’s not your fault that you’re entitled little shit, but you should so something about the first one for your own sake and you should do something about the second one for the sake of the people who have to meet you in the rest of your life.[/box]

So if students can’t be blamed, this puts the onus on universities. Indeed, some see a direct link between Deresiewicz not getting tenure at Yale in 2008, his original essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and his current “Ivy bashing.” Why did he leave academia?

[box type=”shadow” ]When you go on the academic job market, you have almost no freedom whatsoever. Yale was the job I got, believe it or not. I interviewed at a few other places. Yale was the job I got. And I left academia not because I was denied tenure at Yale, it was because I was denied tenure at Yale – as I expected – and because I applied to 40 other jobs and I didn’t get any of them. The ones that I most wanted and came closest to, were at liberal arts colleges. But in the end, the job always went to someone else.[/box]

In a more substantive form, this criticism takes the form of arguing that criticizing elite universities is narrow in scope. Stanford student Kimberly Tan writes, “It’s unfair to blame top-tier universities and their students for this supposed zombie mentality without taking into consideration society’s role in cultivating this behavior.” However, Deresiewicz does understand that elite universities are not solely responsible.

[box type=”shadow” ]It’s a big system with many interlocking parts. The colleges are one part, parents, students, politicians, employers, society in general, the culture in general. No one has complete freedom to act; no one is completely helpless. Everyone, and this is true in general, if we talked about some other social problem, everyone has some degree of freedom to act. And we know that because there are some people who use that freedom and some colleges that use that freedom. There are colleges that do things differently. So it is certainly not all the schools’ fault, neither is none of it their fault.[/box]

Lastly, his solutions are imperfect. Again, Kimberly Tan writes, “Because of this, the solutions Deresiewicz proposes in his article are wholly inadequate, as they focus on student decisions and university policies instead of addressing the larger picture.” I pushed Deresiewicz on these – items like capping the number of extracurriculars or adjusting the SAT for socioeconomic factors.

[box type=”shadow” ]This is really hard and I have a paragraph where I spit out all kinds of partial solutions all of which I got from other people. I will dispute, I think limiting the number of extracurricular is not arbitrary. I think it’s really important because after all what I’m talking about is the endless hoop-jumping that leaves you no time. And a friend of mine who’s a professor at Yale thinks you know that, and whose husband was an admissions officer there for many years, thinks that that’s a great idea that should be implemented immediately. When you talk about adjusting SAT scores, I mean that’s really a way to address socioeconomic inequality. But none of these – these are all partial solutions. So what’s the big solution? I’m not sure I have a big solution.[/box]

Whether you agree with Deresiewicz or resent him, we must go beyond the simplified counterarguments to a partial article. The article – in reality, the book – created an important conversation. If he wasn’t raising valid points, the discussion wouldn’t be as loud and wide as it is. Tomorrow, we’ll visit the productive aspect of that discussion.

Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed ‘at’

Nick Ahamed is the Desk Editor of The Stanford Daily Editorial Board. He was Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 246 and previously served as a political columnist. He is a senior from Minneapolis, Minn. majoring in Political Science. Contact him at nahamed 'at'

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