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Why Being an “Excellent Sheep” Isn’t So Bad

William Deresiewicz’s July article for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League [1],” launched a insightful, heated debate about the nature and meaning of education. In the newest edition of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has penned a thought-provoking review [2] of Deresiewicz’s newly-released book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life [3], specifically considering its discussion of self-focus and career, comparing them with the writings and thought of Robert A. Nisbet.

In considering universities’ education, Deresiewicz asks whether they produce self-realization: “The highest function of art, and of literature in particular, is to bring us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us,” he writes. But Heller objects to this:

The groovy lore of college—the notion that it is a place to find yourself, follow your passions, learn to think in ways that benefit the world … Nisbet thought that these ideals were mostly feel-good bunk. Since when was it the university’s responsibility to solve all of society’s problems? he asked. And why should a professor rich in knowledge have to teach things that a callow nineteen-year-old considered “relevant” and “meaningful”? Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point.

This older idea of knowledge—something inherently and, indeed, objectively good—is contrary to “knowledge” in the conception of Deresiewicz and others, which must be self-applicable in order to be meaningful. But it’s true that Deresiewicz’s call for self-actualization is a bit more complicated than this (Heller notes that Excellent Sheep is “full of such confusions”). In an interview with The Atlantic‘s Lauren Davis, Heller explained [4] the meaning of his book’s title:

… [Students are] sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards.

Here, Deresiewicz is denouncing the career-focused structure of learning and the limits it imposes on self-reflection, rather than denouncing the actual subject matter of learning itself. Later on, he applies these thoughts to the classroom and the way students absorb knowledge. “The main point,” he says, “is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want.”

These two realms in which Deresiewicz identifies a lack of “self-awareness”—the technical/professional and the personal/intellectual—are connected by the ingredient of time. Students are so busy pursuing parent or university-imposed trajectories that they have no time to reflect on their learning, what it’s for, how they ought to apply it. Deresiewicz has some good points here: it is true that, though knowledge itself is objective, we will be unable to see how it threads its way through our lives unless we cultivate a healthy amount of reflection.

But Heller has good points, too: he acknowledges that education ought not revolve around career paths and money, but also sees the tension between career and academics as the “fragile,” eternal balance of the university. And despite Deresiewicz’s criticisms of students’ frantic schedules, Heller writes that “the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.” These are truly lessons that will remain relevant throughout a person’s life. Heller seems to say that being an “excellent sheep” isn’t so bad, if you are truly an excellent one. Perhaps being a sheep is the first step along a path to eventual intellectual independence and prudence.

Deresiewicz sees the frantic chaos in students’ lives, and argues self-reflection will assuage their depression and give them meaning. Heller sees the chaos, and suggests that this is the way in which gold emerges from dross. It could be that both are right, to an extent: the key is, perhaps, in the “excellent” part of “excellent sheep.” If the core of an education is good and insightful, it will cultivate strong and thoughtful minds. Some students may still run frenzied and stressed between internships and fellowships, papers and projects, exams and speeches. But the meat of what they learn, their daily bread of knowledge, will sustain and grow their self-reflective souls. And eventually, whether during college or after, they will be sheep no more.

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#1 Comment By collin On August 26, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

In reading this article I am left this is argument against Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over” future. Unfortunately the competitive global economy has made the ‘good sheep’ path a more limited future than anytime in the last 60 years. I don’t think this is just driven by the ‘elites’ but the general automation of most human tasks.

#2 Comment By Ken T On August 26, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

“Students are so busy pursuing parent or university-imposed trajectories that they have no time to reflect on their learning, what it’s for, how they ought to apply it.”

That certainly describes my own experience (though I was nowhere near the Ivy League elite). Sheeplike and dutiful, I followed the path laid out in front of me without ever asking why. Until midway through my first college experience it all started to fall apart when I had to start making my own decisions. I dropped out and went to work as a blue-collar factory worker for several years. Only after having that experience was I able to choose my own path, at which point I went back and completed my education, and embarked on what became the successful career path of the rest of my working life.

I suppose that there is a need in our society for some “excellent sheep” to do the drudge work without question, but with too many society will be stagnant and leaderless.

#3 Comment By Ed On August 26, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

Deresiewicz is right, but “self-realization” is of necessity an individual and personal process that takes place apart from massive, impersonal institutions. When students demand a meaningful existence and turn away en masse from practical and lucrative pursuits, nations tremble.

#4 Comment By maria On August 26, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

I am happy that some colleges are training “sheep” – normal people, ready and able to work, responsible, smart, intelligent.

As a parent, I don’t want a college that teaches students to rebel, disrespect, and “find your own way”.

The best ad for Ivy league …

#5 Comment By maria On August 26, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

Ken, every second student claims “leadership skill”. Our society is not leaderless, we have too many leaders, but not enough dutiful citizens.

Also, you are a man. You can frolic with your life, drop college, (20+) work at factory (25+) start new college (30+), get a job (35+), start a family (40+) …. A female doesn’t have this luxury. By 40+ her fertile years are almost over.

#6 Comment By cdugga On August 27, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

Being a good sheep is pre-requisite to having a valid opinion on what is wrong with the herd? Okay, I’ll buy that with the caveat that being a bad sheep does not necessarily make for bad opinion concerning the hood or the herd, the mob or the police, or the prostitute and the porn industry. Takes one to know one only goes so far, but I admit might go further than looking from the outside in. Am I being clear. Probably not, but I have difficulty assigning allot of things in terms of black and white, and pun-ishment is usually intentional.
Even if we wanted to, could we expand the luxury of reflection and the ability to compose thought to more people by adjusting our education system. Like, is it the way we educate that is the question, or is it the time we allow for learning and reflection on knowledge and experience, versus the time we allow for distraction. Does distraction contribute to, or take away from the goals of education? Yeah, it can get complicated. The goals of education are, well, to learn stuff to make a living, or to learn about how to find out things. Both of course.
But I do have an opinion for what it is worth even though I know that nobody pays for individual opinion unless it pays for itself, and cynical opinion don’t pay a dime. What about the sheep of today? The new generations have nothing to offer society if for no other reason than they do not have the skills or inclination to move away from the herd. There is no app for that. And if the ants are happy with just endless sugar water, why would we ever want them to develop reflection on individual self beyond what they see in the mirror, or foster a desire to roam away from the comfort of the herd and outside the net of trivial pursuit and infotainment?
Critical thinking has been a luxury for the elite, and now it must be demonized as an inefficient detriment to the deified market. Do we want youth to view the market critically, or do we want them to buy what it is selling while we distract them from reflection? Don’t know? Maybe we could google it. That’s what I always do, even with so many bots slowing me down. I should probably lay a false trail to u-tube and facebook to discard all those bots. No algorithm is programmed to follow the mindless. Is it?

#7 Comment By Viking On August 28, 2014 @ 6:08 am

I haven’t read the book in question, so can’t say what Deresiewicz might have meant. But his mentioning the “American Elite” indicates to me that he isn’t talking about Joe or Susie College at State U, but the super-driven types who make up the Ivies and similar institutions, especially those likely to occupy high governmental or corporate positions in the future. So, while Maria may be right about the large number of students claiming leadership skills, these are institutions where it’s likely based on reality. As such, it deserves a different response from one based on all American college students across the fruited plain.

Btw, Gracy, I believe you meant Deresiewicz rather than Heller in the sentence: “In an interview with The Atlantic’s Lauren Davis, *Heller* explained the meaning of his book’s title:”.

#8 Comment By David Lloyd-Jones On September 3, 2014 @ 5:34 am

I’ve always had trouble with the left objecting to its own victories.

Here in Canada the Steelworkers and the CAW, formerly the UAW, objected to free trade — yet these two unions’ members prospered exactly through free trade exemptions carved out of the pre-NAFTA protectionism.

In rather the same vein, it struck me as odd that the Sproul Hall occupiers demanded relevance from Clark Kerr. The triumph of Governor Brown’s father’s life was exactly the construction of a relevant and productive educational system, on the lines Kerr wanted.

Ronald Reagan, of course, recognised it for what it was, a left-wing hippy plot, and so, with the assistance of Howard Jarvis, he did his best to destroy it.