The best quality of William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life, is actually described by Deresiewicz as one of the most important qualities of professors in higher education.
A good professor: is able to connect many different subjects and topics, is personable and approachable, and uses jargon conducive to reach a general audience.
These are the exact qualities of Deresiewicz’s book that really make this read worthwhile to readers from so many different walks of life.
With themes that run from choosing the right higher education institution to fixing the higher education problem, the book is applicable to anyone who is involved, or knows someone involved, in the higher education process whether that be as a student, parent, or employee. Deresiewicz breaks down this book into four sections that look at higher education from four different perspectives, each one building on one another to finally bring us to his final point.
His first section Sheep, gives us four perspectives that outline how we came to the state of higher education that it is today. History shows the events and themes that built the American higher education system as it stands today and the institutions show the result of that. Furthermore, he uses the institutions’ perspective to show today’s assembly line of education: policy makers have given students the money (through grants and loans) instead of the institutions, leading to a more consumer-driven market rather than one dictated by educational initiatives. Lastly, the “training” of students to become A’s driven rather than intellectual-curiosity driven has created educational machines who blindly focus on collecting as many AP courses as possible rather than discovering what they are really passionate about. The students’ perspective, Deresiewicz argues, really exemplifies the “Excellent Sheep” mentality that has been created by History, Training, and the Institutions of higher education. Students today march towards “the end”, scrambling to be the most busy and the most accomplished without ever taking advantage of the best thing college has to offer — intellectual freedom to pursue and study whatever you may be most passionate about.
Self and Schools contain enough philosophical ideals, backed with meaningful facts and real-life insights, to really make you consider the importance of higher education and how to take full advantage of it.
The section Self breaks down what it means to actually go to college and why we need to do it. Skillfully using Latin and literature examples (Deresiewicz was an English professor at Yale for a decade), he articulates that the purpose of a real education is to liberate us from doxa (Latin for opinion) by teaching us to recognize it, and to think our way around it. College isn’t merely to learn specialized skills, college is there for you to learn how to think, contemplate, and learn how to develop introspection. Yes it isn’t the “real world”, but Deresiewicz argues that this is higher education’s exact strength. College allows you to learn how to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely, and more fully. It shadows you from real world responsibility so you have the time to learn how to manage it.
Schools is the section most important to high school students and parents of high school students. It is here where Deresiewicz teaches us to read, frankly, through the bulls*** that is college rankings. Listening to his motto of “follow the money”, Deresiewicz outlines how higher education institutions that place more value on research and faculty grants (get more money) tend to be the institutions that lack teaching value. Furthermore, the institutions that pride themselves on their brand (i.e Ivy League material) tend to produce an atmosphere of elitism that can be toxic to an 18 year-olds attitude, self-confidence, and definition of “success”. Deresiewicz provides us with certain websites and tools that we can use to dig through the marketing swamp of higher education and find the right institution for our needs and financial circumstances.
Society finally shows us the grim reality of what our unchecked, elite, and very much inclusive higher education mantra has given us today. Using eye-popping statistics to paint this picture. Deresiewicz successfully sheds light on who exactly controls our society, where do they come from, and why their higher education choice fuels this discrimination. To hopefully convince you to read this book, I will cite one important statistic he gives us.
In 2012, 54% of the leaders in the corporate world and 42% of our leaders in government have degrees from one (or more if they have multiple) degrees from only twelve different universities. Twelve.
While the last section does paint a negative reality, Deresiewicz provides enough evidence and insight on how to improve and diversify the system throughout the book. With the right allocation of resources and institutions moving towards a more teaching-centric mentality as opposed to a research-centric one, higher education can improve. To be clear, Deresiewicz believes there are numerous institutions throughout the country that still provide a worthwhile and engaging education. His point is that as of now, you need to correctly sift through the market to find the right one for you.
Speaking of you, this is probably his most central point of the entire composition. While the market today is tilted towards the elite, the average student still has the ability to succeed and make college meaningful. Even though great teachers are hard to come by, it is still up to the student to make the right choices to get the most out of their higher education investment. It is for the student that this book is most valuable to; eat this book up and take the lessons Professor Deresiewicz provides in stride. After all, as I described in the beginning, this is the real strength of this book: it is a great college lecture.