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Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life [Kindle Edition]

William Deresiewicz
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Product Description

Product Description

A groundbreaking manifesto for people searching for the kind of insight on leading, thinking, and living that elite schools should be—but aren’t—providing.

As a professor at Yale, Bill Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively, and how to find a sense of purpose.

Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw firsthand as a member of Yale’s admissions committee. As schools shift focus from the humanities to "practical" subjects like economics and computer science, students are losing the ability to think in innovative ways. Deresiewicz explains how college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path. He addresses parents, students, educators, and anyone who's interested in the direction of American society, featuring quotes from real students and graduates he has corresponded with over the years, candidly exposing where the system is broken and clearly presenting solutions.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1198 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (19 Aug 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00GEEYX90
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  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #188,811 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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In recent years, between a third and a half of graduates of elite US colleges with a job head to finance or consulting. In contrast to the popularity of those fields, whole areas have disappeared: clergy, military, teaching, electoral politics, even academia to a lesser extent. Excellent Sheep worries that this stems from the warped perspective promoted by these colleges, that in telling the students endlessly that they are the elite and the special, they rule out whole worlds of possibility by implying they are a waste of a fancy education. Schools, Deresiewicz argues, are complicit in this because they like the fat donations they receive from graduates in consulting or finance, far more than they receive from a happier but poorer graduate who ends up as a minister or teacher.

Where the book suffers is when it turns to broader societal implications. The author’s background is in English, and though that should never be a bar to writing anything, in this case it betrays him a little when he attempts to look at issues of policy, society, and statistics. He also doesn’t really have any insight into structural solutions: his advice to students to go to a second tier school is all very well, but hardly scalable.

Excellent Sheep’s opening sections are interesting, persuasive, and well-written, and are definitely worth reading if this is something that interests you: his New York Times article gives a good sense of it, since it's mostly excerpts from the book. The second half does fall a bit short though. Still, as a book that makes you consider your own education it’s worth a glance, even if you end up preferring Steven Pinker's perspective (who has a great counterpoint in the New Republic) to Deresiewicz's.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Down with the HYPsters! 9 Dec 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This was an excellent read. Deresiewic has a light readable style with nice rhetorical gestures that enliven his passionate plea for a liberal arts education. I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what he said and found some of the direct testimony of the students who have spoken or written to him poignant. When I was at university in Edinburgh I read Michael Oakenshott and came away feeling that his vision of a "conversation" was only partly a reality there. Since then, of course, there has been a further evolution of the game. It almost seems that universities are due to become training institutions for high tech industries and medicine. The old job of actually educating people- engineers and doctors included- needs to take place somewhere else. A smart young man I know came out of King's College, London, saying it was no more than a very expensive library card and that the standard of teaching was worse than he had at his high school.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Learning to think 28 Sep 2014
By Hande Z TOP 1000 REVIEWER
The coming generations of students face a twin danger. First, digital technology is altering the way they think even without them knowing it (See Susan Greenfield's 'Mind Change', Rider Books 2014). Secondly, they go to school and university/college not realising that the system of education has changed from the time of their grandparents and parents, from one of education to one of amassing credentials and resumes. They are taught, insidiously, not to take risks but to do what everyone else is doing and the difference is that they have to try and do it better than everyone else.

Deresiewicz sees the downward spiral that this kind of system causes to one's creative mind. He traces the history of the change and identifies the issues that need to be addressed before the education system can once again turn students from excellent sheep to human beings. It is not surprising that college professors and administrators form a strong force rejecting the views expressed in this book. Deresiewicz might have exaggerated the gloom but it is important to understand his concern for value in education.
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158 of 167 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Super People, Excellent Sheeple? 22 Aug 2014
By Alan F. Sewell - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book piqued my interest because my son just graduated high school and is entering college. His classmates range from the "Super People" (author William Deresiewicz's phrase for the highest achievers) who are on their way to elite universities, to the more typical students who are starting their higher educations at community colleges.

In each book review I try to include a few well-written sentences that concisely illustrate an author's point of view. This book is so well written that I could have chosen just about every sentence. Here are some of the best:

The compulsive overachievement of today's elite college students-- the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can-- is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish.

Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping... that got them into an elite college in the first place--the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches , tutors, leadership, service -- left them no time to figure out what they want out of life.

Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spent using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake up in crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.

"I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, expect to hate my job, and this is just how it's going to be for the rest of my life."

The result is what we might refer to as credentialism. The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can't put on your resume...the constant sense of be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, and prestige.

If those of us who went to college in the 1970s and '80s no longer recognize the admissions process, if today's elite students appear to be an alien species --Super People, perhaps, or a race of bionic hamsters

That's a pretty dreadful assessment, but Deresiewicz is a former Professor of English at Yale and member of its admissions committee, so he must have seen plenty of it first-hand.

He is surely right about those of us who went to college in the 1970s no longer recognizing the admissions process. I graduated Georgia Tech in 1979. He praises students of our era as "passionate weirdos." That certainly fit my class, although I'd prefer to call us "competent eccentrics." We were engineering nerds. I was recruited because my ACT/SAT put me in the top 2%. I had zero extracurricular activities.

Fast forward 40 years and it seems that colleges cater to "credentialed conformists." Applicants have to show that they are not only academic stars, but social butterflies involved in numerous group activities. Even the "party schools" require students to write an essay explaining why they want to be admitted. The only requirement to be admitted to the party schools of the 1970s was that you had to have tuition money and a pulse.

What caused this change from universities prizing "passionate weirdos" to "credentialed conformists?" Perhaps it has to do with these factors:

1. We have become more litigation-conscious. Companies can't afford to hire "loose cannons" who create potential legal liabilities. Nowadays people are easily offended by many words and deeds that were ignored in the past, and they are quick to hire lawyers who will seek to recover damages on their behalf. So companies value conformists who follow the book more than they used to.

2. Flattening of management. A company that had 20 branch managers 40 years ago, now has only 1 regional manager, thanks to advances in computers and Internet communication. So, if 95% of the management jobs are gone, then companies have to find discrimination-neutral ways to winnow down the pool of candidates applying for that one job. Inflating the job requirements with credentials, no matter how bogus, is one way to do it without running the risk of discrimination lawsuits.

3. Maturing of industries. A century or so ago people were allowed to practice Law even if they had no formal education. It used to be that way in fields like auto repair and computer systems development. Now that these industries have matured and there is no longer a shortage of applicants, credentialization is the most efficient way to cull the herd.

The important question is whether all this credentialing and hoop-jumping is counterproductive to success in college and in life. I don't think it necessarily is. Corporations operate on these principles. So it is not unreasonable that colleges should give the highest priority in admissions to those who are likely to perform well in corporate employment.

Credentialing and hoop-jumping only becomes counterproductive when it is forced upon people whose natures are NOT motivated by peer-group competition. This may include most nonconformist, creative-minded people who prefer to blaze their own trail through life rather than walk on someone else's.

And we must remember that credentials are not the primary currency of success. Most of the worthwhile things we obtain in life come from our souls. We prosper mostly from the goodwill we create by doing things for others without thinking "how am I going to get paid."

Layering credentials on top of that principle strengthens your credibility and amplifies your reach. But if you have a defective character then credentials will only lengthen the height from which you fall. A lot of hotshots on Wall Street who were long on credentials and short on integrity are costing their companies tens of billions of dollars in fines for defrauding the public. Those who exchanged their souls for tickets to a rat race will die neither wealthy or respected.

I recommend that students and parents should read this book as an "alarm bell" to warn themselves when they may be pushing the hoops-and-credentials envelope a bit too far. William Deresiewicz makes fundamental points that are too often perceived only at the end of life's journey:

Keep your priorities straight. Perfect your own soul first, then jump through the hoops if you feel you have to. But, really, your objective should be to induce life to jump through the hoops YOU build. Never be afraid to take the risks that success requires. Never be afraid of failure. And always do what is right. If your soul is deep and rich, your life will be deep and rich. But if you seek to cover a shallow soul with credentials, then your life won't be worth the paper those credentials are printed on.
70 of 78 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Correct Diagnosis -- Incorrect Prescription 14 Sep 2014
By Zachary Slayback - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When I saw William Deresiewicz's New Republic piece, "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy League," I jumped at the opportunity to read it. As a partial Ivy League apostate myself, the thought of somebody -- a former Ivy League professor at that! -- calling out the cultural problems within these institutions excited me. The piece made waves, with students and professors alike responding, and getting people excited for Deresiewicz's book, Excellent Sheep. It worked. I bought his book and worked my way through it, hoping for an intricate analysis of a serious cultural issue and a nuanced solution.

While at an Ivy League university -- the University of Pennsylvania, in my case -- I see many of the issues that Deresiewicz identifies in his New Republic piece and in interviews on the book. Students who came to school wanting to change the world and make it their own place, to be in the driver's seat of their lives, quickly fell into an assembly-line-like mold. They may have entered school wanting to start a business and offer a new service, or to write a book, or to become a professional speaker, but by their second or third years, many had their eyes set on the crown jewels of the Ivy League experience -- On Campus Recruiting (OCR). They designed their resumes and schedules around exactly what recruiters from Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley would want and slowly extirpated the things they had passions for coming in to school. They became barely identifiable with their starry-eyed freshman selves. It wasn't infuriating as much as it was sad.

The problem is not necessarily that students want to go work on Wall Street after their time at school -- if that is truly your dream and what you believe will make you come alive, then by all means, please go pursue that! The problem is something at these schools is driving young people to settle and choose careers they don't find fulfilling. I was hoping Deresiewicz would identify what that something is.

In short, I was disappointed. Deresiewicz correctly diagnoses the disease that is this cultural issue, but his diagnosis is shallow, lacks detail (he relies almost entirely on anecdote and quoting English literature), and misses the deeper issue of pre-college schooling almost altogether. Even worse, his prescription for the problem -- accessible liberal arts education at schools like public honors colleges (outlined in Part III of the book) -- stems from his romanticized view of the academy, an unrealistic view of how public honors colleges operate, and an economically illiterate view of admissions reform (please see Steven Pinker's review, "The Trouble with Harvard." Pinker points out that the issues that students face at elite schools -- anxiety, depression, unfulfilled potential -- are suffered at higher rates by students at public universities, and that Deresiewicz's admissions reform recommendations would fail to address the perverse meritocracy he attacks, among other things).

Excellent Sheep has sections that are worth reading, and can be an enjoyable book at times, but the reasoning and argumentation behind it is flimsy and frustrating. Once one digs through the literary fluff that makes up a good half of the book, one walks away dissatisfied.
If a reader is interested in something on each of Deresiewicz's main goals -- the unfulfilled lives of young people, finding one's passions, and higher education reform -- there are better books out there. Consider Peter Gray's Free to Learn, Roman Krznaric's How to Find Fulfilling Work, and Bryan Caplan's forthcoming The Case Against Education.
50 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cry of Conscience 19 Aug 2014
By David Keppel - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One of my friends, as a Harvard undergraduate, was the subject of a survey. The question was simply: "What's your major?" His answer: "Pre-Wealth."

William Deresiewicz passionately believes that a true education should be something else: a habit of questioning, a constant search to understand the universe, the world, the society we live in and with that understanding to work for justice. He's asking for moral imagination, and he's shocked at its lack in universities that are stifled by the money they cost, the donations they chase, and the student debt that sends students into "practical" (lucrative but spirit-deadening) careers.

In truth, of course, elite universities are not entirely devoid of the values he champions, nor would he claim that. Some elite schools such as the Phillips Exeter Academy teach by the Socratic method; Oxford tutorials are meant to reward originality (though too often they and the Oxford Finals system reward mere fluency). But that doesn't at all detract from the validity of Deresiewicz's case, especially since it is written as advice to students.

The larger failure, I think, is a failure of the universities to foster an understanding of 21st century reality as a never-ending, uncertain, open philosophical inquiry. There are those, inside and outside, elite education engaged in that, from the Resilience Alliance to Stuart Kauffman to Frans de Waal to a superb journalist such as Elizabeth Kolbert, but it ought to be the heart and mind of a liberal education. For that to happen, universities will not only have to drop money-obsessed "practicality"; they'll also have to tear down some of the disciplinary walls assiduously maintained by doctoral and professorial guilds. It can't happen too soon.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An In-Depth Examination on Whether It is Wise to Push Your Child to Become a Bionic Hamster 27 Aug 2014
By H. Hall - Published on
As the father of a five year old boy who naturally wants the best for him down the road and would love to see him have an excellent university and graduate education, this book piqued my interest. My wife is of Asian descent and so are many of our best friends, and they are all looking for the next edge or advantage that could push their children eventually on to Harvard, Stanford or Princeton. As everyone knows, an elite education is like a surfboard that can be ridden on the waves of life for decades afterwards making everything else easier. Opening doors, networking with former classmates and allowing privileged academic and business opportunities. Despite that desire, we are all also aware that simply producing data repeating bots (brilliant but lifeless children) is a great waste of a beautiful mind and the emergent property neural network which fuels it. As such, this book which concentrates on the question between acquiring title and achievement and remaining true to a grander vision which makes life worth living, makes for powerful reflection.

The quandary is what to do if the child next to your child can play Bach on his violin in C sharp and is vice president of the chess club at age 9. Well naturally, for many competitive parents the answer is clear, your child must play Mozart's violin concerto in A major and become president of the chess club at age 8. It is not so much a question of what is best or what your child wants but what must be done to remain on top. (if such a place even exists or should be seen as something worthy of accolade) It is the idea that your child must be pushed relentlessly, lest another acquire more gold stars.

Mr Deresiewicz makes several points of interest in the book including that of today's children blindly reaching for their next gold star. The endless quest to acquire more credentials (even if the child or student really has no interest or talent in that area) and the life changing manner in which these actions play out. He makes note that about 40% of elite university grads go on to work in finance and securities industries even though only 5 to 10% showed any interest in those fields as freshman. Even more sad, is that this is often a response to the student loans they must take out to afford the elite university in the first place. (or that most of the top 25 schools in America can now afford to offer free tuition and board to every incoming student thanks to their endowment status) Instead of the world gaining a talented young short story writer who might go on to give millions inspiration, that person turns to running a mutual fund for Fidelty, making tremendous salary but in some cases feeling completely unfulfilled. And as Mr Deresiewicz notes, working tables at a Denny's restaurant or spending a summer with your father who is a plumber unclogging toilets can teach far more important life lessons than becoming the president of the chess club, even if those skills are currently looked down on by today's elite universities.

His work makes some main recommendations which I believe many could agree on, including eliminating admissions for athletes and legacies, stopping resume "stuffing" by limiting all applicants to two or three extracurricular activities and finally allowing SAT/ACT scores to be weighted for socioeconomic factors. And while Mr Deresiewicz elaborates on some solutions that might allow the system to be reformed, I believe he misses the major problem of computerized quantization. In the ole' days of my youth, whether I was the president of the tennis club in seventh grade meant diddly squat because my middle school guidance counselor had no computer and even if she had, it would not have been connected to thousands of other schools all over the country. We joined the tennis club simply because we liked to play tennis and if someone became the president, it was an afterthought in name value only. In today's world, the middle school guidance counselor's computer is connected to the internet and does record who holds the presidential position of the tennis club. And that ultimately gets passed on to the high school guidance counselor and yada, yada, ...on down the line. It is ultimately recorded and makes its way to the Harvard admissions officer, who every parent fears will reject their child because he/she was not the 7th grade tennis club president. (despite the 4.4 GPA, 2340 on the SAT and numerous club presidencies) I jest, but part of the reason modern day students are so obsessed with acquiring more credentials is that everything in today's world is recorded or data logged in some manner. From your state test results in second grade to your image at the ATM, everything in today's world is a recorded event. And if it is recorded, then there naturally follows a basis for comparison and competition. And because of modern record keeping and the internet, your results and achievements good or bad will live on indefinitely (nothing on the internet ever really dies), unlike children who grew up before the 1990s who could overcome a mistake (a failed class, a misdemeanor, a stupid youthful criminal mistake) because it was not logged on some computer system in perpetuum.

This incessant recording of data and comparison of small facets of a child's character or performance are I believe the fuel driving the credentialing zombification of today's talented youth. While Mr Deresiewicz does not make mention of engineer and futurist Ray Kurzweil in this work, his conclusions often agree with previous predictions made by him. Mr Kurzweil has spoken about how the period from roughly 2000 to 2060 will be an ever advancing credentialing battle in response to increased data logging of everyone's personal lives. As Singularity approaches (Mr Kurzweil's term for mankind incorporating more and more computer technology into our bodies until we essentially become neural state vector scans of our consciousness residing on the internet by perhaps ~ 2060 to 2090), there will be an ever advancing pace to this need to out compete the next person in line to prove our superiority, because without data points, there is no objectivity of meaning.

While I enjoyed Mr Deresiewicz's book immensely, I was left hoping for more in-depth research about how to fix many of the problems he is well familiar with. 60 to 75% of the book is spent describing the problems of elite universities and their graduating super people but only ~ 25% is dedicated to speaking about viable alternatives, and I wish that had been reversed. An entirely new mode of thought is in some cases required to overcome the system of thought that began the problem in the first place. While I enjoyed the book and learned something about the history of some of America's elite universities, I think a bit more attention could have been paid to methods which might help to ameliorate the current realities in a proficious manner. Despite these nags, the book is still thought provoking and is also a must read for progressive parents who want the best for their children.
53 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Liberal Arts Education does not Offer a Magic Formula to a Meaningful Life 28 Aug 2014
By jem - Published on
Deresiewicz reveals himself as a bitter man who realizes he has been cheated by his upper middle class culture, particularly his college education and his academic career at a "prestigious" Ivy League university. What he has not yet discovered is that a 'meaningful life' is not something bestowed upon one by an educational institution but something cultivated intrinsically over a lifetime of trial and error.
Although a liberal arts education, as he advocates, may provide tools for developing a 'meaningful life' so will reading, work experience, marriage, parenting, travel, volunteering in one's community, and other significant life experiences. Personal traits such as curiosity, confidence, honesty, determination, and open-mindedness -- if nurtured in childhood and maintained through life -- are at least as important as knowledge and skills.
While this book is thought provoking in many of its questions about the unfairness of our elite higher education institutions and the education of the students they enroll, it seems naive from my perspective as a senior citizen -- remembering my own college experience and most recently observing my grandchildren's experiences -- to expect anyone in their twenties to have discovered the keys to a meaningful life.
Deresiewicz's intended audiences are apparently upper middle class high school and college students and their parents as well as college administrators and counselors. But offering them the remedy of a liberal arts education is simply giving them another canned package labeled "the way to a meaningful life."
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