“You cannot say to a [college student] ‘find your passion’, most of us do not know how and that is precisely how we arrived at college, by having a passion only for success” — Student, Yale University. “Excellent Sheep”
Part of the American Dream for teenagers (and parents) of middle & upper class families is going to a prestigious university, or at least one that ranks highly on U.S. News Best College list. Former professor William Deresiewicz describes the college admissions process as a ‘rat race’ in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life—a rat race that pushes high-schoolers into relentless pursuit of AP classes, leadership experiences, SAT prep workshops, volunteering ventures, varsity sports, and ‘enriching’ extracurricular experiences. The pursuit doesn’t end in high school; it continues into college which Deresiewicz writes, leaves college students stressed out, burned out and aimless. More concerning and the thesis of the book, is how these pursuits, deemed necessary by the ‘system’ (the college application process and experience), leave college graduates without a sense of self or purpose and clueless about what they want to do after graduating.
Deresiewicz writes about experiences of students at elite universities yet his findings are applicable to middle-class kids attending any suburban high school who want to get into the best university through academic performance or a sports scholarship. I’ve seen this first-hand with my three kids who in high school all went through the arduous, stressful, overwhelming college admissions process. The pressure and expectations, embedded in our school and community culture was clear—do whatever it takes to build your college application so you can get into the most prestigious college possible. Never mind if a lesser-known college would be a better fit—getting into a school with a name is what it’s all about.
Why Excellent ‘Sheep’?
Deresiewicz writes that the system churns out students who are smart, talented, and driven, yet at the same time are anxious, distraught, and lacking in intellectual curiosity. They are all heading in the same direction—herded, like sheep, by the system.
Deresiewicz suggests an alternative: he believes college education should prompt thinking — “What is the good life and how should I live it?” He also suggests that college education should be about building character, good citizens and individuals who think independently. Most importantly students should find their vocation—their purpose, or at least be on the path that takes them there.
“Purpose has the virtue of uniting the inner with the outer, the self within he world: what you want to do with what you see as needing to be done. “What moves you – what do you feel connected to? Becoming a lawyer isn’t a purpose. Becoming a lawyer to defend the rights of workers or to prosecute criminals is. Purpose means doing something, not ‘being’ something” (pg 99)
Aimed at high school and college students, the book is not only a must-read for students but for parents. There’s four parts: Part I gives the history of “The System”— how we ended up with this unwieldy college application process and experience. Part II – “Self” speaks to students, outlining what they can do to survive the system, rise above it, while finding a path to self-discovery and purpose. These chapters are helpful, for parents too as they pose questions such as ‘what is college for?’ Questions worthy of consideration.
According to Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, “Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spend using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake in crisis, now knowing why they have worked so hard”… If adults are unaware of this, that’s partly because they’re looking in the wrong direction. (Pg. 11)
Chapter six “Inventing your Life” is for students. So how do you find a vocation—your purpose? The million-dollar question—and hough there’s no formula Deresiewicz does a good job with the topic including advice and experiences of college graduates (pg 102).
In Part III, “Schools” Deresiewicz writes about the need for humanities in schools, an education grounded in the liberal arts with ‘Great Books’. He also suggests we need small class sizes with good teachers. Part IV is where Deresiewicz outlines his suggestions for change, how to fix the college application process and curriculum. Though I agree with most of Deresiewicz proposals, he misses the big picture—there needs to be significant change in higher education where the focus should be on educating students (not on research or collegiate sports) within the realm of our global and digital economy, also incorporating liberal arts, small class sizes and courses for students that guide them to finding a path with purpose.
Takeaways for Parents
There are takeaways in Excellent Sheep for students, educators, high school administrators and parents. From a parent’s perspective the book provides instructive if not painful advice. In chapter 3, “The Training” the role parents contribute to the system is clearly described—overbearing, helicopter parents, who orchestrate their child’s life with activities and classes, coddle and boost their self-esteem with praise for every success and accomplishment. Then there are the parents who view their child’s accomplishments as a validation of their own self-worth. The latter is insidiously prevalent in our culture; it’s embedded within TV commercials, bumper stickers, e.g. X university MOM, seminars at high schools, and within outlets afforded through Social Media where we can post about our children’s accomplishments for the world to read.
What Deresiewicz writes about is a complex problem to fix, but Excellent Sheep is a good starting point. It raises questions to consider that can serve as an opening for bucking the system, or at least for trying to work with the system for the benefit of our children.