Are we Raising Excellent (but Stressed Out) Sheep?

“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”

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“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life”, William Deresiewicz, 2014. Simon & Schuster

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 Lifea 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.

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Deresiewicz suggests college kids are like sheep, herded blindly by the system. Photo by Carl Purcell.

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)

Overview
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.

berkeley_mom_bumper_bumper_bumper_stickerTakeaways 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.

Closing
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.

 

Book Review of “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports”

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“Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports” Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham. Potomoc Books.

‘Cheated’— an apt title. By the end of the book the reader is exposed to how college athletes are cheated out of an education, and how faculty and staff cheat by covering-up, bending the rules, and participating in academic fraud to usher athletes (mostly football and basketball players) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) through the system with paper classes, passing grades for poor or non-existent work, and elaborate systems of course and schedule manipulation to keep athletes playing to win. Written by Jay Smith, professor of history at UNC, and former academic advisor Mary Willingham, both who exposed the academic deception and fraud at UNC. Both authors received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award for integrity in the face of college sport corruption.

The book is eye opening, discouraging, and distressing. It describes how gifted athletes, typically football players, arrive on campus severely under-prepared academically, lacking the basic skills needed for college-level course work. The school, in this instance UNC, perpetuates the problem by steering athletes to easy majors, creating paper classes (which typically requires only a paper to be turned in at the end of the semester in order for the student to receive credit), providing tutors that help students navigate the system to get through by completing as little school work as possible, and other complex arrangements within departments where faculty and administrators are more concerned about ‘winning’ than athletes’ education.

You may have read about this story; it received significant media attention when Willingham, an  academic advisor at UNC (she has since left UNC), brought the situation to light. When the book was published in March of 2015 there was much backlash from numerous stakeholders, including UNC administrators and faculty, alumni, booster clubs and fans. Backlash was directed at the book itself, the ‘allegations’ (though validated as accurate by auditors), and the authors. Unfortunately harassment and badgering of the authors and their families continues still. The ongoing harassment forced Ms. Willingham to withdraw aspects of the social media campaign to promote the literacy program, PC Read, developed for academically under-prepared college-age students. You can read more on the book’s blog site, here.

Closing Thoughts
Few want to admit that college athletics have a dark side, and the ‘few’ make up many—school administrators, coaches, booster clubs with their (generous) alumni, and fans. Sadly, the story of UNC is a recurring one—playing out at colleges throughout the US; UNC does not stand alone.  “Cheated” is wake-up for academia, coaches, NCAA, parents and athletes. There’s much at stake for all involved, yet it’s a large group of student athletes who have the most lose; they are the biggest losers, ‘cheated’ out of a rigorous college education that sets them up for life, instead of failure.

Further Reading:

“Backspin” Takes the ‘Spin’ Out of What it Takes to Be a Scholarship-Athlete

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“Backspin” book cover. http://www.coachstrobl.com/backspin

Backspin” is a highly entertaining memoir of basketball player Pete Strobl a scholarship athlete turned professional, playing for several European leagues between the years 2000 and 2008. Strobl’s passion for the sport and his gift for writing make the book a great read for all audiences, though the experiences Strobl shares about playing as a college athlete and his journey after college to pursue his dreams of the big leagues, provide valuable insight for aspiring college-scholarship athletes and their parents. “Backspin” begins with Strobl sharing his often amusing, experiences at a small-town college, Niagara University, on the east coast in New York State and a long way away from his home state California. The latter two-thirds of the book Strobl describes his turbulent career as a professional athlete playing for several teams within European Basketball leagues in countries that included France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland over a period of nine seasons.

The ‘Backspins’
The ‘backspin’ segments within the chapters are brief snippets of Strobl’s life experiences pre-college days that give the reader insight into his tenacity and drive for not just the sport, but his approach to life. My favorite vignettes are the ones featuring Strobl and his dad, which reveal not only the deep influence of Strobl’s dad had on his character, but are touching, funny and real.

Three Helpful Lessons for Potential College Athletes and Parents
Between the pages the book holds helpful lessons for young athletes—either current college athletes or aspiring scholarship-athletes and their parents. It’s not a how-to book, but by reading of Strobl’s experiences coping with school, coaches, relationships and travel, the reader gets a glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of a college athlete. Three themes emerged from the book that may be of value for student-athletes and their families; summarized below.

1)  The Scholarship-athlete’s Multiple Roles
A scholarship-athlete’s college experience greatly differs from a traditional student’s experience, which Strobl highlights perhaps unintentionally in his book. Strobl writes of his experiences in college and his multiple roles and the challenges associated with each. The roles include: student, athlete, scholarship-athlete and teammate, but it’s the role scholarship-athlete that appeared to be most challenging which Strobl recounts as:

“Playing basketball at this level was practically a full-time job, and the value of my full scholarship wasn’t lost on me. I knew I’d have to deliver on the court if I expected to stay on campus, and that required me to work harder than I ever had in the past. If that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I had a second full-time job—staying on track to earn a college degree.” (p. 33)

Strobl also gives the reader insight into the student’s role; he describes accounting for every minute of his day, which according to Strobl was “the key to survival” (p. 33). It’s evident that he worked hard, and was able to balance his multiple roles successfully; Pete finished with not only an under-graduate degree, but also a MBA. Impressive.

Not surprisingly in order to handle all his roles, sacrifices were made, typical of most college athletes that play for a varsity team. Strobl mentions the sacrifices that he made for his scholarship experience, primarily his social life and friendships, “Between hustling back and forth from the library, the gym, cafeteria and weight room, there wasn’t much time left for anything or anyone else” (p. 66).

Takeaway: Scholarships can provide tremendous opportunities for young athletes to study at a school they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend if it weren’t for their sport, or have been able to afford, not to mention the experiences that can lead to fulfilling careers. However, the key to leveraging these opportunities is for the athlete and families to weigh the pros and cons of a scholarship offer, consider all factors and potential outcomes. Frequently, the cons outweigh the pros, and student-athletes don’t realize it until well into their first year. Considerations student-athletes and parents may want to consider when evaluating athletic-scholarship options:

  • total cost of attending the school; the costs not covered by scholarship
  • risks associated with a sports scholarship (injury, performance, etc.)—consider what the outcomes might be if the scholarship was not renewed in the 2nd or 3rd year
  • fit between the athlete’s long-term career goals and what can be studied at the school, for example some programs require demanding workloads not compatible with pressures of a varsity athlete
  • academic sacrifices which may include study abroad or work-study programs, research opportunities or internships
  • value of the education associated with the school and program of study once the athlete is in the working world.

2) Leverage the Experiences Both Good and Bad
What makes the “Backspin” such an excellent read is the stories Strobl shares which are not only the highlights of his basketball career, but are of his disappointments, challenges and struggles.  His career in Europe playing for several leagues is not all glamour, but reflects hard work, with Strobl often working with a great deal of uncertainty. His job was not guaranteed for longer than a season or two, he was often in a country where he didn’t speak the language, even the same one as his coach and often had to move to another country with little more than a days notice. Yet Strobl descriptions are inspirational at the same time. Strobl appeared to make the best of every situation, for instance even when he was benched for most of a season in college (p. 47) or working for a team that was broke and wasn’t paying its athletes, he was able to turn those into positives.

Takeaway: Experiences playing as a college-athlete and beyond are filled with favorable and seemingly negative experiences, though even the negatives can be turned into circumstances for reflection that can lead to personal growth, and opportunity. This is takeaway is not a cliché when you read “Backspin”.

3)  Who’s looking Out For You?  You.
This may sound harsh, but a scholarship contract between an athlete and a school is akin to a business transaction. It’s helpful to keep in mind that coaches are paid by universities to manage and coach a team to achieve a certain level of performance, and are also under a contract. Strobl writes of many instances of very positive relationships with his coaches, and many of his coaches that provide instructive life lessons, yet there are times his experience reveal that coaches actions and decisions are not always made in best interest of the athletes.

Takeaway: Athletes need to put their needs first, and be smart about what is being offered by administrators and coaches. Getting the most value out of a scholarship opportunity is essential for the athlete and his or her family.

Closing
“Backspin” is an excellent read, and an especially informative read for any scholarship-athlete. I wanted to learn more about what Strobl did after his basketball career, which I discovered through his site thescoringfactory.com, which is a basketball development program and organization which Strobl started with his wife, also a former basketball pro that played for several European leagues. Not surprising that Strobls’ hard work, extensive experience and talent all come together in his company, The Scoring factory.

Related Reading: