A Truthy Critique of American Higher Ed

"Excellent Sheep" enters a conversation that is well worth engaging — if only because public opinion, stoked with Deresiewicz-style fables passing as fact, has the power to do great harm.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. Free Press. 256 pages.

WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ'S Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life was published on August 19 — just in time for the annual “crisis in American higher education” news cycle. In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz has written his entry in this entirely predictable genre — a classic Doonesbury strip referred to it as the “state-of-the-student” essay, and that was in 1974 — with equally predictable results. It would be tempting simply to dismiss the book for the fluff that it is but for the fact that the American reading public seems so hungry for this kind of jeremiad, so eager to believe its dark imaginings and dire predictions. So if Excellent Sheep doesn’t deserve our careful attention on its own merits, it enters a conversation that is well worth engaging — if only because public opinion, stoked with Deresiewicz-style fables passing as fact, has the power to do great harm.

Deresiewicz tells us that the essay that gave birth to the book, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” (The American Scholar, summer 2008), “has been viewed more than one million times online.” Deresiewicz, his editors, and/or his agent clearly sniffed that they had a hit on their hands. But in the transition from 5,400-word think piece to trade-press book, a number of things went wrong — things that are interesting not just for what they tell us about Deresiewicz’s argument, but also for the light they shed on the current media landscape in which every pundit needs a book, and in which it’s somehow acceptable — even admirable — to turn 15 thoughtful pages into 200-plus sensational ones. (In this regard, the book’s “provocative” title and breathless subtitle are altogether emblematic.)

Deresiewicz is a spirited controversialist and by and large a graceful writer, but he shows no evidence here of being a very careful thinker. His book makes claims about the narrowness of contemporary college students, the treadmill of test-prep classes, college admissions essay coaching, AP obsessiveness, and the inflation of extracurricular activities, all of which have the ring of what Stephen Colbert has taught us to call “truthiness,” and all of which are appealing enough to read, and which surely cater to the large audience receptive to any and all criticism of American higher education. But it’s writing, it seems, that’s not meant to be read carefully. The book is something like an anthology of logical and rhetorical fallacies, and more basically sloppy argument.

This sloppiness is connected to what should be one of Deresiewicz’s strengths: although I’ve not heard him lecture myself, my students (some of whose voices make their way into Excellent Sheep) report that Deresiewicz is an engaging speaker. This manifests here as an unwillingness to allow anything to get in the way of a good story. Unfortunately, very often that “good story” isn’t even that good — it’s a pretty familiar, even hoary, tale about the decline of American higher education. Far too often Deresiewicz settles for simply recycling familiar caricatures of academic life. “I am painfully aware,” he writes at one point, “that much of what I’ve been saying has long been reduced to cliché” — but he doesn’t let that stop him. So he turns almost instinctively to ready-made media-friendly figures like “helicopter parents and their children who call them from college after every class.” Sound familiar? Precisely. Harking back to his days teaching at Yale, Deresiewicz tells us that the minds of freshmen “were like a chemical bath of conventional attitudes that would instantly precipitate out of solution and coat whatever object you introduced.” I’d suggest that his students aren’t the only ones suffering from this problem.

Often, swept away on a high tide of rhetoric, Deresiewicz makes claims that are outlandish on their very face. In the heat of an attack on the value of the service projects undertaken by students, for instance, he writes, “The word [“service”] is rooted in the Bible.” This is preposterous: what can he even mean? The word “service” of course doesn’t appear in the Hebrew or Greek Bible; it came into English from Latin before the Bible even got its first full English translation. So one presumes he means this claim theologically or culturally rather than etymologically; but then why make such a gesture toward etymology in the first place? Perhaps he means a “right” understanding of service — if so, that’s what he should have written. And then he should have provided evidence for the claim.

In another case of rhetoric outrunning logic, Deresiewicz claims that “If the core curriculum has survived at Columbia, my alma mater, that is mainly, at this point, a matter of branding.” Now certainly Columbia’s core curriculum, along with those of only a couple of other institutions (Chicago, St. John’s), is a mark of the university’s distinctiveness — sure, “branding,” if you like. Certainly this observation sounds impressively hard-nosed and cynical. Yet Deresiewicz knows as well as anyone that a college’s curriculum is the purview of the faculty, not the administration — and that the average faculty member couldn’t care less about “branding,” unless to be actively hostile to the term and concept. There’s a firewall between those who created and maintain the core curriculum (faculty) and those looking for branding opportunities (admissions and university administration): no college faculty would let an important component of the undergraduate curriculum be held hostage to the rhetoric of admissions brochures. Indeed, as Deresiewicz certainly knows, nothing’s more likely to kill faculty support for an initiative, especially at Columbia, than for word to leak that the administration supports it. Deresiewicz has forgotten himself here.

It almost seems that Deresiewicz is trying to push his claims to the point of caricature. Writing about the college admissions process, for instance, he suggests that “the only thing that’s changed since the mid-1960s is that everything has gotten inexorably worse.” “Pick any moment over the last half century,” he challenges us, “and things will be worse afterward than they were before.” Isn’t this the very definition of reactionary — to say with a straight face (as Joyce’s character Joe Donnelly sobs with a long one at the end of the story “Clay”) that there’s “no time like the long ago”? No time, indeed: until the 1960s, as Deresiewicz himself writes, at places like Harvard and Yale, “You knew if you were welcome, and if you weren’t you didn’t bother to apply.” The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Nowhere are Deresiewicz’s biases more plainly on view than in his open contempt for the vast majority of college faculty. His Hogarthian portrait of the Typical College Professor is suspiciously familiar from such conservative relics of the culture wars as Charles J. Sykes’s Profscam (1988) and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990). Without anything resembling evidence, Deresiewicz confidently asserts that “professors can teach what they want — which usually means their little square inch of the field, their thesis, their book.” “For every egotist who thinks his monograph is going to change the world,” he continues,

there are probably several professors who’d be happy to surrender the grind of publication and the pretense of originality: who have long felt that they “don’t have anything to say” (a phrase one often hears), who are tired of spewing jargon for the benefit of half a dozen fellow subspecialists, who’d be delighted to trade the often stultifying work of the library or the lab for live contact with actual students.

I’d call this picture of the college teacher “cartoonish” if that didn’t impugn the subtle art of cartooning. No one who finds the library “stultifying” is going to pass muster as a teacher. And what, pray tell, makes writing or research inherently egotistical, and teaching not?

Deresiewicz, indeed, seems to be operating under a model he (falsely) associates with the fields he maligns. Studying the liberal arts, he writes, teaches us that “there is no ‘information,’ strictly speaking; there are only arguments.” But this is quite wrong. High school students often come to college under this misapprehension — like Deresiewicz, they often confuse opinion for argument — and much of the work in lower-division courses is designed to teach them otherwise. An argument, I’ve just finished telling my first-year writing students, is an assertion bolstered by evidence. Deresiewicz is great at the provocative assertions (even if they often sound rather familiar). But evidence? There’s very little here to be found. He does present data about the way college admissions has changed over time, and statistics about the alarming incidence of depression in today’s college student population: as a result, his claims in these chapters carry real argumentative force. But these chapters come early, and once we’re beyond them, it’s the Wild West as far as evidence goes. The problem is not only that Deresiewicz’s argument is wrong (though I think it is): it’s that he gives us no way to know if it’s right. Like Deresiewicz, I’m a humanist: I’m not a numbers guy. Yet somehow Excellent Sheep manages to make even me hungry for data.

When Deresiewicz does stoop to providing evidence, it’s of the very slimmest sort. A social scientist would say that Deresiewicz has an n problem: for his most sensational “evidence,” the n, the sample size, is one. Now those of us in the humanities don’t care about n’s, of course. To us, an n of one is perfectly acceptable: to discover a really unique and exciting n, the anomalous case, is the name of the game. Deresiewicz himself writes about the humanities’ interest in the exception, as compared to social science’s interest in the rules: “The humanities put back everything the social sciences, by way of necessary simplification, take out.” What he seems never to have realized, however, is that although he is by training a humanist, and writing largely about the humanities (and their abdication of the responsibility to educate the whole student), the book’s genre is actually social science, not humanities. And in the social sciences, different rules of evidence obtain.

Time and again the most sensational claims are made about the shortcomings of contemporary college students; and almost uniformly, Deresiewicz’s sources amount to hearsay, word of mouth, campus rumor. Here’s a handful of representative attributions, from across the book: “a Stanford student told me […]”; “a former student put it this way […]”; “I heard an anecdote about an interview at Harvard.” This isn’t data — it is, as Deresiewicz more or less acknowledges, hearsay. Much of the context for his discussion of college admissions, for instance, is provided by his experience serving on the undergraduate admissions committee at Yale — for one day. “When I asked to see an example [of the strongest group of admitted students] during the lunch break,” he writes, “I was shown the winner of the Intel Science Talent Search.” Deresiewicz seems not to have stopped to ask whether this was a representative example: surely it’s not surprising to learn that the most gifted students applying to Yale present credentials to make most of us blush. But what’s the larger point here? The winner of the Intel contest deserves to go to college somewhere. It might as well be Yale.

Many of Deresiewicz’s most damning anecdotes come from students, both his own and those he’s spoken with at engagements on various campuses. He seems unaware — both in the anecdotes he picks from these self-selecting student informants and those from former colleagues — of the confirmation bias that this invites. Deresiewicz never entertains the possibility that his informants might be telling him what they think he wants to hear. His students aren’t out to punk him: rather, they seem unconsciously to want to be him. So we’re treated to cynical-beyond-their-years student sound bites, from the chilling (“the alliance that the university forms with parents is never benign, and for a lot of students at elite schools it can be monstrous”) to the Wildean (“It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs”). If we’re looking for a source for a voice like this, we don’t have to look far. Here’s Deresiewicz, doing his best Mark Twain: “I even met a quadruple major once. He seemed to think it meant that he was very smart.”

These kinds of claims are so intrinsically appealing to Deresiewicz that he can’t bring himself to question their — well, their truth value. After all, they sound so good. And Deresiewicz’s pervasive nostalgia — his palpable ache to return to a time that never was — dovetails rather insidiously with the larger ahistorical mindset of the book. Time and again, in the margins of my copy, I’ve scrawled the phrase “kids these days” — which is to say, Deresiewicz’s finger is very busy wagging at contemporary students, who are (by his account) narrowly ambitious, intellectually lazy, and coddled. (In defense of my marginalia, I’d point out that Deresiewicz himself uses the phrase “kids today” as early as the book’s third sentence.) No doubt there are real-world models for these caricatures; but Deresiewicz ignores the simple fact that teachers have been making these same complaints about their students since the advent of American higher education. Mike Rose demonstrates this quite dramatically in his 1989 study Lives on the Boundary, which juxtaposes contemporary hand-wringing about college students’ inability to write with the very same complaints, from Harvard and Brown faculty members, made over a century earlier. As he does regarding so many of the other errors of which he’s guilty, Deresiewicz warns us against such an ahistorical approach: “You cannot understand the world, you cannot even understand yourself,” he scolds, “unless you understand the past, for that is largely where your thoughts and feelings come from.” But he’s not able to bring this to bear in his own analysis. So that he’ll write, for instance, that “Most of [today’s elite students] are […] idealistic and curious, like kids before them, hungry for purpose and meaning, like kids before them, but beset by psychological demands that are inevitable products of the process that propelled them into college in the first place.” The active reader’s mind automatically fixes the problem with this claim — it fills in the missing final phrase, “like kids before them.” It wants Deresiewicz to historicize.

Deresiewicz betrays the suspiciously persistent tic in writing about American higher education that Rose has diagnosed: “what a curious thing it is that when we do criticize our schools, we tend to frame our indictments in terms of decline, a harsh, laced-with-doom assault stripped of the historical and social realities of American education […]. [O]ur policy is driven so often by a yearning for a mythic past […].” “So we look to a past,” he argues, “— one that never existed — for the effective, no-nonsense pedagogy we assume that past must have had.” Deresiewicz claims not to believe in a Golden Age of American higher education, but his rhetoric consistently belies this claim; the central animating trope of the book is “The Fall.” “All the values that once informed the way we raise our children,” he laments, “all these are gone.” And what are we left with? Not surprisingly, Deresiewicz settles into the familiar narrative of cultural decline. “Virgil and Rousseau are not what people talk about at cocktail parties anymore, assuming that they ever were. Leonardo and Mozart no longer constitute a shared frame of reference, unless you mean Leonardo DiCaprio. Now it’s HBO and NPR and REM.” Sic transit gloria mundi.

Part of Deresiewicz’s nostalgia manifests in the book’s suggestion — not a major thread of the argument, I’ll admit, but a persistent one — that the humanities, or perhaps the liberal arts college, might provide a path to our cultural and even personal salvation.

There is an intense hunger among today’s students, my travels in the last few years have shown me, for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.

It’s an argument for another day, I suppose, but I think Deresiewicz here confuses pedagogical and theological imperatives. Mandatory chapel was abolished at Harvard in 1886, and at Yale 40 years later: Deresiewicz seems to think colleges and universities need to reclaim their salvific role. Later in the book he writes, “The humanities are what we have, in a secular society, instead of religion.” This is hardly a new insight — the writing of Matthew Arnold, for one, is shot through with it. And Deresiewicz is not interested in interpreting the significance of this charge, or even describing its contours; he limits himself to unexamined prescription.

I published a piece in the online edition of The Atlantic back in February in which I attacked the sentimental version of the humanities presented in films like Dead Poets Society, and a former student, having read it, thought I’d be interested in Excellent Sheep. I assumed, at the time, that it was because Deresiewicz might take further that critique of a toothless and domesticated version of the humanities. I think now it was because William Deresiewicz is our culture’s newest version of John Keating, the late Robin Williams’s character in that film.

Like Keating, Deresiewicz preaches freedom and independence, but in practice is quite happy to attract his own zealous (even thoughtless?) followers. Which is one way to think of Deresiewicz’s cryptic title, “Excellent Sheep.” The phrase is a witticism, from the lips of one of Deresiewicz’s students, describing himself and his peers. And certainly the book seems to reinforce this verdict on contemporary students: there’s a pervasive victimology to the book, and the students he writes about seem utterly without agency or resources to improve their lot. That’s not been my experience, teaching elite college students for the past six years (after teaching for 17 years at the kind of underfunded state schools that Deresiewicz romanticizes without having actually experienced them). It’s Deresiewicz’s bad fortune, I suppose, that I began reading Excellent Sheep on a departmental retreat with our junior and senior English majors last spring; it proved quite impossible to reconcile that warm, caring, creative, noncompetitive community — some of whom had taken a precious weekend off just before their senior theses were due — with the anxious automata of Deresiewicz’s fever dream.

Excellent sheep: that’s supposed to be today’s students. But I think now it’s more fittingly a description of the kind of readership Deresiewicz imagines for this lazy and dishonest book.


Kevin J. H. Dettmar is Professor and Chair of English at Pomona College. 

LARB Contributor

Kevin Dettmar is W. M. Keck Professor of English and Director of The Humanities Studio at Pomona College. His cultural criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other magazines.


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