White People Problems: A Critical Response to William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep”
By Douglas GreenbergSeptember 25, 2014
Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz
WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ IS ANGRY about the miseducation of young people at the nation’s most prestigious universities. He has written a book on the subject, and he thinks we all should be worried. Really worried. It’s a case of what Louis CK famously called “white people problems,” which he said were “when your life is so amazing that you have to make shit up to be upset about.”
Deresiewicz is definitely upset, and he is also making shit up. He is upset with Columbia and Yale, from which he holds degrees, but he is also upset with Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and an ill-defined group of other private universities. His widely reviewed Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite has something unpleasant to say not only about these institutions but about everyone associated with them: the students, their parents, the faculty, the administrators, the donors, the alumni. Many of these criticisms of elite private higher education have some merit. Yet the tone of the book is so egocentric and intemperate and the framing of the issues is so narrow and sensationalistic that it might not merit a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books if it had not already received so much attention in the national press. Somehow this book has captured the entire national conversation about higher education, although it is mainly concerned with a subset of a small and atypical group of private research universities whose importance can be easily exaggerated, particularly by people who work for, graduated from, or pay tuition to them — or hope someday to do any of the three.
Deresiewicz’s main argument is that Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the other co-conspirators he seeks to unmask are the center of a social system that reproduces itself through a fabricated, politically correct, and empty commitment to “meritocracy.” Forced in the 1960s to abandon the clubby class-based, anti-Semitic, and racist admissions practices of the past (they were also sexist and homophobic, though Deresiewicz neglects to mention it), the elite institutions now judge secondary school students on the basis of criteria that purport to be objective measures of academic talent, but which actually measure the socioeconomic position of the applicants families. These colleges typically admit less than 10 percent of those who apply, and most of those are graduates of private schools and wealthy suburban high schools. The mind-numbing race to the doors of Yale and its ilk ends at a finish line that is not worth the struggle: four years at institutions that brim over with luxury but pay no significant attention to the education of either minds or hearts. Their faculties care not a whit for their students, and the universities reward their professors not for what they do in the classroom but for their research, which simply means learning more and more about less and less — and then publishing the results in journals and books nobody reads.
Committed and inspiring teachers (Deresiewicz tells us he was one such) invariably do not receive tenure or promotion at the elite colleges. They are, instead, discarded because they can be so easily replaced by contingent faculty to whom higher education makes no long-term commitment and who teach on a per course basis. These economies in the teaching budget, in turn, permit the institutions to pay outrageous salaries to the lucky few who receive tenure, to expand their administrations to no purpose, and to spend more money on their luxury hotels (dormitories), gourmet restaurants (dining halls), and spas (student centers and athletic facilities). This nauseating system (Deresiewicz tells us it almost made him vomit) is supported by annual prices that would buy a couple of new luxury automobiles every year for the status-obsessed families who pay them and by obscene gifts and endowments provided by graduates who have enriched themselves through the connections that their “education” provided.
Without anyone but William Deresiewicz even noticing, these universities have not only been sucking dollars from parents, they have also been sucking the very souls from their students who are “entitled mediocrities” to begin with. The process begins in the birth-through-high school race to college admission. The system then channels the winners into a very few “technocratic” majors and sends most of them off to jobs in consulting firms and financial institutions to do “personally unfulfilling or socially destructive” work that pays them piles of money, some of which they gratefully return to alma mater in order to keep the cycle going. If something isn’t done soon to drive a stake through the collective hearts of these institutional vampires the very fabric of the republic is at risk.
I’m shocked. Shocked. So too it seems is Deresiewicz, although he is a product of the very system whose profound corruption he alone has discovered,. But he is making up for lost time. As a Columbia B.A., Yale Ph.D., and a former member of the Yale faculty who was denied tenure, Deresiewicz spent his entire academic life in Ivy institutions. He surely knows whereof he speaks. According both to the book and to his own website, the notoriety of his book sent him on a continuous (and surely lucrative) speaking tour of the very institutions he condemns, an exercise in academic sado-masochism. Deresiewicz very well knows the hand that has fed him, in other words, and he is being paid handsomely to bite it.
Despite the almost simultaneous publication of other books that take a wider (although hardly uncritical) view of things, most notably Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters by Michael S. Roth and American Higher Education in Crisis?: What Everyone Needs to Know by Goldie Blumenstyk, the polemical Deresiewicz and his white people problems dominate the recent public conversation about higher education, a revealing social fact by itself considering that students in the Ivies (not all of which are in Deresiewicz’s pantheon) constitute .3% of all American undergrads. Although trained as a scholar, he also seems remarkably unaware of the longstanding, rich, and varied bibliography on higher education including the writings of Derek C. Bok and William G. Bowen, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton, whose views and deep analyses of the system that so offends Deresiewicz are not only more thoughtful than his, but ironically also more genuinely critical and contextualized.
This jeremiad is undertaken in a tone that is almost embarrassing to confront. It includes a fond reminiscence of what it was like for white folk back in the day before the “meritocracy” took over: “Leadership meant duty, honor, courage, toughness, graciousness, and selflessness. These were aristocratic values, and they came with all the reprehensible aristocratic attitudes we’re now so good at condescending to, but that doesn’t make them any less commendable.” There is a lot of autobiography here, including a peculiar and slightly romantic obsession with the mores of the old WASP elite and a demanding immigrant father whose son dear Mother Yale eventually abandoned to life in the real world. Add to that Deresiewicz’s tendency to read his own unhappy reminiscences and regrets into the current experience of the vapid students whose empty lives he condemns and you wind up with a book littered with incorrect assumptions and shot through with contradiction.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Excellent Sheep, as others have observed, is that it is surely correct about many things, even if they are white people problems: the ludicrous pressures and sociopathic expense of college preparation and application, for example. Yet almost every valid criticism is matched by a reductio ad absurdum. Performance on the SAT, advance placement courses, extracurricular activities, and class rank have certainly become markers of class position rather than genuine measures of academic merit and potential. But there is a difference between that insight and Deresiewicz’s astonishingly cruel characterizations of the students and parents who have been lured into the chase for an elite private education. Of students he says: “Everybody looks extremely normal, and everybody looks the same. No hippies, no arts school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis [one of the only references in the entire book to race] […] What we’re getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla.” If this characterization is true now, it was even more true a generation ago when Deresiewicz was himself a student, and truer than that before the establishment of “meritocratic” regime in the mid-1960s. Holding aside the offensive rhetoric, one also has to marvel at the Manichean quality of these statements which, like so many others in the book, are statistical generalizations without statistics.
And his portrait of parents is no more flattering. They are either overindulgent or helicopter parents or both. They lovelessly regard their children only as extensions of self, and nothing but admission to an elite college will satisfy them. As Deresiewicz says in his uniquely snobbish way, for parents of Ivy League aspirants the admissions game
is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can still go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Bloomington or Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
Exactly whose contemplation of horror we are talking about is not clear. Parents who are immigrants, by the way, get special opprobrium on this point since they “tend to be practical people, with little patience for ideals. Status matters for an extra reason.” This is especially true of East Asians who are “the new Jews” of higher education (fun fact: Deresiewicz’s father was a Jewish immigrant). Deresiewicz’s advice to the children of such parents? “Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month.” Family therapy on this issue is also a white people problem.
Of course, it is surely true that some of the students admitted to Stanford or Columbia or Princeton spend four years doing nothing but seeking a credential, aim at nothing more than making money, and never think very hard at all about anything, either while in school or for the rest of their lives. Yet it cannot be that this is true of every student, nor can it be that it is true only of students at elite institutions. Neither is it the case that faculty members universally do not care about and do not participate in the education of these talented young people. It is the case that the elite research universities provide too little incentive for faculty members to value their classroom careers as much as their research careers. Nonetheless, there are many superb and concerned teachers on the faculties of all the elites, many of them also distinguished scholars and scientists for whom teaching and scholarship are complementary. We can and should worry about the predominance of the research agenda, in other words, without inevitably concluding that liberal education has been entirely abandoned in the elite private institutions. But these are all white people problems too. As the Blumenstyk recently reminded us in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “A person from an upper-income family is nearly nine times as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than is someone from a poor family.”
Generalizations that rely on anecdotal evidence abound in the book because, especially for a man with a Yale Ph.D., Deresiewicz has a surprisingly loose idea of how evidence and generalizations are supposed to relate to one another. Almost all his evidence comes either from his own life (“when I was at Yale […]”)or from what others have told him about theirs (“a student at Columbia told me […]”). Conversations and email seem to be his idea of research. Most of those conversations and emails, by the way, are exchanges with people he meets on his lecture tour or who were his students. Amazingly, this not-so-random sample of informants goes out of its way to tell him how right he is about everything. Apparently, in all his vast experience in American higher education he hasn’t met a single person who thought his characterizations of the colleges, the students, and the parents were a bit […] overwrought.
Just to compound the difficulties the book presents, Deresiewicz is also a snob who buys into the very system of privilege he purports to criticize. He derides the elite institutions, but he disparages just about everyone else too. Among the many “non-elite” institutions whose inadequacy he identifies are Fresno State, Linfield College, Cleveland State, Michigan State, Washington University, Cornell, and NYU, to say nothing of such “second tier” schools as Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke. He also notices the deficiencies of the “University of Southern Football” which might be a southern state university or might be USC, but is clearly beneath contempt. As he so pungently puts it: “The winners go to Brown. The losers go to Brandeis.”
Like it or not, if you don’t go to a college on Deresiewicz’s murky and shifting list of elite institutions, you are a loser. Of course, you are also pathetic if you go to one of the elites since you will be condemned to a soulless life making nothing but money at Bain or Goldman Sachs. It actually seems that for Deresiewicz, if you go to college anywhere at all, you will wind up either a heartless winner or a pathetic loser. In fact, if you have the audacity even to suggest that “you can get an equally good education at Fresno State as at Stanford […] or at Linfield College as at Swarthmore,” you are indulging in a “species of willful anti-elitism.” This is Deresiewicz’s gloss on Sophie Tucker (“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”): “I’ve been to Fresno State and I’ve been to Stanford. Stanford is better.”
Deresiewicz is trapped between his rhetoric and his biography. His rhetoric leads him, near the end of the book, to recommend that students who are now scrambling for admission to the elites choose liberal arts colleges (which they can surely afford) over private research universities and public institutions (which are sadly beneath their class position) over private ones. Despite his condemnation of everything about his undefined group of elites, however, he finally believes that they are “better” and their students more “highly qualified.” These young people and their parents are the only audience he cares about anyway. The elites and their students represent the only world he knows or cares about in higher education. It is for their benefit that he mounts this critical barrage, not for higher education as a whole or for the great unwashed 99% of institutions and students in which he has no interest and for which he has no apparent respect. The book thus has a contradiction at its heart, because its author so deeply shares the very assumptions about the superiority of the elites that the book claims to challenge.
Excellent Sheep entirely misses some of the most essential features and faults of American higher education precisely because Deresiewicz’s vision is so narrowly blinkered, on the one hand, and so casually and broadly arbitrary on the other. First, there is no “system” of higher education in this country. There are many systems and many appropriately different ways in which individual institutions relate to their students, faculties, and alumni, as well as to the public at large. There is hardly a generalization about the entire “system” that can be supported with evidence. William G. Bowen and his co-authors of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education demonstrated a decade ago that precise definitions and clarity of analysis are essential in addressing many of the questions that Deresiewicz discusses anecdotally.
The diversity of American higher education, despite its many faults (of which more in a moment), is one of its greatest strengths. At this late date, does it really need to be said that no college — even Yale — is “the best” and that different sorts of students (and faculty members) will be better suited to different institutions? To choose just a few of many categories of institutions that Deresiewicz ignores or passes over too briefly or too patronizingly, what about the women’s colleges and the historically black colleges? Do they deserve no serious mention at all in a book that contains bold statements about “what college is for”? A better question might be “who is college for”? Should Smith and Wellesley and Barnard be lumped with the co-ed “second tier” liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan (Wesleyan? Really?) or do they belong with Deresiewicz's “elite” liberal arts colleges like Williams? One does not have to know much about these and other women’s colleges to know that their missions are historically unique and distinguish them from other institutions, not only in the students they select, but especially in the consequences of an all-women’s education for the graduates. Even in the world of white people problems, in other words, subtlety would be a welcome addition to the discussion.
The historically black colleges, although currently besieged in many ways and for complex reasons, also have a unique and demonstrably essential historical position and societal mission that Deresiewicz entirely ignores. Should a student who graduates as valedictorian of the class from West Side High School in Newark attend Howard or Stanford? If Deresiewicz’s worldview could even consider that a student from West Side High might be admitted to Stanford, I think we know how he would answer the question. Yet the “right” answer to it is not self-evident and obviously depends on many factors, hardly any of which make an appearance in Excellent Sheep.
Similarly, the religiously sectarian colleges and universities represent a different but very American theme in post-secondary education and their varied thinking about undergraduate education; while not perhaps to Deresiewicz’s taste (or, I confess, to my own), they contribute to the rich complexity of American higher education. Then there are the utterly unique institutions like Berea College and Deep Springs College and St. John’s College and many others that embody the highly individualistic and frequently idealistic side of college life in the United States.
The flagship state research universities are a significant piece of the picture too. In some ways, they mirror the circumstances at the private research universities. Their admissions processes are similar, they reward research more than teaching, they have become (even in the arts and sciences) increasingly “credentialist” in their goals for their students, and they undertake fundraising campaigns in the billions in order to support increasingly ambitious capital building programs and endowments. Indeed, many of them are only quasi-public in any case because state funding has declined so drastically and the burden of paying the cost running them has shifted to privately raised funds, “revenue producing” degree programs, and undergraduate tuition (which triples for out-of-state students who want to attend, for example, the great University of Michigan). It’s as expensive for a kid from Connecticut to go to Michigan as it is to Yale. The result is a set of public institutions that have become demographically and economically more similar to the elites than to the publics they were built to serve.
In a way, therefore, the publics are a greater source of worry than the elites. The elites were always elite. Their student bodies always mirrored class and invidious social distinctions of all kinds. Deresiewicz is certainly right to observe that measures of “merit” camouflage the continuing failure of the “best” private institutions to do more than pay lip service to eroding their historic heritage of economic privilege and prejudice. Recent data collected by The New York Times, in fact, indicates that none of the elites are even in the top 20 in the number of Pell grant students they enroll, and that even when deep tuition discounts are considered, it is still true in the words of the Times headline, “Generation Later, Poor are Still Rare at Elite Colleges.” In fact, the privates also still give significant admissions preference to the children of alumni, the children of wealthy donors, to athletes, and to others whose “merit” does not match the reputed standards. That is an unexceptionable insight; why would anyone be surprised to discover that the elites are elitist?
But the public research institutions are supposed to be different. They too have a heritage of racism, sexism, and prejudice of many kinds to overcome, but they were engines of social and economic mobility too, and they have understood their mission, not just their source of funds, to be public. That fact has sometimes led them in a direction that Deresiewicz denounces: toward preparing their students for work and careers rather than to lead the examined life and the search for self that he rightly identifies as the historical core of a liberal education. And yet, the flagship public institutions also have a deep heritage of commitment to the liberal arts and sciences that historically accompanied their emphasis on democratic and useful education. These are not mutually exclusive goals after all, and the public research universities have imperfectly aimed both at the liberal arts and at keeping the promise of social mobility that has been as essential to American higher education and to American society at large. Many of them are still keeping up that struggle.
But many forces endanger the great tradition of a challenging education in the liberal arts and sciences, as critics before Deresiewicz have noted. Neither the dangers nor their consequences are confined to the private elite institutions with which he is so concerned; they are rife throughout American higher education. The good news is that students seeking a real education can find one at many kinds of institutions, including both public and private universities. The bad news is that the flagship public institutions are more similar to the elite privates than Deresiewicz realizes. Their aspirations are similar, their students are judged by similar standards, their faculties seek (and receive) the same sources of grant funding and honor for their research, they tend to emphasize the undergraduate “experience” rather than undergraduate education, and too many of their faculty would rather train new Ph.Ds. for whom there are few jobs than teach undergraduates. On top of all of that, the flagship publics are all deeply invested in semi-professional intercollegiate athletics which provide excellent PR, but do little to genuinely advance their academic identity or even, for most of them, make money. Among the elite privates with which Deresiewicz is so obsessed, only Stanford competes nationally in the money sports of men’s football and men’s basketball. Athletics aside, when it comes to identifying “aspirant peers,” the traits that the publics seek to emulate are precisely those that Deresiewicz so derides in the elite privates.
The flagship publics are, however, now at a precipice. Their imitation of the elite private institutions endangers their public mission at just the moment when many of them have finally come to reflect the demographic complexity of the society they serve. More than half the students at my university, Rutgers, identify themselves as non-white. Fifteen percent of them come from families with annual incomes of $30,000 or less. Following the national trend for public universities, our tuition is rising rapidly in response to even more rapidly declining state support putting our educational resources financially out of reach for some of our most promising and gifted students. Despite one of the highest rates of Pell grants in the nation, many Rutgers students find themselves in a precarious position: one small change in their family’s economic circumstances (a parent losing a job, for example) can force them to quit school altogether. Definitely not a white people problem.
Deresiewicz’s view of students from difficult economic circumstances is typically patronizing, however: “If you grow up with less you are much better able to deal with having less. That is itself a kind of freedom.” If that is “a kind of freedom,” it is one that Deresiewicz has never experienced. Perhaps he would like to explain its meaning to one of my amazing students whose father lost his job in the recession, whose mother works for a minimum wage in a fast food restaurant, and who holds down a nearly full-time job herself while helping to care for her siblings, earn a degree, and prepare to apply to an Ivy League law school.
Having been so direct about the influence Deresiewicz’s cv has on his views, perhaps full disclosure requires me to conclude with a few words about my own experience, along with my own anecdotal evidence. I received my bachelor’s degree from Rutgers (a public research university) and Ph.D. from Cornell (a private Ivy League research institution although not, in Deresiewicz’s cosmology, a truly elite one). I have taught at a private liberal arts college, Lawrence University (one of the few institutions on which Deresiewicz lavishes unalloyed praise), at Princeton (full disclosure: like Deresiewicz at Yale, I was not tenured), at USC, and now at my alma mater. Each of these institutions was quite different from the others, and their student bodies also differed dramatically in every way. Student preparation and academic potential varied too, but less than one might assume from the way we pigeonhole academic institutions. In different ways, I found all of them quite wonderful, however. White privilege is, after all, a privilege. In all of them, I found colleagues and students to admire, people who confirmed my commitment to teaching and scholarship in the liberal arts and sciences, and who, like me, were incredibly lucky to have landed where we did.
This is a long way from being a cross-section of American higher education, of course. Not surprisingly, I found some excellent sheep among both students and faculty at each college too, but everywhere I have marveled at both the human and academic achievements of my students and colleagues. I am sorry that William Deresiewicz, at Columbia and Yale, was somehow deprived of the same experience, for I am sure that on Morningside Heights and in New Haven there are also many students and faculty members who are merely excellent and not sheep at all. That Deresiewicz did not find them does not mean they were not there.
The profound problem — which is not just a white people problem — Deresiewicz ignores is not the fate of the elite and its children, which is trivial by comparison. It is rather the relationship between education and democracy. All the recent data indicate that the elite institutions, despite well-meaning efforts to do otherwise, have largely failed to open their doors, and the opportunities on the other side of those doors, to young people of color and from impoverished families. Why have wealthy institutions — and not only Deresiewicz’s elites fall into that category — failed so utterly to do something that almost all of them say they are committed to doing? What might they do to change direction? I have two modest proposals.
Consider college admissions and rankings. Excellent Sheep is surely correct in its description of the rat race that now characterizes college admissions. The evidence on this point is not in question, but the history of college admissions, which the author elides with only brief mention, must be acknowledged and considered as well. Not only at his elite institutions but at other private and public institutions class, race, ethnicity, and gender all mattered much more explicitly in the past than they do now (There were 14 African American men in my all-male class of 1969 at Rutgers. Only 7 graduated). Similarly, the current measures of merit, about which Deresiewicz is properly skeptical, are not the exclusive province of the elites either. They have propagated throughout American colleges and universities with hardly a voice of dissent from the leaders of any but a very few institutions. The former president of Reed College, Stephen Koblik, was a voice in the wilderness when, in 1995, he refused to provide data to the US News and World Report for its misleading and self-fulfilling rankings of American colleges and universities. There are more such voices now from among the liberal arts colleges at least, whose Annapolis Group in 2007 agreed in principle not to cooperate with US News. The major research universities, public and private, have not signed onto a similar project. If you want to find some excellent sheep, take a look at the leaders of institutions who are so terrified of falling in the US News rankings or so ambitious to rise in them that they collaborate with an invidious and misleading system whose outcomes they privately acknowledge to be not merely inaccurate but absurd. And, by the way, after Koblik’s courageous act of defiance, Reed survived US News’ retributive downgrading of the college’s rank just fine. On this point, Deresiewicz (who ironically now lives in Reed’s hometown of Portland) has nothing to say.
Now think about the SATs. Deresiewicz does not spend a moment arguing that these tests, which he acknowledges are closely linked to class, should be abandoned entirely, not only by the elites but by the hundreds of good colleges that imitate them. Time and again, data has demonstrated not only that SAT scores correlate closely with the socioeconomic class of the test takers, but also that they do not predict academic success in college. Arguably, if the president of one of the elites announced that her university would no longer use SAT scores in its admissions process, the entire “system” of college admissions from Deresiewicz’s “top” to his lowly “bottom” would have to change too. And, not incidentally, the Educational Testing Service, which makes quite a lot of money administering the tests, would either get smarter about how to measure and predict student success or would go bankrupt. In the last decade, in fact, ETS has been tweaking the tests in many strange ways, attempting both to blunt criticism and to respond to the market pressures (felt mostly away from the two coasts) presented by a competing product, the ACTs.
These two steps, the destruction of the US News rankings and the abandonment of standardized admissions testing, would change the structure of undergraduate education dramatically, because their absence from the equation might actually force the elites and everyone else to craft better, more accurate ways to describe both the characteristics (not the ranking) of the institutions and the academic potential of the students they admit to study. In addition, they would transform how students and colleges judge each other, and so presumably would also transform the composition of student bodies.
In short, the news is both better and worse than William Deresiewicz says it is: there is wonderful stuff happening in classrooms, laboratories, and libraries throughout American higher education, but how to get access to all that wonderful stuff, with few institutional exceptions, is still mainly a white people problem. Our biggest concern cannot merely be that the children of the 1% are being spoiled and coddled in the hallowed halls of the private research universities. Inside and outside higher education, we need less navel gazing and self-regarding pomposity and more coherent and socially responsible leadership to build mechanisms that will unlock those previously locked doors, and make all our colleges and universities engines of opportunity instead of barriers to it.
Douglas Greenberg is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and former Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences there. Previously, he was a Professor of History and Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, President of the Chicago Historical Society, and Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies. He has also taught history at Rutgers, USC, Princeton, and Lawrence (Appleton, WI).
LARB Staff Recommendations
"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....
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