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

By William Deresiewicz

Free Press

256 pages, $26

By William L. Morris

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

William Deresiewicz taught English at Yale for 11 years, then left teaching. He claims his “separation from academia was a mutual decision.” But that summer he published an article in a relatively unknown educational journal that can only be seen as retribution. In another era it would have gone unnoticed but in 2008 it went viral on the Internet. It turned America’s higher educational system on its head.

“Getting through the gate [of an elite school] is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm – I’ve heard of all three – will get you expelled.”

He claims that leaders like George W. Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry when they went to Yale and Harvard were the beneficiaries of a system that rewards mediocrity. He says the hardest schools to get into create characters without character and add to the meaninglessness of our lives.

Anyone with a child trying to get into Yale or Harvard should read this book, which is an embellishment of that 2008 article. In it he claims that a child would be better off at Cleveland State.

Of course not everyone can go to Cleveland State, so Deresiewicz recommends “the second tier – not second-rate – liberal arts colleges, places like Reed, Kenyon, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke and quite a few others: schools that, instead of trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, have retained their allegiance to real educational values.” In these schools students talk about “‘having no place to hide’ as well as [having] long discussions … with their professors outside of class.”

He warns that if a student attends one of the elite universities, he or she will “probably … have to fight against the institution [to get a good education] … the more prestigious the school, the more you’re going to have to fight.”

He doesn’t target only Harvard and Yale: “Notoriously pre-professional places like Penn, Duke or Washington University, or notoriously anti-intellectual ones like Princeton or Dartmouth, are clearly worse.”

If even partly true, it’s a major wake-up call. We’re supposed to have the greatest educational system in the world. When did we reach the state where “good teaching isn’t simply undervalued; especially at elite universities, it is actively discouraged, because it’s seen as raising doubts about your seriousness as a scholar … where ‘Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.’”?

Deresiewicz points out that two kinds of schools of higher education exist in the United States, the British and the German models. For a long time the British model dominated, but suddenly after World War II the German research model won out. After Sputnik, billions of dollars of federal money flooded the campuses and the British model retreated to small liberal arts colleges. Where once the “good teacher [spoke] plainly, now the research-oriented teacher uses ‘jargon academics learn … to repel the uninitiated.’”

Deresiewicz leaves undefined what he means by “learning to think” or what exactly we should do to change things (i.e. “The Way to a Meaningful Life”). He quotes reliable sources rather than producing a viable alternative. He seems to be covering up something. A person doesn’t teach at a prestigious school for 11 years, then simply leave by “mutual” agreement.

The tone of an autobiographical sketch posted online gives some clues. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in suburban New Jersey before “fleeing to New York for college.” After getting his bachelor of arts in biology-psychology from Columbia University in 1985 he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. He took a year off, then received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia in 1987, which turned out to be another false start.

After several indecisive years he received a doctorate in English in 1998 and began teaching at Yale. Eleven years later he left teaching and began writing articles for magazines and was a frequent speaker on college campuses – probably not the schools he lambasted in his articles.

Maybe he doesn’t want to appear to be a bad soldier, which is a bit odd because he’s started a war with schools like Yale. More likely he signed a legal document saying he wouldn’t disclose the terms of the “mutual decision.” If he discloses those terms, not just the elite colleges and universities, but all of them will make sure he doesn’t get those invitations to “be a frequent speaker on college campuses.”

This puts Deresiewicz in a difficult position. Without the gravitas of having been a Yale professor he can’t successfully tear down the walls of that prestigious institution and others like it. A big part of that mind set is the belief that high schools are where the basics are taught and college is where students learn to think. This weakens his argument because it is a fundamental misunderstanding of how and when people learn.

Deresiewicz knows the importance of teaching minds while they are still fresh. “If you haven’t started [to learn how to think] by the time you finish your BA,” he writes. “There’s little likelihood you’ll do it later.” Deresiewicz never taught high school so he doesn’t know the process begins and ends much sooner.

The longer you wait in high school the harder it is to introduce students to the life of the mind. To insist upon a cogent essay or challenge a firmly held prejudice from a senior is an invitation to an ugly parent-teacher conference.

By not going to the paddock and talking to the trainers, Deresiewicz misses the trifecta – the fact that universities have been playing a dirty trick on high schools since the Baby Boom. With a tsunami of educable students on the horizon they sensed what a bonanza it could be if they played their cards right. That’s when higher education started to mess with high school curricula using the SATs and APs.

Students were required to memorize so much information that concepts were skipped in AP History courses. Mathematics departments had to teach courses that were better taught to more mature minds. Teachers of AP English were trained to teach a spontaneous way of writing essays that was the exact opposite of how good essays should be written.

Universities claimed it was necessary to do this to screen out weaker students. Of course the reality is Harvard, Princeton and Yale could fill their freshmen classes five times over from their applicant pool with no fall off in quality.

All this Sturm und Drang might not be a bad thing if colleges and universities provided courses filled with philosophical discussions and assigned papers on the students’ reactions to those sessions. But as Deresiewicz points out, the American elite universities discourage their students from taking those kinds of courses and encourage instead the more lucrative, accelerated degree programs in engineering, medicine and finance. After all, they have their student debts to consider. According to Deresiewicz, these elite universities are glorified vocational schools.

In “Native Son” by Richard Wright and “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, uneducated men commit crimes almost by accident. Prison awakens in them something like an inner life – it often does – but since they are past the age when they can internalize such things, they only feel an agonizing emptiness where their inner life is supposed to be.

By getting rid of teachers with inner lives we are, to Deresewicz, programming our children to live the empty lives of Bigger Thomas and Meursault, the “excellent sheep” of the title.

The basic reason we have schools is to expose students to the kind of teachers who are no longer welcomed there.

“I myself became a decent teacher,” Deresiewicz says, “only when I started to relinquish some control over the classroom – stopped worrying so much about ‘getting my point across’ and recognized that those moments of disorder that would sometimes occur, those spontaneous outbreaks of intelligence, were the most interesting parts of the class…We were going somewhere new, and we were going there together.”

Such teachers are no longer “a good fit” in elite American education. If one slips past the guards, the “excellent sheep” insist on his removal. And his “separation from academia [is] a mutual decision.”

William L. Morris is a poet and spent several decades teaching in a private secondary school.