by Bruce Fleming
The second of two subtitles (joined together only with an ‘&’) of William Deresieweicz’s hugely successful and much-discussed “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life” is actually the most revealing bit of the almost-up-to-eighteenth-century-length title that fills the navy-blue cover of the book, with a big red X hand-“painted” over the first syllable of the opening word. For, the ‘Way to a Meaningful Life’ is the author’s real subject. What he suggests as “the way to a meaningful life”—the subtitle indicating that it’s perfectly possible that we can fail to find that way, simply miss the path and so lead a life without meaning—is the eminently sensible notion of finding yourself and being that person. However what that has to do with the curricula of elite universities —and the ‘Miseducation of the American Elite’, as alleged by the first subtitle – is unclear. Elite stand-alone colleges are excepted from the author’s attack, apparently because the author has never gone to one and his father (to whom we return below) never suggested he should. And less than elite schools never figure at all: the author dips as low as “second-tier” liberal arts colleges, but no further. The elite of America don’t go there, so he doesn’t have to consider them.
The title isn’t merely long, its three parts neatly summarize the three divergent foci of the book—and because they remain divergent, the book is more interesting in fragments than as a whole. The opening phrase seems to be critical of the students—calling people “sheep” is to say that they are mindless followers, easily led and with no visible will of their own, however “excellent” they are. Yet the “miseducation” of the first subtitle is the fault of the universities the author is blaming: apparently the causality is absolute. Students at Ivy-plus universities (as they are usually called, to include institutions like Stanford, Chicago, Duke, Hopkins, and Vanderbilt as well as Caltech and MIT) are formed by their institutions—or rather misformed—or is that, misinformed? None or few, apparently, find the way to a meaningful life on their own—but surely that can’t be right. The control of their lives by their universities, according to the author, is absolute, and they are jinxed for life.But that can’t be right either. Possibly without trying to, the book’s endless title lays out all three of its intrinsically unrelated theses, and it is their lack of intrinsic relation that is the book’s greatest flaw. Individually, each of the three is interesting, and when considered, as they are here, from the author’s personal perspective, productive of much thought. However the attempt to link the three isn’t even really made in the book any more than it is in the title, and the result is an interesting jumble.
So let’s take the three foci in order. First, that the students at American Ivy-plus schools are sheep, albeit excellent ones. Little differentiation is made among the Ivy-plus schools, though Duke and Vanderbilt attract a different sort of student than Chicago; Columbia students are unlikely to be mistaken for Princetonians or the reverse; and MIT or CalTech students probably wouldn’t feel at home at Brown. Deresiewicz does, in passing, take some swipes at Princeton and Dartmouth as “notoriously anti-intellectual” institutions and Penn and Duke as “notoriously pre-professional.” This leaves Yale, his real focus, as the best of a bad lot. Some of the sharpness of the barb against students, calling them sheep, is blunted by the author ascribing this phrase, which he evidently feels sums it all up, not to his own imagination but to a student at Yale, where he taught in the English Department before he failed to be granted tenure—not necessarily a bad thing, incidentally, as the criteria for faculty members to stay may well be linked to what Deresiewicz sees as the deficiencies of the students: any faculty member who would encourage non-sheep-like behavior in Yalies might well not, perhaps, be considered suitable for the permanent faculty. (Deresiewicz is now a freelance author living on the West Coast.) He tells us that he was venting to his Yale students about how herd-like they are (my paraphrase) when a student asked (the tone of voice is unclear: disbelief? disdain? awakening agreement?) “So you’re saying we’re, like, really excellent sheep?” (2).
The adverb “really” has disappeared from the title, so they’re just excellent, not really excellent. But the book’s attitude is encapsulated in that transcribed “like”—the verbal tic of the young, whether at a suburban mall, a tenth-rate cow college, or the Ivy League. Transcribing it is a put-down, showing the author’s sense that the students really aren’t all that impressive. And that’s the gist of his critique of his students. It’s not their fault, but that’s the bottom line. They’re disappointing.
So it’s a bit strange to find him positioning himself as the spokesman for the young, offering himself as the one who is defending their interests. The gist of his defense of all these excellent sheep is that they are miserable. He quotes a Yale student: “I might be miserable, but if I weren’t miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.” (9) A college president writes: “We appear to have an epidemic of depression.” (8) Not only are they miserable, they’re isolated: “People at Yale do not have time for real relationships”, writes a former student (9). Students at Stanford talk about the “’Stanford Duck Syndrome’: serene on the surface, paddling madly underneath.” Life at an Ivy-league university is a “salmon run.” So he seems to feel sorry for them. Yet at the same time he’s criticizing them for being robots: “Very few were passionate about ideas” (13). “They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds.” (13) He quotes a Yale student: “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.” (15).
Deresiewicz apparently both loves and hates these young people. They lack what he calls (and this is a thing one apparently wants to have) “passionate weirdness” – but it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the institutions. They “do not arrive in college as a herd of sheep” (15). It’s the institutions that deform them. Or is it the other students who do this? Apparently, the institution has done a number on the others, who infect the newbies. There’s no way out.
And that is the second of the book’s foci. To that in a moment. But as to the first, are we convinced? The point isn’t conviction, as the book is really a personal essay rather than even a quasi-scientific tract: these are the conclusions he’s come to after teaching for a number of years at Yale—no wonder he lacks substantial examples from the liberal arts colleges of the same caliber that he thinks have to be different. He has similarly negative things to say about Pomona, in California, one of the top liberal arts colleges, but seems not to draw any conclusions from this: maybe it’s not just the Ivy-plus universities? He wouldn’t actually know.
When all is said and done, Deresiewiz really doesn’t seem to like his students, because they aren’t very interesting to him. They major in things he disapproves of, for starters: Economics heads the list. And they all want jobs in finance and consulting: half of Harvard graduates in 2007 went into these fields. It’s what he calls “training in playing it safe.” In today’s job market, majoring in English sure wouldn’t be. Some people might say they are tailoring their education to reality, which might be seen as a sign of high situational awareness. But not Deresiewicz. Recession be damned, family and mortgage be damned: live, he seems to say, dangerously.
What about his years as a student at Columbia? He adds these to his vita to buttress his qualifications for speaking about the Ivies. But here he isn’t criticizing the other students, only himself. As his opening sentence notes, this book is “a letter to his twenty-year-old self.” We have to wait to the end of the book to see why: it’s all intensely Oedipal, with Dad the ogre who forced him initially into engineering when later it turned out that the real Bill wanted to study English. (He and I wrote dance criticism for some of the same publications in the 1990s.) He, like his students at Yale, was going through the motions. The good news is that he found his own “passionate weirdness” – only too late.
This apparently is laid at the feet of not only Dad, but Columbia. It’s an odd argument: he did not initially find himself, as he tells his students to do in the chapter called “Inventing Your Life.” But finally he did. So is the glass half-full or half-empty? It’s pretty autobiographical, so it’s not snarky to remark that his family seems to have suffered from a rather sad brand-name envy: as Deresiewicz puts it, “nothing but the Ivy League existed in my family”—not even super “schools like Williams and Amherst” (or, presumably, my own alma mater, Haverford). (121). But that’s not the fault of the schools, but of a paucity of information and a sort of sad striver snobbery. Really rich people don’t have to go on about how much everything costs and can wear shabby clothes if they like: not the nouveau riche.
The author’s family was intellectually nouveau riche, so they wanted only what everyone else wanted. It’s sad, but why does it affect the rest of us? So the author’s road to finding himself was bumpy. Still, it ultimately led him where he wanted to go. Besides, it seems that everyone’s road to him- or herself is bumpy. His students are counseled to find themselves by taking time off before, during , and after college, distancing themselves from their parents, conceiving of themselves outside of the framework of school. “You’ll have to endure the pity and scorn of your peers, your parents’ friends, maybe total strangers. People will wonder what happened to you—you seemed so promising in high school. You’ll probably go through periods of depression, as I did more than once.” (129). Deresiewicz’s road was rocky, and he is intensely bitter about it: everybody is to blame—Dad, the Ivy League. Yet rocky is what he wants for others. Suffer, he seems to say: it’s the only way. Be an outsider. (Apparently the depression he sees as the result of being a dutiful student is the lot of those who aren’t dutiful as well.) ‘Finding yourself’ is hard work. And there’s no guarantee it will lead to success.
Nonetheless Deresiewicz is convinced that all his students have to try it. He acknowledges that it’s not a good idea in a recession, yet he assures us that things are getting better. And he notes that poorer students will face larger risks—still, getting a degree that leads to a successful life is the wrong way to go. Suffering and living dangerously really is the ticket.
But why wouldn’t you want it easier for the next generation? His odd argument brings into focus what for many reviewers has been the primary argument of the book, actually its weakest: his attack on the Ivy-plus universities. Somehow all this preparing for success is their fault. The students need to find their own inner “passionate weirdness” but the institutions preclude this? Make it impossible? Create a world in which this isn’t any longer valued? In any case, somehow it’s up to the institutions to facilitate the search for the inner weirdness. Or is it, force this? Encourage this? Require it? How?
Though he claims his institutions never did this for him, apparently he found it anyway. Isn’t it just possible that because each person’s inner self is definable only by that person him- or herself, that the job of an institution is to provide the means for success, so that each person has the ability to ask who s/he really is? Besides, if each person is so radically different from all others, how can any institution provide the map? Surely their job is best done if they offer normal courses, provide enough hand-holding so the students don’t go off the rails, require some basic courses (schools like Columbia or Chicago with at least some trace of a common core curriculum would seem to come out in front of anything-goes schools like Brown), provide a variety of electives to let students spread their wings, and leave the individuals to figure things out on their own, as Deresiewicz says they must do anyhow?
Excellent Sheep is a deeply contradictory book: it holds institutions responsible for failing to encourage and apparently actively discouraging a developmental process that is fundamentally individual. Apparently Deresiewicz came to intellectual adulthood by rebelling against Dad and Columbia University—why can’t everybody else? Or at least, those who want to be passionately weird in the way he means. Apparently that means being an English professor and a dance critic. But it’s blatant snobbery to think that this sort of person is better than somebody who works for the consulting firm McKinsey. Can’t one be employed and fulfilled? Apparently not. It’s a view of life right out of Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, full of suffering as the sine qua non of Art—the basis of the ueber-popular Puccini opera La Boheme. (Apparently in the early 19th century enough artists in Paris came from the Czech region of Bohemia that this sub-group of immigrants gave the name to any struggling artist.)
The author never proves that Harvard or Chicago can’t produce either original or fulfilled people, he merely tells war stories about how disappointed he is with his students at Yale. He thinks top-tier liberal arts colleges have to be different, but all the stories he tells (largely about Pomona, where he must have a contact) suggest they aren’t. So he waves in the direction of second-tier liberal arts colleges as embodying what he’d like to see—Sewanee (The University of the South) or Kenyon College in Ohio. Nothing at the top of the list can be any different. There’s no evidence here, just his bitterness about the world he knows. So salvation has to lie in the world he doesn’t.
Many recent books have excoriated higher education as being ineffective—the most telling of these is probably “Academically Adrift” of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which relies on the results of a test given to college freshmen and then the same students as seniors, the College Learning Assessment. This test clearly indicated that students at “beer and football” state universities merely put in the time, whereas those who went to the top-tier liberal arts colleges actually made progress. This book was noted in academic circles, but not beyond. Deresiewicz’s book, by contrast, was the talk of the town in its excerpt in The New Republic and hit the New York Times BestSellers list. It seems likely that this was because it’s criticizing the leading brand, not the also-rans. It’s titillating to read a kiss-and-tell about a celebrity, but not about a striving non-entity. The Ivies are the celebrities of our day. So of course it’s fun to read a slash-and-burn.
But that’s the argument that is never made. Deresiewicz isn’t interested in going into the academic weeds to ask whether top-tier universities should have more or fewer required courses, for instance, and if so what kind—he’s ready to lop off the heads of at least the top twenty (by US News and World Report rankings) US universities (also ranked as among the best in the world). It’s a breath-taking argument and full of fire, and gets attention: saying Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep really aren’t very good actors is more interesting than reading about B- or C-listers. But the book is anecdotal only, and finally a work of creative nonfiction—the world as a larger version of the author’s life. He thought there was only the Ivies, Columbia led him initially wrong, his students are just like him, Yale is leading its students wrong too. Off with their heads (the universities, but at times it seems the students too). It’s an intensely narcissistic book.
But fine. We are all, ultimately, our own biographies, and we see the world as an extension of ourselves. If Deresiewicz can talk autobiography, so can I, if it’s to the point. So let me offer myself as both a proof and a disproof of his theses.
My world-view, unlike Deresiewicz’s, did contain schools outside the Ivies. I spent my freshman year in the Honors Program, now College, of my state university, the University of Maryland, because I got a full ride as a National Merit Finalist. Its courses for freshmen were excellent, but got diluted after that. So I transferred to a top-tier liberal arts college, Haverford, which I chose over the several Ivies that admitted me. I was happy for about a year, then began to feel stifled by the need to take and do well in courses when what I really wanted was to write fiction—different fiction, book-length fiction without the constraints of plot. I therefore sped up the process and graduated in a total of three undergraduate years. I was a philosophy major—a major Deresiewicz would presumably approve of, since it had virtually no promised jobs at the end. I did write, partly at Haverford and partly the summer after I graduated, a novel that wasn’t published until 20 years later—and I’ve been a writer ever since then, when I was 19, with variable success and little commercial profit. After college, because I was doing just what Deresiewicz would have wanted me to do—following my inner passionate weirdness—the world, as he said it would do, wondered what I was up to. I odd-jobbed for two years, and taught at the French Lycée in Washington for one year. It’s a good thing my mother, who had saved a year of college tuition as a result of my speeding things up at Haverford, was willing to help. Then I realized that I had to get graduate degrees. Now I switched to comparative literature, another major Deresiewicz would presumably approve of because of its dim job prospects. My first try in graduate school, at Chicago, led to a MA and dissatisfaction with the program. So I left, and spent a year and a half ostensibly as a student at the University of Munich, but really going to museums, plays, and out on dates. (In the German system at the time you didn’t actually have to pass courses, just be enrolled—to get a degree you had to, so I got no degree, and no course credits.) Let’s be clear that this presupposes something most people don’t have, namely fluency in French and German. And outside funding: mom. I then shopped for the graduate program that would give me the most money. Vanderbilt won. I got a PhD in less than two years, having spent a total of five countable years of credit-worthy higher education past my Maryland High School diploma to a Ph.D.
Fairly weird so far, only I was also able to play the mainstream game. I got a Fulbright Scholarship to West Berlin for a year, taught two years each at the University of Freiburg and the National University of Rwanda, and since 1987 have taught at an institution that nothing in my background would have suggested I would end up at, the US Naval Academy. I’ve published over a dozen (badly-selling) books in fiction and non-fiction, write for (badly- to non-paying) literary magazines, have been a dance critic for no pay at all, and developed an interest and expertise in military theory, written books about aesthetics, political theory, dance, and any subject that catches my fancy. I’ve been on CNN, C-Span, the BBC, NPR, and other media venues (largely considering the anachronistic military academies and the military) and have written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and other media outlets. Now I am locked in opposition to the self-serving military brass who run our taxpayer-supported military academies, where I teach, largely for their own benefit—but I’m a federal employee and a tenured professor, so there’s not much they can do about me.
I’d say I’d found myself. And yes, it was all just as painful as Deresiewicz says it would be. Yes, many times people asked what had become of my early promise. Many times before I got a job, my mother had to step in with cash. At 60, I can’t live from writing, certainly not support my family, but my life is just as fulfilling as Deresiewicz would have it be and I have a steady job, so I’m respectable. Still, I did it my way, as he wants his students to do: I guess I’m a success story by his standards. I was not a sheep. I turned down Ivies for an intense liberal arts college, from which I graduated early. I left Ivy-plus Chicago when it wasn’t what I wanted. I went out on my own to Europe. I found a second graduate school that left me freedom. I ended up teaching at an institution that claims it’s top-flight but actually is completely off the radar of American higher education (Deresiewicz never mentions military institutions because he doesn’t know about them, I imagine.) So I’ve been able to write what I want, be my own man.
But who says this trajectory, apparently exactly what Deresiewicz wants from his students, is reproducible? Even, that it’s what I’d recommend to them? I have two youngish sons: I don’t want either to have to bump along as I did. The truth is, I lucked out. When I came out of graduate school in 1982 there was a recession on, as now, and no jobs. The miracle is that I got one when I was ready to come back to the US in 1987. And how many Yale students speak other languages that allow them to leave the Anglophone world so as to be able to do other things while waiting for a tenure-track job? Unlike Deresiewicz, I actually got tenure, though to specifications considerably different than those that were applied to him at Yale (I doubt I’d have gotten tenure there).
But how much wider is this world than Deresiewicz’s cramped one of twenty or so US institutions! He’s not wrong that people should find themselves. But he’s hardly the guide for thinking outside the box. I’m not sure I am either. I ended up with a PhD and in some version of academia. Did I go outside the box or stay within it? I assumed I was leaving academia forever when I left college at 19. Yet here I am inside it, at least one version of it. Why be surprised? My parents were both college professors at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My brother got a PhD in Gregorian chant. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, despite all my conviction that I was going to be different.
My schools didn’t inhibit me: I used them for as long as they were useful, then made other plans. That’s what Deresiewicz seems to want of his students. But he won’t get it by attacking the schools, which are simply institutions, grids that individuals fill in the slots of. He seems convinced the institutions can determine the individuals. I find this more than creepy. I’d say he doesn’t want elite institutions at all, but a sort of fly-by-night place like the short-lived Black Mountain “College” outside of Asheville, that gave no degrees and lasted from 1933 to 1957, where big-name 50s avant-garde artists were given temporary jobs. Education is what you make of it: this is Deresiewicz’s point as well. So how can he blame the schools for the fact that most students seem to want to make of it a ticket to success rather than the path to starving in a garret?
The implication is that success and stability are bad, that most people want to starve in a garret and are discouraged from discovering this by institutions where everybody wants to go work for McKinsey. I think this can’t be true, but in any case Deresiewicz never tries to show that it is. I think most people do want some security—ultimately I got it by accepting reality, getting a PhD (the process did me a lot of good, though I wouldn’t have predicted it would), getting a job and settling down. I think I’m intellectually as passionately weird as they come. However for outsiders I’m not a Bohemian at all, but the very personification of The Man—a tall straight white man with degrees from top-tier schools who teaches future military officers. That was never the goal, it’s just where I ended up by doing it, along with Frank Sinatra, my way.
But again, I’m lucky. I’m the exception that proves the rule. Most people who strike out on their own as I did end up as failures—or at the very least in a job other than the one they aimed at (as I am). What’s wrong with aiming in a direction that seems, and indeed is, more secure? What’s wrong with the path less bumpy?
That’s a question that has haunted people ever since the Modern Age when we became free to define ourselves rather than be defined by the givens of our status, caste, or father’s profession—and where women could be something other than stay-at-home moms (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Sometimes, to be sure, it seems that too predictable people who drift from success to success, like the students whom Deresiewicz feels sorry for and despises, are covering something up, something that has to come out with a bang at some point or, failing that, lead to existential malaise.
The notion that those who drift within the corridors of power are unhappy even if they don’t know it (though most of the students quoted by Deresiewicz seem to know they are unhappy) is also rather satisfying to those who aren’t within these corridors. So variations on the theme of the poor little rich girl (or here, the unhappy depressed Ivy students) are actually fairly common in American letters. Deresiewicz is something of a Willy-come-lately to this theme.Take for instance John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham Esquire (1941), which I read recently for the first time and that has been re-issued in a modern edition. Marquand is associated with the world of old money New England with a dark underside—a sort of John Cheever before the fact. All his characters either went to Harvard or married Harvard men, have houses on the Cape, and sail through eras we have learned to see in more cartoonish terms, such as Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties and John Steinbeck’s Depression, while remaining untouched—as most of us are untouched by what history later decides was our Era. Marquand reminds us that our views of decades and Eras are literary illusions—plenty of people were alive in 1925 who were uninterested in T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, the Charleston, Josephine Baker, or Sloe Gin Fizzes.
Among these poor little rich kids in Marquand’s novel is the title character. The novel itself is a flashback pendant to Mr Pulham going to a meeting arranged by a too-genial blowhard with whom the title character and narrator (not actually a lawyer, despite the Esquire) was at Harvard twenty-five years before. He imagines the flat predictable blurb he will write for the book that’s being planned for the reunion, a blurb like others already submitted that he is offered as models, that would encapsulate his adult life: he finds it all wanting. What would his blurb be but the same platitudes? He married X, worked for Y and now for Z. He lives with his wife and two children in Boston and summers on the Cape. He wonders: is that all there was? The novel narrates his life so we can share his gnawing sense that he’s wasted it.
It turns out that his moment of daring—the challenge that, like so many of Henry James’s characters, he shirked—was being poised to marry an exciting woman in New York rather than, as he ultimately did, the safe one he’d grown up with in Boston. But he failed the challenge. Now, decades later, and married to the safe one, he denies evidence staring him in the face that she’s having an affair with his best friend, denies the fact that he’s still in love with the exciting woman (she comes to town and he agrees to see her before standing her up and feeling relieved) and shows how much he hates his life—as well, for that matter, as his children.
The interesting thing about this book is that there is no bang, no big reversal, no big change. The book ends with no revelations of infidelity, actual (his wife) or wished for (his own): he doesn’t leave and go to Tahiti. It ends where it began, with the top still firmly on the simmering kettle.
The title character, our Mr. Pulham, is a financial advisor, something that Deresiewicz would disapprove of. Divertingly enough, for Pulham, the fish that got away was working in New York rather than apparently boring Boston—as an ad man! It’s refreshing, after the television series “Mad Men,” not to mention Sloan Wilson’s put-down novel about admen of the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, to see advertising as the fresh and invigorating career it must have seemed at the time rather than another way to sell out to the system as it is now portrayed.
Yet the fact is that he didn’t have what it took to remain in advertising (would he have burned out there too?) or marry the smart girl (who went to the University of Chicago; his eventual wife was raised to be a wife and went nowhere). He chose what he did because he wanted to be back among his own people. The end of the book suggests he failed. But who’s to say he made the wrong decision? Maybe that was his personality? We all dream of being bohemians but most of us aren’t cut out for it. Even I got a PhD and a federal, tenured job. As Flaubert says of Emma Bovary’s second lover, Leon, “in the soul of every clerk lies the ruins of a poet.” Leon leaves Emma because she scares him (the reader sees he was right to be scared), and goes into an arranged marriage with a nice girl from a convent. Emma was the thing for a while in his youth, but ultimately most of us want something more predictable.
Maybe Deresiewicz just wants his students to have their wild years before they too settle down. Or does he just want them never to settle? That seems cruel. In any case, who knows: he never says. But he also can’t show that they want these unsettled years more than they don’t. Maybe those who want or need them, such as me, take them. If rebellion and doing it yourself is the ticket, why ask institutions to make it any easier? It seems he wants to build in institutional ways to make each of us do it him- or herself. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of rebellion?
William Deresiewicz: Excellent Sheep. The Miseducation of the American Elite &
The Way to a Meaningful Life
New York: Free Press 2014, 256 pages, hardcover.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa: Academically Adrift. Limited Learning on College Campuses
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2010, 272 pages, softcover.
John P. Marquand: H. M. Pulham, Esquire
Price: n/a (out of print)
Chicago: Academy Chicago (Reprint), 432 pages, softcover.
Bruce Fleming is is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, having previously held teaching positions at Vanderbilt University, the University of Freiburg, and the National University of Rwanda. His most recent books are Running is Life: Transcending the Crisis of Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America 2010) and Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Fairfax, Virginia: Potomac Books 2010). In addition to his scholarly work, he has contributed opinion pieces to the New York Times, Wahington Post, Baltimore Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
(c) 2014 The Berlin Review of Books.