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Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (English Edition) [Format Kindle]

William Deresiewicz

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Excellent Sheep


This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish that someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then). I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the “next thing.” You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, “success.” As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one—how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world—all this was off the table. Like kids today, I was processed through a system everyone around me simply took for granted.

I started college in 1981. The system, then, was in its early days, but it was already, unmistakably, a system, a set of tightly interlocking parts. When I speak in this book of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them: the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA; and the parents and communities, largely upper middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.

What that system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

All? Surely not. But after twenty-four years in the Ivy League—college at Columbia; a PhD at the same institution, including five years as a graduate instructor; and ten years, altogether, on the faculty at Yale—that was more or less how I had come to feel about it. The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. In 2008, on my way out the door, I published an essay that sketched out a few of these criticisms. Titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” the article appeared in the American Scholar, a small literary quarterly. At best, I thought, it might get a few thousand readers.

Instead, it started to go viral almost from the moment it came out. Within a few weeks, the piece had been viewed a hundred thousand times (with many times that number in the months and years to come). Apparently I’d touched a nerve. These were not just the grumblings of an ex-professor. As it turned out from the many emails I began to get, the vast majority from current students and recent graduates, I had evoked a widespread discontent among today’s young high achievers—a sense that the system was cheating them out of a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn’t somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them to construct their futures.

Since then I have spoken with students on campuses across the country, corresponded with many others, answered these young people’s questions and asked my own, and heard and read their stories. It has been an education in itself, and this book is a reflection of that ongoing dialogue. Where possible, I’ve used their words to help me talk about the issues we’ve discussed, but every page has been informed by my sense of what these kinds of students need and want to think about. A lot of books get published about higher education, but none, as far as I can tell, are speaking to students themselves—still less, listening to them.

I begin the book by discussing the system itself—one that, to put it in a nutshell, forces you to choose between learning and success. Education is the way that a society articulates its values: the way that it transmits its values. While I’m often critical of the sort of kids who populate selective schools, my real critique is aimed at the adults who’ve made them who they are—that is to say, at the rest of us. Part 2 begins to explain what students can do, as individuals, to rescue themselves from the system: what college should be for, how to find a different kind of path in life, what it means to be a genuine leader. Part 3 extends the argument, talking in detail about the purpose of a liberal arts education, the value of the humanities, and the need for dedicated teachers and small classrooms. My aim is not to tell young people where to go to school so much as why.

Part 4 returns to the larger social question. The system is charged with producing our leadership class, the so-called meritocracy—the people who run our institutions, governments, and corporations. So how has that been going? Not, it’s clear by now, too well. What we’re doing to our kids we’re ultimately doing to ourselves. The time has long since passed, I argue, to rethink, reform, and reverse the entire project of elite education.

A word on what I mean when I speak of the elite. I don’t intend the term as it is often now deployed, as a slur against liberals, intellectuals, or anyone who disagrees with Bill O’Reilly, but simply as a name for those who occupy the upper echelons of our society: conservatives as well as liberals, businesspeople as well as professionals, the upper and the upper middle classes both—the managers, the winners, the whole cohort of people who went to selective colleges and are running society for their own exclusive benefit. This book is also, implicitly, a portrait of that class, whose time to leave the stage of history has now so evidently come.

Revue de presse

“In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz sets out to unnerve the current and future college students of America (and their parents). He succeeds brilliantly, with an indictment of elite education that should launch a thousand conversations. Read this book to remember what learning should be, and then pass it along to the next sheep who should leave the flock behind.” (Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy)

“This is a book of great importance to our society. It deserves to transform our understanding of integrity and achievement and success. William Deresiewicz is a genuine humanist with a profound faith in the promise of democracy, and he has an uncommon gift for wisdom without platitudes. Excellent Sheep is a withering analysis of the transactional spirit that rules American education and American life, and an inspiring example of a better ideal. A true teacher speaks here. He has my admiration and my gratitude.” (Leon Wieseltier)

“William Deresiewicz’s book is in and of itself a higher education, and to read it is to learn what’s a college for. The author is an inspired teacher, and his lesson is of a truth sorely needing to be told.” (Lewis Lapham)

“William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is a searing and important critique of our morally bankrupt educational system. He argues, correctly, that colleges and universities, awash in corporate money and intend on churning out corporate managers and conformists rather than scholars, have betrayed not only their mission, but the students they purport to teach and by extension the wider society. Independent thought is subversive, uncomfortable and lonely. It requires us, as Deresiewicz points out, to challenge and question reigning assumptions rather than kneel before them. Deresiewicz’s book is not so much a call for reform as for revolt.” (Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, with Joe Sacco, of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt)

"William Deresiewicz is one of America's best young public intellectuals. He has written a passionate, deeply informed, and searing critique of the way we are educating our young. Whether you agree or disagree - and I found myself doing both - you must read this book. It should spark a great debate on America's campuses and beyond." (Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World)

Excellent Sheep is likely to make…a lasting mark…for three reasons. One, Mr. Deresiewicz spent 24 years in the Ivy League, graduating from Columbia and teaching for a decade at Yale….He brings the gory details. Two, the author is a striker, to put it in soccer terms. He’s a vivid writer, a literary critic whose headers tend to land in the back corner of the net. Three, his indictment arrives on wheels: He takes aim at just about the entirety of upper-middle-class life in America…. Mr. Deresiewicz’s book is packed full of what he wants more of in American life: passionate weirdness.” (Dwight Garner The New York Times)

"It might surprise the countless students competing for admission to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford that they could be fighting for a dubious prize. But in this probing indictment, a former Yale professor accuses America’s top universities of turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their résumés and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life’s most important questions. . . . An urgent summons to a long-overdue debate over what universities do and how they do it." (Bryce Christensen Booklist (starred review))

 “Welcome to what is sure to be the most polarizing education and parenting book since Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” (Town & Country)

 “This refreshingly barbed indictment of America’s prestige-education addiction reveals what college students are really getting out of all that work, all that struggle, all that stress – and all those tuition loans.” (MORE Magazine)

"Excellent Sheep challenges parents to break from the herd mentality, to question what we really want from our children, who we really want them to be. The book filled me with both hope that there could be a more authentic, creative way to raise a new generation of thinkers--and with the courage to try to find it." (Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter)

“Deresiewicz’s critique of America’s most celebrated schools as temples of mercenary mediocrity is lucid, sharp-edged, and searching … he poses vital questions about what college teaches—and why.” (Publishers Weekly)

“An unquestionably provocative book that hopefully leads to productive debate.” (Kirkus)

"Not only does Deresiewicz speak with candor about the ins and outs of the educational hierarchy from an insiders point of view, but he prompts some serious questions about the potential for reform and what we as parents can do to encourage our children from a young age to change the way that they’re learning, and as a result, what they take from the world in exchange. A much recommended read, especially for those currently with or planning to have children." (Briana Burns High Voltage)

“[A] good case that these colleges are failing in their most essential mission: to help kids "build a self." (Mother Jones)

“Provocative.” (The Daily Beast)

“Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.” (The New York Times Book Review)

"Exceptionally enlightening." (Bowling Green Daily News)

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180 internautes sur 192 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Super People, Excellent Sheeple? 22 août 2014
Par Alan F. Sewell - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
This book piqued my interest because my son just graduated high school and is entering college. His classmates range from the "Super People" (author William Deresiewicz's phrase for the highest achievers) who are on their way to elite universities, to the more typical students who are starting their higher educations at community colleges.

In each book review I try to include a few well-written sentences that concisely illustrate an author's point of view. This book is so well written that I could have chosen just about every sentence. Here are some of the best:

The compulsive overachievement of today's elite college students-- the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can-- is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish.

Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping... that got them into an elite college in the first place--the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches , tutors, leadership, service -- left them no time to figure out what they want out of life.

Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spent using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake up in crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.

"I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, expect to hate my job, and this is just how it's going to be for the rest of my life."

The result is what we might refer to as credentialism. The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can't put on your resume...the constant sense of be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, and prestige.

If those of us who went to college in the 1970s and '80s no longer recognize the admissions process, if today's elite students appear to be an alien species --Super People, perhaps, or a race of bionic hamsters

That's a pretty dreadful assessment, but Deresiewicz is a former Professor of English at Yale and member of its admissions committee, so he must have seen plenty of it first-hand.

He is surely right about those of us who went to college in the 1970s no longer recognizing the admissions process. I graduated Georgia Tech in 1979. He praises students of our era as "passionate weirdos." That certainly fit my class, although I'd prefer to call us "competent eccentrics." We were engineering nerds. I was recruited because my ACT/SAT put me in the top 2%. I had zero extracurricular activities.

Fast forward 40 years and it seems that colleges cater to "credentialed conformists." Applicants have to show that they are not only academic stars, but social butterflies involved in numerous group activities. Even the "party schools" require students to write an essay explaining why they want to be admitted. The only requirement to be admitted to the party schools of the 1970s was that you had to have tuition money and a pulse.

What caused this change from universities prizing "passionate weirdos" to "credentialed conformists?" Perhaps it has to do with these factors:

1. We have become more litigation-conscious. Companies can't afford to hire "loose cannons" who create potential legal liabilities. Nowadays people are easily offended by many words and deeds that were ignored in the past, and they are quick to hire lawyers who will seek to recover damages on their behalf. So companies value conformists who follow the book more than they used to.

2. Flattening of management. A company that had 20 branch managers 40 years ago, now has only 1 regional manager, thanks to advances in computers and Internet communication. So, if 95% of the management jobs are gone, then companies have to find discrimination-neutral ways to winnow down the pool of candidates applying for that one job. Inflating the job requirements with credentials, no matter how bogus, is one way to do it without running the risk of discrimination lawsuits.

3. Maturing of industries. A century or so ago people were allowed to practice Law even if they had no formal education. It used to be that way in fields like auto repair and computer systems development. Now that these industries have matured and there is no longer a shortage of applicants, credentialization is the most efficient way to cull the herd.

The important question is whether all this credentialing and hoop-jumping is counterproductive to success in college and in life. I don't think it necessarily is. Corporations operate on these principles. So it is not unreasonable that colleges should give the highest priority in admissions to those who are likely to perform well in corporate employment.

Credentialing and hoop-jumping only becomes counterproductive when it is forced upon people whose natures are NOT motivated by peer-group competition. This may include most nonconformist, creative-minded people who prefer to blaze their own trail through life rather than walk on someone else's.

And we must remember that credentials are not the primary currency of success. Most of the worthwhile things we obtain in life come from our souls. We prosper mostly from the goodwill we create by doing things for others without thinking "how am I going to get paid."

Layering credentials on top of that principle strengthens your credibility and amplifies your reach. But if you have a defective character then credentials will only lengthen the height from which you fall. A lot of hotshots on Wall Street who were long on credentials and short on integrity are costing their companies tens of billions of dollars in fines for defrauding the public. Those who exchanged their souls for tickets to a rat race will die neither wealthy or respected.

I recommend that students and parents should read this book as an "alarm bell" to warn themselves when they may be pushing the hoops-and-credentials envelope a bit too far. William Deresiewicz makes fundamental points that are too often perceived only at the end of life's journey:

Keep your priorities straight. Perfect your own soul first, then jump through the hoops if you feel you have to. But, really, your objective should be to induce life to jump through the hoops YOU build. Never be afraid to take the risks that success requires. Never be afraid of failure. And always do what is right. If your soul is deep and rich, your life will be deep and rich. But if you seek to cover a shallow soul with credentials, then your life won't be worth the paper those credentials are printed on.
123 internautes sur 134 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Correct Diagnosis -- Incorrect Prescription 14 septembre 2014
Par Zachary Slayback - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
When I saw William Deresiewicz's New Republic piece, "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy League," I jumped at the opportunity to read it. As a partial Ivy League apostate myself, the thought of somebody -- a former Ivy League professor at that! -- calling out the cultural problems within these institutions excited me. The piece made waves, with students and professors alike responding, and getting people excited for Deresiewicz's book, Excellent Sheep. It worked. I bought his book and worked my way through it, hoping for an intricate analysis of a serious cultural issue and a nuanced solution.

While at an Ivy League university -- the University of Pennsylvania, in my case -- I see many of the issues that Deresiewicz identifies in his New Republic piece and in interviews on the book. Students who came to school wanting to change the world and make it their own place, to be in the driver's seat of their lives, quickly fell into an assembly-line-like mold. They may have entered school wanting to start a business and offer a new service, or to write a book, or to become a professional speaker, but by their second or third years, many had their eyes set on the crown jewels of the Ivy League experience -- On Campus Recruiting (OCR). They designed their resumes and schedules around exactly what recruiters from Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley would want and slowly extirpated the things they had passions for coming in to school. They became barely identifiable with their starry-eyed freshman selves. It wasn't infuriating as much as it was sad.

The problem is not necessarily that students want to go work on Wall Street after their time at school -- if that is truly your dream and what you believe will make you come alive, then by all means, please go pursue that! The problem is something at these schools is driving young people to settle and choose careers they don't find fulfilling. I was hoping Deresiewicz would identify what that something is.

In short, I was disappointed. Deresiewicz correctly diagnoses the disease that is this cultural issue, but his diagnosis is shallow, lacks detail (he relies almost entirely on anecdote and quoting English literature), and misses the deeper issue of pre-college schooling almost altogether. Even worse, his prescription for the problem -- accessible liberal arts education at schools like public honors colleges (outlined in Part III of the book) -- stems from his romanticized view of the academy, an unrealistic view of how public honors colleges operate, and an economically illiterate view of admissions reform (please see Steven Pinker's review, "The Trouble with Harvard." Pinker points out that the issues that students face at elite schools -- anxiety, depression, unfulfilled potential -- are suffered at higher rates by students at public universities, and that Deresiewicz's admissions reform recommendations would fail to address the perverse meritocracy he attacks, among other things).

Excellent Sheep has sections that are worth reading, and can be an enjoyable book at times, but the reasoning and argumentation behind it is flimsy and frustrating. Once one digs through the literary fluff that makes up a good half of the book, one walks away dissatisfied.
If a reader is interested in something on each of Deresiewicz's main goals -- the unfulfilled lives of young people, finding one's passions, and higher education reform -- there are better books out there. Consider Peter Gray's Free to Learn, Roman Krznaric's How to Find Fulfilling Work, and Bryan Caplan's forthcoming The Case Against Education.
58 internautes sur 68 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A Cry of Conscience 20 août 2014
Par David Keppel - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
One of my friends, as a Harvard undergraduate, was the subject of a survey. The question was simply: "What's your major?" His answer: "Pre-Wealth."

William Deresiewicz passionately believes that a true education should be something else: a habit of questioning, a constant search to understand the universe, the world, the society we live in and with that understanding to work for justice. He's asking for moral imagination, and he's shocked at its lack in universities that are stifled by the money they cost, the donations they chase, and the student debt that sends students into "practical" (lucrative but spirit-deadening) careers.

In truth, of course, elite universities are not entirely devoid of the values he champions, nor would he claim that. Some elite schools such as the Phillips Exeter Academy teach by the Socratic method; Oxford tutorials are meant to reward originality (though too often they and the Oxford Finals system reward mere fluency). But that doesn't at all detract from the validity of Deresiewicz's case, especially since it is written as advice to students.

The larger failure, I think, is a failure of the universities to foster an understanding of 21st century reality as a never-ending, uncertain, open philosophical inquiry. There are those, inside and outside, elite education engaged in that, from the Resilience Alliance to Stuart Kauffman to Frans de Waal to a superb journalist such as Elizabeth Kolbert, but it ought to be the heart and mind of a liberal education. For that to happen, universities will not only have to drop money-obsessed "practicality"; they'll also have to tear down some of the disciplinary walls assiduously maintained by doctoral and professorial guilds. It can't happen too soon.
13 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Poses deep questions, much as it stumbles at the answers 28 janvier 2015
Par Athan - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle
First things first, I must declare a massive bias here because I come from a most distinguished flock of "excellent sheep." Eat your heart out Amy Chua, my mom and dad (George and Effie Tolis of Athens, Greece) clocked 15.5 years of Harvard tuition between their three offspring. My brother additionally spent 6 years at a lesser institution in New Haven, but has meantime somewhat redeemed himself: he teaches at Harvard these days.

You have been warned, I am writing with considerable bias. On the other hand, I believe I am at least as excellent a sheep as the author and thus reasonably qualified to comment.

Second, I must declare that I disagree with a whole lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say, but quite perversely I totally loved the book nonetheless. The last book that made me think as hard about my system of beliefs was "The Worldly Philosophers" by Heilbronner. This book was truly cathartic for me to read. It made me look inside my soul, it made me think about my own children's education, about meritocracy in education and about meritocracy in the world in general.

The book has three very distinct parts that are spread over four chapters. It's three books, really, but with a common theme running through them.

From my angle, the most impressive was Part III, but I should probably first go over Part I.

Part I is about the psychological travails of the excellent sheep. The author describes the horrible ordeal students go through in order to secure for themselves a place at the elite institutions of the Ivy League, MIT and Stanford, the hoops they must jump through, the youth they never have, the true learning that never takes place, the whole pantomime we all had to endure. Apparently it's all gotten a lot worse recently. If the author is right it no longer starts during your Sophomore year in high school, these days you need to have it all planned out straight out of nursery. Four fake activities no longer suffice, you need ten. One wrong step and you're out. Apparently a good 15% of all kids in America are part of this rigmarole and the psychological effects are devastating. Studies and statistics quoted in the book leave no doubt the author must be right.

But I don't see it that way. To me it sounds more like

1. the 85% who don't play this game are not affected so we're only talking about the kids of the pushy parents who to some extent get what they deserve (the parents, I mean)

2. the schools in question have thousands and thousands of spots, so everybody ends up somewhere good and everybody can rationalise ex post how he ended up where he should have gone (Stanford had been my first choice, but my dad refused to "pay for me to have fun in California," so I speak from experience)

3. the kind of person who gets in, the kind of person who can ace tests (for that is the only indispensable skill), is possessed of exactly ZERO self-doubt. I'm pretty full of crap now, at age 47, but when I was 19 I genuinely thought I was God's gift to any school that would be lucky enough for me to deign to apply to. No, really. I only applied to Harvard because Stanford did not offer early admission, that is the sole reason I bothered to apply to two schools. I think I'm much more typical than the self-mutilating students described by the author. He dedicates far too much time to the "less excellent" sheep who are not as full of themselves as I was (and still am). Well, yes, if a kid does not think (nay, know!) success is assured, this could potentially be a harrowing experience.

4. don't believe the kids who say they got anorexic / took up drugs / cut themselves up because of the pressure of applying to college. Again from experience I can say that stuff is all about who's boss (clearly me, not my mom, I can do as I please with my body and will carry on doing so until she drops the subject) and it happens WAY before college appears on the horizon, though it probably does happen to the same kids, because they rebel against / defy the same pushy parents who later in life want to send them to the Ivy League / MIT / Stanford.

Summary of my point: Deresiewicz has the causality wrong. The relationship with the parents and the weight of the parents' expectations is the place to go looking for the problems he describes, not the life the kids need to lead in order to ace the college application. The kids who suffer would suffer the exact same breakdowns if they went to Disneyland with their mom and dad. Acing tests and pretending to be interested in model UN is, if anything, an escape for people who can do the work. Math and science, in particular, come naturally to those who do well in those subjects. My sister aced GCA A-Level Math (the UK equivalent of AP Math) when she was 14 and her primary motivation was to prove the point that she was as good as her older brothers; it had nothing to do with her college application 4 years later and it did not cause her any grief whatsoever. She probably thought highly of her tutor and wanted to impress him, but there's nothing wrong with that and it's not the situation the author is describing.

The bit I KNOW the author nailed is more to do with the psychology surrounding the motivations of the "excellent sheep." He describes my personal motivations of 25 years ago fully and makes a point I had never realised about myself until I read the book (as well as another important point that I had already figured out). "Excellent sheep," according to Deresiewicz, are motivated by exactly two things:

1. They need to be doing whatever is the hardest. Check. My Freshman week in college we were presented with a choice of three flavors of Sophomore year (naturally) calculus. In order of difficulty it was Math 21, Math 22 and Math 25. There was a test to be taken. I aced it of course and without even examining the syllabus I selected Math 25, by far the least appropriate class for me (hello Peano axioms, delta epsilon proofs, sundry modes of convergence) but the one advertised as hellish in the "Confidential Guide." My first day there this kid walked up to the teacher at the beginning of class and said "I actually placed into Math 22, but I was told that with your permission I could still take Math 25. I'm very good at Math, I just forgot how to integrate in the placement test." There is no moral about hubris and fall to this story; the kid was absolutely right, his name is Chris Woodward, he's a natural and he was a tenured Math professor at Rutgers within 10 years of this incident. I, on the other hand, suffered the indignity of my first ever B+ because I'm not a genius, I was quite simply exquisitely well prepared (thanks mom and dad!)

2. "Excellent sheep" are the "the best and the brightest" and "the world is their oyster" and they attach maximum importance to keeping things that way, to making triple sure all options remain open. "Excellent Sheep" don't only join Goldman Sachs or McKinsey consulting because it's the toughest option for those who don't go to Law School or Med School. The true appeal is that these choices don't shut any doors. You could leave Goldman or McKinsey and go run the Ford Motor Company or the US Treasury or go teach yoga and that's what it's all about. I must confess that here the author has me TOTALLY FIGURED OUT and I never even knew it. I left it till two weeks before graduation to decide if my degree would say "Applied Mathematics" or "Engineering Sciences" or "Economics" on it. When I got off the fence from having to decide between my offer from Salomon Brothers (the hot ticket in the spring of '91 following the publication of "Liars' Poker" the summer of '90 and the choice I went for) and my offer to study Applied Mechanics at Stanford, I decided "Applied Mathematics" would look best. Had I gone to Stanford to do Applied Mechanics I would have chosen "Economics" because that would have looked oh so diverse. Ah, and I lied: I did not turn down Stanford. I asked them to wait a year for me to attend. And then another year. I was a total ass and I did not even know it, basically. Thank you William Deresiewicz for imparting this bit of self-knowledge on me. I spent that crucial part of my life doing my utmost to keep options open, rather than delving into something I loved, or at least looking for something I loved.

With your permission I'll move from Part I straight to Part III and get to Part II last.

Part III of the book discusses the place of meritocracy in our society, our civilization and our democracy. It's heady stuff and comfortably the best part of the book, much as it is also the least resolved part of the book.

The three parts of the book are not separate, and the main idea is planted as early as page 119 (of 242) where the author gives his working definition of what it means for a society to be civilized: it's a society where it's a legitimate option to be poor.

I'd happily read a book five times as long and ten times as wrong if I knew it would contain such a total gem. Maybe I don't read enough, or maybe I'm reading the wrong books, but I cannot fathom of more elegant a definition. The full text reads as follows: "We're still a very wealthy country by any reasonable standard, which means that you've been presented with a rare and remarkable chance, one that's far more precious than the opportunity to be rich: the opportunity not to be. To find your purpose and embrace your vocation, and still to live a decent life."

BANG! That hit me so hard.

The author fears that we are in the midst of a massive move in the opposite direction, heading quickly toward a dystopia where we will be governed by an aristocracy formed at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. While as recently as 1985 "only" 46% of the students at the 250 most selective universities came from the top quarter of the income distribution, by 2006 we were looking at 67% and the main reason is not that college has been getting progressively more expensive (it has, of course) but that the cost of rearing "excellent sheep," the tutors, music lessons, private school tuition, fake activities, Stanley Kaplan etc. has been building a moat around the offspring of the ruling class.

Meanwhile, the colleges don't endeavor, according to the author, to teach as much as they aspire to act as finishing schools for the new members of the gilded class. "When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills those luxuries as instruction in how to be broad-minded and cultured. The truth is that they are, more than anything else, instruction in how to be wealthy" he quotes a student as saying.

A lot of the damage is already done. Pages 226 to 230 are in my opinion REQUIRED READING FOR ALL AMERICAN CITIZENS and I do not jest. In these short 5 pages the author tears into every single recent US President and most presidential candidates. Here's a quote:

"If Romney seems like an out-of-touch elite, consider the two Democratic nominees who preceded our current president, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly unable to communicate with the larger electorate. In fact, consider our current president - a graduate of Honolulu's prestigious Punahou School as well as of Columbia and Harvard Law - who despite his race, his oratorical skills, and his years as a community organizer, is equally incapable of making an emotional connection with the people he calls "folks.""

The point is made that both Bushes, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama and Romney all attended Harvard or Yale, leading to the main thesis that we have abdicated government to mandarins who know how to gather credentials but know zero about the real world because they have only ever operated outside it, in the bubble defined by our only nominally meritocratic system. Speaking about Obama again, Deresciewicz homes in for the main message of this book:

"He also couldn't understand why people might object to some of his appointments -figures like Timothy Geithner or Larry Summers, both of whom were central to creating the conditions that led to the financial crisis. They're "the best" after all; whom else would you choose to run the economy. Obama's arrogance and that of his advisors, as ill-concealed as it has proved to be unearned, is that of the double-800 crowd. It's as if he can't believe that anybody might reject those commonsense solutions once he has explained them carefully enough -as if he has no conception of competing values, interests, or perspectives, no idea that society is more than just equations. With his racial identity and relatively humble background, his election has been called the triumph of meritocracy. The sad thing is that that's exactly what it was."

(Even harsher criticism is --justly in my view-- reserved for Bill Clinton, the ultimate dog that caught the car)

He does not want to finish the book on a bad note, quoting E. Digby Baltzell who once wrote "History is a graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privilege to leadership" and proposes that the way out of our predicament is to invest heavily in our state school system, thereby ensuring that "privilege cannot be handed down."

The argument is left incomplete, I actually think the author is merely observing the manifestation of our current political impasse in the space called "Education" rather than examining the root cause of today's ills. But there can be no doubt that one of the reasons America is great is it twice in its history got ahead of all other nations in terms of imposing good, free education and it would be a fantastic idea if we had a third go now.

Amazingly, Obama just announced a plan to offer free community college to all Americans, possibly heralding the third such revolution.

But he would not find Deresiewicz in agreement, I don't think. Not on the evidence of Part II of the book, at any rate.

Part II of the book can be summarised as "don't go to Harvard. Get a liberal arts education instead."

The argument is built around two axes:

1. This is your chance to discover who you are. College is your time to be selfish, ask yourself the big questions, figure out for yourself what all the big thinkers have said that is relevant to you today. If you go pursuing some kind of vocational education you will be throwing out the window your one chance to explore the accumulated knowledge of all previous generations, which is distilled in the "good books" and in literature in particular. Go ahead, ditch the pre-med curriculum, get your hands on the good books, become an English major. You'll find out that not only will you land that coveted Goldman job / law school spot / med school spot regardless, you will actually perform better than your peers because your four year search for your soul will have equipped you better. (The author, of course says this much better than I ever could)

2. Don't go pursuing this liberal arts education at some place that could not give a damn about teaching, go to a proper liberal arts college that will offer you attention, seminars, the appropriate size of class and other students might not be of the same calibre of your potential Harvard classmates, but they won't be robots, they will think like you do. The teachers will be just as good as they are at Harvard because there's a massive glut of amazingly well-educated PhDs out there and the small liberal arts college will actually force them to teach. Their peers at Harvard will actually be on the "publish or perish" treadmill and will have zero incentive to meet you, assuming you overcome the competition of the other five
hundred of your classmates in the lecture hall and manage to get to them somehow.

The argument is very weak. It's so impossibly weak I really don't know where to start, but here's my rebuttal:

1. First let's get the easiest bit out of the way. Suppose you want to go to med school or law school and suppose you're sitting on a Harvard undergrad admission. You're sitting on gold. This is probably your only chance to get into med school or law school without straight A's. If you get a B+ average from Harvard (which, as the author alleges is not that difficult) and ace your MCATs or LSATs, that's it. You're in. Not so if you get a B+ average at a good liberal arts college. You're out. And here comes the best bit. You can use the spare time afforded by the luxury of only aiming for the B+ average to shop all the English seminars, philosophy classes etc. you ever hoped to attend. And they will be taught by the same Helen Vendlers the author adulates. And you can even play "spot the guy on the treadmill" with your enlightened friends. My roommate Pete did exactly what I'm describing. He got a C in orgo, OK? He took a class about Beethoven and dared to disagree with his teacher's main thesis in his final paper, earning himself an undeserved B+. Because he could. He had a ball. One night his Columbia girlfriend sent us her math-for-poets homework and we sat around and worked it all out from first principles and sent it back to her. We most certainly did not do our work that night, we did hers. And one day he woke up, took the train to Salem (because he'd left it till the last minute to apply), sat the MCAT cold, aced it and a few months later matriculated at Columbia Med. He's now a prominent anaesthesiologist. With a C in orgo. HOW ABOUT THAT??? If you are the type who can ace the MCAT cold you probably aced the SAT too, you might be sitting on a Harvard admission and if you're considering grad school you've got to tick that "I accept" box, beg borrow or steal the tuition and go to Harvard. Case closed. Four years of liberal arts await you, if that is your wish.

2. Second, suppose you are a genuine genius. Not a bloody-minded hard worker with the right set of parents like I was, but a proper genius. You can go become the star student somewhere else, or you can measure yourself against your true peers at Harvard. So I was there from `87 to `91. The Putnam exam is the "big deal" among math competitions between college students, look it up. Wikipedia will show you Harvard won it all 4 years I was there. From tens of colleges that compete and thousands that are eligible. What Wikipedia won't tell you is that none of those four years did we win it with our first team. We won it with the second, third or fourth team we fielded. And that is because a good 70% of the US Math Olympic team my year (and presumably the ones above and below) matriculated in my class, with the remaining 30% spread across America. Unless I knew which exact field of Math I was looking to study and that the best faculty for that field was at a particular other college, I'd need some serious convincing to go study Math somewhere else. THAT'S JUST ONE EXAMPLE. Bottom line, if you are a genius, you would do yourself a disservice to forego the opportunity to hang out with your true peers for the sake of going to pursue some liberal arts discovery wild goose hunt. Go to the proper school and take a year off to study the good books. Or three. Nobody will care.

3. Third, suppose you want to go to college as a preamble to entering American business or politics. You genuinely cannot pass on the opportunity to make the connections you will make at an Ivy League college. They ACTIVELY RECRUIT the scions of the richest and most influential families on earth. The grill in my house was operated by the son of the CEO of Goldman Sachs. When my roommate Gabe came back from his last round of interviews in New York he was still in shock: "So for my last interview Phil's dad walks in, and it turns out he wants to know about Mad. I told him she's fine." Bob Rubin was spying on his son's girlfriend, bottom line. Gabe got the job. Mad teaches at UC Davis (just looked her up). No idea how Phil is doing, but his dad went on to become Treasury Secretary. In summary, if you want to get into business or politics, don't go to the liberal arts college, have the grilled cheese at the Currier House grill instead. Or go to Wharton. Don't do something stupid you will regret. Buy all those good books and read them when you retire.

4. OK, so suppose you are a guy like me, who only really got into Harvard because he was crazily ambitious, conceited, hugely supported by his parents and who had no idea what he wants to do in his life other than collect more degrees, keep all options open and look forward to a continued lifetime as an "excellent sheep." You are at grave risk of never discovering that you are human. Your bubble stands the best chances of getting burst if you go to a place that will deliver the surgical kick in the nuts you deserve. I thought I'd b/s my way through an essay on Act II, Scene 3 of Macbeth. I wrote it in, dunno, three hours. Section leader Julia Dubner (I still remember her name) gave me the C+ I deserved and attached a pamphlet for the writing center, indicating I did not know how to write and needed professional help. To me, the high school valedictorian, student government vice-chairman, crew team jock and all-round renaissance sheep!!! How could she? It hurt. It didn't make me any less full of manure, of course, but it did me a whole lot of good. I actually went to the writing center, for no credit I hasten to add, and somebody there took the time to teach me how to write (with modest success, I hear you say).

Don't get me wrong, I agree the author on a number of levels. I got no guidance in choosing my classes at Harvard. I graduated with an Applied Math degree and could not define what a group is, because it's possible to do that at Harvard. But I definitely got the kicking I deserved. Every day I met people who were better than me at something. I even met people (Kentaro Toyama springs to mind) who are better than me at ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. I will thank Harvard forever for bursting my bubble. After Harvard I stopped trying to be excellent. I now positively enjoy being normal. I escaped sheepdom at age 21. Also, when at age 33 I decided to put things right and find out what a group is, the not entirely substandard university in my neighbourhood (Imperial College in South Kensington) admitted me to their Pure Maths program on the strength of my Applied Math degree from ten years earlier. I doubt liberal arts would have cut it.

5. Suppose you are a legacy. Well, what are your options? There's Harvard, where your parents have donated ten bucks and who might take you and there's nothing else. Default choice. Done.

6. Suppose you are an athlete. Tough one. Unless it's crew or ice hockey we're talking about you can look forward to four years of losing the whole time. That liberal arts college suddenly sounds rather more appealing. Ah, they don't offer your sport, you say, and they are not offering a scholarship either, eh? Sounds to me like you're going to Harvard then. And for the rest of your life you'll wake up from your recurring nightmare with "It's alright, it's OK, you're going to work for us someday" still reverberating in your ears. Tough, I must say. You know what, I have an idea for you. Do the sport for one year and then Harvard will carry on paying for you do study liberal arts just like William Deresiewicz says you should. There we go, that's a plan. Sorted! Neeext!

7. You are an average guy, you are not in any way conceited, you take success in your stride, you did not invent any of your activities, you have to work extra hard to get good grades, but somehow managed to get a top GPA and you don't know what you want to study, you are not excellent at anything in particular but you are a very strong all-rounder. Your parents had nothing to do with your academic record, you got there all on your own. And you need to choose between Harvard and a liberal arts program. IN YOUR DREAMS, DUDE. Harvard does not admit people of your description.

The above, rather inelegant, list is called in mathematics "proof by enumeration." My point is the following: The Ivy League works for those whom it admits and does not work for those it doesn't. Some guys do get in by fluke (or even worse, they get in through superhuman effort or a supersized donation) and they have a terrible, terrible time. But generally speaking, if you're sitting on a Harvard admission, they know what they're doing. You'll fit right in. Go for it.

This second section of the book also contains a full attack on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which the author hates because you don't exactly get taught in a seminar when you register for those, because you don't interact with anybody and because so far people seem to drop them who have not been taught how to learn. If the idea behind college it to teach you how to learn, you are unlikely to learn how to learn from a computer screen.

I buy all of the above, but the fact remains that they are cheap. To the extent that tons of people know how to learn and might not be sitting on the spare quarter million dollars that it will soon cost to go to college, I can see how they might want to get away with staying with their parents and paying a fraction of the cost. And I can also see how an employer might prefer to hire a guy who got an online degree in Engineering from MIT rather a full-time degree in Engineering from a college with a 450 math SAT average. And I can also see how a college like Harvard might respond to a large dip in the value of its investments by selling online degrees using a sub-brand like "Harvard MOOC." The Extension School already awards credits, a former minister in the Greek government who often likes to refer to his Harvard days attended the Extension School along with all the housewives and I don't think Harvard has a problem with that, his money was as green as any other student's.

So jury's out. And if the author is wrong and MOOCs take a hold we'll have half a million unemployed PhDs in our hands very soon as all lesser colleges will go to the wall. Won't be fun to watch at all. Let's hope he's right, then.

So lots and lots of stuff to digest in this book, rather tenuously related, but all rather fascinating. I look forward to disagreeing with this author more in the future.
27 internautes sur 31 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 An In-Depth Examination on Whether It is Wise to Push Your Child to Become a Bionic Hamster 27 août 2014
Par H. Hall - Publié sur
As the father of a five year old boy who naturally wants the best for him down the road and would love to see him have an excellent university and graduate education, this book piqued my interest. My wife is of Asian descent and so are many of our best friends, and they are all looking for the next edge or advantage that could push their children eventually on to Harvard, Stanford or Princeton. As everyone knows, an elite education is like a surfboard that can be ridden on the waves of life for decades afterwards making everything else easier. Opening doors, networking with former classmates and allowing privileged academic and business opportunities. Despite that desire, we are all also aware that simply producing data repeating bots (brilliant but lifeless children) is a great waste of a beautiful mind and the emergent property neural network which fuels it. As such, this book which concentrates on the question between acquiring title and achievement and remaining true to a grander vision which makes life worth living, makes for powerful reflection.

The quandary is what to do if the child next to your child can play Bach on his violin in C sharp and is vice president of the chess club at age 9. Well naturally, for many competitive parents the answer is clear, your child must play Mozart's violin concerto in A major and become president of the chess club at age 8. It is not so much a question of what is best or what your child wants but what must be done to remain on top. (if such a place even exists or should be seen as something worthy of accolade) It is the idea that your child must be pushed relentlessly, lest another acquire more gold stars.

Mr Deresiewicz makes several points of interest in the book including that of today's children blindly reaching for their next gold star. The endless quest to acquire more credentials (even if the child or student really has no interest or talent in that area) and the life changing manner in which these actions play out. He makes note that about 40% of elite university grads go on to work in finance and securities industries even though only 5 to 10% showed any interest in those fields as freshman. Even more sad, is that this is often a response to the student loans they must take out to afford the elite university in the first place. (or that most of the top 25 schools in America can now afford to offer free tuition and board to every incoming student thanks to their endowment status) Instead of the world gaining a talented young short story writer who might go on to give millions inspiration, that person turns to running a mutual fund for Fidelty, making tremendous salary but in some cases feeling completely unfulfilled. And as Mr Deresiewicz notes, working tables at a Denny's restaurant or spending a summer with your father who is a plumber unclogging toilets can teach far more important life lessons than becoming the president of the chess club, even if those skills are currently looked down on by today's elite universities.

His work makes some main recommendations which I believe many could agree on, including eliminating admissions for athletes and legacies, stopping resume "stuffing" by limiting all applicants to two or three extracurricular activities and finally allowing SAT/ACT scores to be weighted for socioeconomic factors. And while Mr Deresiewicz elaborates on some solutions that might allow the system to be reformed, I believe he misses the major problem of computerized quantization. In the ole' days of my youth, whether I was the president of the tennis club in seventh grade meant diddly squat because my middle school guidance counselor had no computer and even if she had, it would not have been connected to thousands of other schools all over the country. We joined the tennis club simply because we liked to play tennis and if someone became the president, it was an afterthought in name value only. In today's world, the middle school guidance counselor's computer is connected to the internet and does record who holds the presidential position of the tennis club. And that ultimately gets passed on to the high school guidance counselor and yada, yada, ...on down the line. It is ultimately recorded and makes its way to the Harvard admissions officer, who every parent fears will reject their child because he/she was not the 7th grade tennis club president. (despite the 4.4 GPA, 2340 on the SAT and numerous club presidencies) I jest, but part of the reason modern day students are so obsessed with acquiring more credentials is that everything in today's world is recorded or data logged in some manner. From your state test results in second grade to your image at the ATM, everything in today's world is a recorded event. And if it is recorded, then there naturally follows a basis for comparison and competition. And because of modern record keeping and the internet, your results and achievements good or bad will live on indefinitely (nothing on the internet ever really dies), unlike children who grew up before the 1990s who could overcome a mistake (a failed class, a misdemeanor, a stupid youthful criminal mistake) because it was not logged on some computer system in perpetuum.

This incessant recording of data and comparison of small facets of a child's character or performance are I believe the fuel driving the credentialing zombification of today's talented youth. While Mr Deresiewicz does not make mention of engineer and futurist Ray Kurzweil in this work, his conclusions often agree with previous predictions made by him. Mr Kurzweil has spoken about how the period from roughly 2000 to 2060 will be an ever advancing credentialing battle in response to increased data logging of everyone's personal lives. As Singularity approaches (Mr Kurzweil's term for mankind incorporating more and more computer technology into our bodies until we essentially become neural state vector scans of our consciousness residing on the internet by perhaps ~ 2060 to 2090), there will be an ever advancing pace to this need to out compete the next person in line to prove our superiority, because without data points, there is no objectivity of meaning.

While I enjoyed Mr Deresiewicz's book immensely, I was left hoping for more in-depth research about how to fix many of the problems he is well familiar with. 60 to 75% of the book is spent describing the problems of elite universities and their graduating super people but only ~ 25% is dedicated to speaking about viable alternatives, and I wish that had been reversed. An entirely new mode of thought is in some cases required to overcome the system of thought that began the problem in the first place. While I enjoyed the book and learned something about the history of some of America's elite universities, I think a bit more attention could have been paid to methods which might help to ameliorate the current realities in a proficious manner. Despite these nags, the book is still thought provoking and is also a must read for progressive parents who want the best for their children.
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