Wake Up, Sheeple! Is William Deresiewicz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’ an Anti-Ivy League Manifesto or a Book-Length TED Talk?


Must a manifesto always be a rant? The process of reading William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, the book-length expansion of his 2008 viral article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” originally published in The American Scholar, was frustrating for this reason: he’s absolutely correct about the ennui that seeps into the hoop-jumping lives of the Ivy League’s privileged students, an obstacle course that results in an adult life of not being able to understand the world one iota. But by making his argument in a manner that’s sloppy and slapdash, not even sourced, filled with vague anecdotal evidence culled from his teaching experiences, Deresiewicz leaves himself open to being discredited rather quickly.

The problem with Excellent Sheep is that it feels like an audition to be the elite guy who bitches about the elite class — the Ross Douthat, if you will (and yes, Douthat and his book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class are cited repeatedly), of talking about the Ivy League to the Ivy League, perhaps in the rarefied space of a TED conference. The book does not quite feel rooted in concern for the youth today; it seems to be more the result of Deresiewicz’s concern for his own future, since he’s not a Yale professor anymore. And that’s a shame. But on top of that, as Ted Scheinman pointed out at Pacific Standard, this rant is coming from a man who can’t have a conversation with a plumber wearing a Red Sox hat, because lord knows Deresiewicz couldn’t put across the words, “How about those Red Sox?”

(Forgive me for the following non-sourced rant that’s coming from my soul, Deresiewicz-style: Dear Mr. Deresiewicz, The reason why sports and weather exist is so we can talk about sports and weather with strangers, no matter their background. It’s a unifier. Isn’t a large part of male socialization, in particular, shrugging along to sports talk? When I wrote profiles for The Boston Globe, my subjects would regularly suggest we get together for Red Sox-related activities so that I would find them likable. Ultimately, it didn’t matter — partially since I could care less about the Red Sox — but subjects like “the Red Sox” and “it’s gonna be a scorchah today” and “snow” are part of the fabric of New England culture, guy. Learn the language!)

The thing is, I don’t want to be annoyed with Deresiewicz. He’s quite correct about the failures of the Ivy League, how so-called elite schools produce “entitled little shits” (but, er, really, that’s the language you’re using?) and how our most recent run of presidential candidates are emblematic of this inbred system of “meritocracy.” What’s happening is that education, previously a springboard to jump between classes, is just serving to reinforce the boundaries of the classes that already exist, wielding its power as an instrument of inequality, when at its best it should be an opportunity. The Ivy League is just one small aspect of a problem that’s laced throughout the college system in America today.

I see it in real life, comparing my friends who get their PhDs at a very young age with other, empirically brilliant friends who end up dropping out of high-level programs, partially because they don’t have the same support. I see it in the fact that many people who work in media are people who can afford to work in media. I see it when people graduate and are lost, immediately, as Americans define themselves through work and recent graduates are stuck fighting for the few available jobs.

Deresiewicz is at his most powerful when he is citing actual statistics, or taking apart abusive language. He shows how economics have led to entirely too many college students at elite schools majoring in topics like business. This environment has fed into the kill-or-be-killed attitude of a “Tiger Mom” like Amy Chua, and Deresiewicz takes her down vigorously, showing how hers is a shallow, entitled, and abusive view of the world. I appreciate the anger that goes into his summation of how elite schools wield the SAT, a supposedly equalizing test that can be gamed if you’re wealthy, as a marker of intelligence when that’s clearly not the case. He’s frustrated with the way that college admissions talk a broad game of acceptance, but the result is a checkered reflection of the country’s elite, with far too many dumb rich kids for every smart poor kid who gets the opportunity.

Having spent some times in the application salt mines, it’s shocking to realize that you can find, in one pool of candidates, 16 kids with perfect SAT scores who have played the violin in Carnegie Hall, and who are of the same ethnic background and have gone to the same schools. The three who get in aren’t going to be that interesting.

Deresiewicz is far less successful when he gets into self-help mode, encouraging the imagined audience for this book (The New York Times‘ Dwight Garner, who may not want to send his kid to Harvard? Other parents with good jobs and striving kids?) with thoughts about How to Really Live. He is accurate when he describes how a college student, a lifetime overachiever, can be awfully unmoored after college, once there are no more hoops to jump through, no more mapped-out “achievements” to achieve. His advice is good, if boilerplate — figure out how to be a person, how to experience things, get away from the books (and technology) and go out and make trouble and think for yourself. He’s aware that all of this advice has been co-opted by advertising agencies. Still, this part of the book lacks the punch that statistics and facts give in the later sections.

I admire the passion that’s driving this book. Deresiewicz is against sellouts, and he is making an argument for a real, valid life of the mind, not the spiritual emptiness of what constitutes success by society’s current standards. That perspective is valuable, and perhaps it will have some meaning to an 18-year-old kid choosing between Harvard and a gap year. However, due to the book’s structure — the lack of sourcing, of empirical proof, in a book that’s about inequality — too much is left open to interpretation. Deresiewicz’s instincts are correct, but I wasn’t quite as convinced by the resulting manifesto as I wanted to be. For a manifesto to work, shouldn’t it be the kickoff to a legitimate movement, as opposed to the first shot in someone’s ascendance towards well-paid speaker/guru status?