“My Most Offended Readers Are Ivy-Bound 18-Year-Olds”

A conversation with Excellent Sheep author William Deresiewicz.

William Deresiewicz.
William Deresiewicz.

Photo by Mary Ann Halpin

In his introduction to Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes today’s Ivy League as a highly competent zombie factory, one that “manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and 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.” He then spends the rest of the book explaining how the alleged best higher-education system in the world got this way—and what can be done to foster a top-tier college environment at once more diverse and less miserable.

If you, like many readers and critics, were irate at the excerpt that ran in the New Republic in July and are thus searching for a bone to pick with Deresiewicz, the book in its entirety will offer you a veritable skeleton because its scope is so vast. From the racket of the U.S. News rankings to the overextended misdeeds of poseur-scholar James Franco, from the history of the “legacy” system (originally put in place to keep out Jewish students! I learn something new every day!), to the overuse of adjuncts, there is little in the contemporary higher-ed landscape—in which he spent two and a half decades as both student and professor—that Deresiewicz leaves unquestioned.

In a recent email conversation, I did my level best to discuss at least a fraction of what Excellent Sheep covers—and to give its unfailingly thoughtful author a chance to engage with his critics.

Your tour for this book is almost exclusively to the very institutions you lambaste for their corporatized fostering of elitist mediocrity. Any awkward moments?

I’m speaking at those schools because that is the audience that most needs to hear my message. To the credit of the individuals or groups who have invited me, at least some people on elite campuses recognize as much. I’ve actually been speaking on these topics at schools like that for the last six years, often at the invitation of student groups. In fact, those conversations were instrumental in helping me develop the book—in giving me a sense not only of what’s going on with high-achieving students now, but of what they need and want to hear. So I’m not worried about awkward moments. I welcome whatever questions or responses students (and professors, and administrators) may have. Besides, I’ve found that today’s students are unfailingly polite—almost to a fault, I would say.

In your early chapters, you present a heartbreaking paradox of students who are overworked and miserable—all, likely, in the service of a lucrative but empty consulting career that will (perhaps) result in a midlife crisis. Will you tell me a little bit more about what you refer to as “the opportunities [elite education] closes down”?

I mean the opportunity not to be rich—or high-status—and still live a good life. In other words, if you’re a smart, talented, energetic young person in America today (especially if you grow up upper-middle-class or higher), if you’re the kind of kid who goes to these schools, you have the opportunity to live a life of meaning and purpose and still make a perfectly decent living. This is a very rare opportunity in human history, and the only thing that can screw it up for you is if you allow yourself to buy into the kind of standards that the system works so hard to instill, that desperate need for the constant affirmation of credentials and gold stars, whether in the form of A’s or of ultra-high salaries and prestigious titles.

I’m sure you’re aware of the unintended consequences of talk of “doing what you love” and “vocation,” which is the monetary devaluation of artistic or creative work. The very adjunct professors whose conditions and overuse you rightly deplore in the book, for example, are often told they should not be teaching for the money anyway. Is there a Golden Mean between the soul-sucking $150K consulting job and the rhetoric of “vocation”?

Yes, I’m quite aware of the way the rhetoric of love and vocation has been co-opted by people who don’t want to pay their workers (intellectual, creative, or otherwise) what they deserve. But that doesn’t mean that love and vocation aren’t real things. People should strive to do work that’s meaningful to them, and they should also insist (to the extent they can, which is a lot greater if people act collectively) that they get paid a fair wage for that work. “Love” should matter to you; as far as your boss is concerned, it’s none of their business.

I should also add something very important: I am not telling students to go into any particular kind of work—the arts, academia, service work, whatever. Being a lawyer can certainly be a very meaningful occupation. Purpose and pay are separate issues. The point is not what you do but why you do it, how you choose it.

The excerpt that you published in the New Republic has ignited some backlash among current students or recent grads, self-identified “financial-aid kids” from underserved backgrounds, who do not feel now and have never felt part of the “privilege bubble” you describe. In the rest of the book, it’s clear that you have thought very hard and care very much about the needs of nonprototypical Ivy (that is, rich) kids, but for those who have only read the excerpt and are filled with righteous indignation: What would you like to say to them?

I would say, first of all (as I did in the book), that there are exceptions to everything I’m saying. Yes, there are some kids on elite campuses who don’t come from affluent backgrounds. But we know, as a matter of statistical fact, that they represent a small minority. At the top 100+ schools, according to a study from several years ago (if anything, things are probably worse now), only 3 percent of students come from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, 75 percent from the top quarter.

When we talk about diversity on elite campuses we focus on race and gender too much, and not enough on class. Over the last few decades, elite colleges have made enormous strides in bringing in more women and students of color—I mean enormous compared to where things stood 50 years ago, when there were often none of the first and few of the second. That’s what “diversity,” which has become a central campus value, means. What almost no one pays attention to is the fact that more recently, over about the last 30 years, those campuses have actually become less diverse with respect to class. It’s not about lower-class white males. It’s about lower-class students in general. That’s why, while selective colleges were instrumental in creating a multicultural elite, they are now helping to perpetuate a class system that is growing ever more static.

The other thing I would say to those kids is that I’ll bet they know what I mean, when I talk about the affluent majority being out of touch in a bubble of privilege, a lot better than I do. I’ve heard from a lot of the kinds of kids you’re talking about. Some were my students; some have written to me over the years; a whole bunch of others have contacted me in response to the New Republic piece. All of them have told me how marginalized they’ve felt on campuses where family wealth is more or less taken for granted, especially by their peers.

How do the younger kids you talk to react to your warnings about elite education?

I’ve gotten a fair number of emails from high school students, most of which say, essentially: thank you. Thank you for giving me a perspective that my crazy peers/teachers/parents don’t have. Though I should say that someone also told me, about the recent article, that the most offended readers are Ivy-bound 18-year-olds. To which I say, it’s never too early to start shaking them up.

Speaking of younger kids: My first child is due in January, so we have 18½ years to fix all of this (not that she’ll get into, or I’ll be able to afford, Yale). What can realistically be done in 18½ years, and who has to do it?

The whole system is driven by the admissions process at elite private colleges. So I would start by reforming the admissions process to encourage curiosity, risk-taking, and independent-mindedness rather than hoop-jumping, conformity, and credentialism. But the fact is that elite private colleges will only ever go so far. They will always favor the affluent, if only because they have to. What we really need to do is make them irrelevant by creating free or low-cost high-quality public higher education. And the fact is that we did this once, in the decades after World War II. Look at what the University of California once was: the greatest public system in the world. And there were also terrific systems in Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, and other states. Now we have allowed them to fall into decay, and simply because we’ve refused to continue to make the financial commitment required to sustain them.

But parents and kids can’t wait for the rest of us to get our act together. Believe me, I understand that it isn’t easy. I understand that parents are worried about their children’s future. But we have to look at what we’re doing to our kids. We have to have the strength to raise them to care about something other than “success” in the very narrow terms in which it’s come to be defined. I’m not saying you can have it all: In fact, that’s one of my biggest messages in the book. You have to choose. Parents already tell their kids to “do what you love” and “follow your dreams.” But kids know that they don’t really mean it, that what they really want is status and success. Well, we have to really mean it.

One of my favorite suggestions you make is for college kids to stop talking to their parents so much.

I don’t expect it to be one of my more popular suggestions, at least among parents. Maybe some kids will find it liberating. At least, I hope so. Young people don’t seem to understand sufficiently today that growing up is all about separating from your parents, learning to figure out where their desires stop and yours begin.

I loved your chapter about professors, though as a former adjunct it also made me quite sad, because although I am highly critical of American academia for all of the reasons you detail in the book, I also really miss the classroom. I imagine you do, as well. What do you miss most about being a professor?

Being a mentor. Developing relationships with students over time, as they go through college and afterwards, coming to know them not only as minds but as people. I should say that I’m still in touch with dozens of former students, and that it is one of the most enriching things in my life. I should also say that I didn’t leave teaching voluntarily. Like so many people I’ve known in the profession, I simply never found my next job.

Any final thoughts about the initial reactions to the book?

One of the arguments I’ve seen, in published responses to my article, is that I exaggerate the depth of psychological distress among high-achieving students today. Kids are fine, people say; college students have always been unhappy. Well, they’re not fine, and they haven’t always been unhappy—not like this. We’re putting kids under the kind of pressure that no young person should have to face, and a lot of them are cracking, even if we can’t see it. We need to start to see it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. Free Press.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.