Excellent Sheep, The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life

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

William Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale for many years, now turns a fiery eye on that elite institution and its handful of peer schools. He imagines that the college years should be a pilgrimage–a movement toward the truth and toward the self. In other places he calls this process soul-building,  activity which the “greatest” colleges of the land fail miserably to support.

…seekers, thinkers, passionate weirdos, kids who approach the work of the mind with a pilgrim spirit, who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education…their experience in college tends to make them feel like freaks…Yale is not conducive to searchers…It’s hard to build your soul when everyone else is selling theirs…my examples tend to come from Yale, since that is mainly where I taught…I think it deserves its reputation as the best among elite universities (as distinct from liberal arts colleges) at nurturing creativity and intellectual independence…But that’s precisely what’s so frightening.  If Yale is the best, the best is pretty bad.

The purpose of college…is to turn adolescents into adults…The idea that you should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.

What you should really want to develop in college is the habit of reflection, which means the capacity for change.

You need to get  a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

Look at what we have come to. We think of ourselves as a wealthy country, but it is one of the great testaments to the intellectual-and moral, and spiritual-poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel they are being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You’re told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It is selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going  make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.

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