\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 September, 2015.
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0In Excellent Sheep, The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014), William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale who also spent twenty-four years as a student and teacher at Columbia, has a message which needs to be heard, even if it is more timely than original. In a consistently provocative and well-written 262 pages, Deresiewicz makes the case that the way we select students to fill our elite colleges and universities reflects our society's basest impulses. And, according to the author, once selected, these schools fail their students by doing "nothing... to challenge the values of a society that equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success, " thereby rendering our best and brightest incapable of either perceiving the problem, or of doing anything about it.
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0The book is an outgrowth of Deresiewicz's widely-discussed 2008 essay in The American Scholar, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers. Shortly after failing to get tenure in New Haven, Deresiewicz moved to Portland, Oregon and began expanding the essay into the book.
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0As Deresiewicz tells us at the outset, Excellent Sheep is not about all students or all schools, but only about the "elite, " by which he means:
...prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams, as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools... [and]...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.
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0It is a machine or system which, according to the author, "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." A leader is now "someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge...when people say 'leaders' now, what they mean is gung ho followers." As for "character, " the "the word arises only in connection with issues like cheating or date rape, as if it signified nothing more than not doing bad things."
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Deresiewicz claims this state of affairs is the culmination of an "admissions frenzy" that "has been raging, in good times and bad, for close to fifty years." It all began in the 1960s, according to the author, when Harvard President James B. Conant began placing increasing reliance on the SAT. Thus began a "resume arms race" which, fueled by the need to stay atop the all-important rankings in U.S. News & World Report, has resulted in the insane demands currently placed upon students seeking entry into elite schools.
\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0As reported by the author, other than the children of very rich donors, "who get admitted under almost any circumstances, " students seeking admission to elite schools today not only have to have extremely high SAT scores and impeccable grades, they...