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

William Deresiewicz

Book cover

This book is essentially an expansion of Deresiewicz’s 2008 article in The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” [http://theamericanscholar.org/the-dis...] I read the article with some interest at the time it was published, having graduated from one of those elite colleges barely a year earlier. Remembering it, I checked out a copy of this book as soon as it was available.

To summarize briefly, I would say WD’s main point is that our elite education system–by which he means the Ivy Leagues and a handful of other universities, plus the feeder schools that direct kids toward them–are too tailored to produce “successful people,” under a very narrow definition of that term. (Think about Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mother” fame: WD’s public enemy #1.) He sees this as being bad for society, but his main focus is on the negative effects of that system on the young people who participate in it. Among these are excessive fear of failure (with a concomitant disinclination to risk-taking), an overblown yet fragile sense of self-worth, and a lack of self-knowledge. The system is not conducive to examined lives, or to happiness.

If this sounds interesting to you, read the TAS article. If you are still interested after that, read the book. I’d especially recommend it for people who have either themselves participated in this system or are close to people who have. My own personal views are mixed. I certainly can identify with some of the things WD writes about, but not all of them. I am not a “pure product” of this system; although I went to an elite university, my high school was not part of the Ivy-industrial complex–fewer than five of my graduating class went to schools WD would identify as elite. That prior experience may have had a strong impact of the nature of my experience in college. Reading the book led to some interesting discussions with my wife about our different experiences–her high school was much more a part of the culture under discussion, and she also attended an elite college (though of a different kind than mine). We learned some things about each other that we didn’t know before, and for that alone the book was worthwhile!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars