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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

September 8, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Excellent Sheep? Author says higher education system is broken

A new book questioning whether an education at one of the country’s elite colleges prepares students to find true meaning in their lives is getting a lot of buzz in education circles this fall.

“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” by William Deresiewicz, argues that the nation’s elite colleges don’t promote intellectual curiosity, and leave students without a sense of purpose, unwilling to take a chance on pursuing their passions and largely all pursuing the same high-paying but soul-sucking jobs  in finance, or as a consultant.

A Hungarian shepherd drives a herd of sheep near Hortobagy, a village 183 kilometers east of Budapest. Photo by Zsolt Czegledi/European Press Association.

A shepherd drives a herd of sheep near Hortobagy, Hungary. Photo by Zsolt Czegledi/European Press Association.

Deresiewicz, a professor at Yale until 2008, is most pointedly critical of the Ivy League world of which he was once a part. But he says that the same problems largely invade all of the nation’s universities to some degree.

He argues that the stressed-out, anxious high-school students who make it into elite colleges  by making perfect grades and top test scores, and stuffing their schedules with advanced classes and extracurricular activities  turn into even more desperate college students. They’re unequipped to handle the decisions they must make about their futures, he writes.

Today’s elite students are the “academic equivalent of all-American athletes … whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you place in front of them, they’ll clear.” Deresiewicz believes these students have learned only how to be very good students “excellent sheep”  and don’t have a passion for ideas, nor do they see college as part of their life’s exploration of intellectual discovery and development.

Because they have never known anything but success, these students have a violent aversion to risk, he writes. They’re unwilling to waste their “fancy education” on a career that seems beneath them. “So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

Deresiewicz has stirred the pot in education circles, with some readers praising his critiques as being spot-on, and others taking apart his arguments.

We’re interested to know what you think.

Do you agree, as Deresiewicz writes, that “we have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished 22-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives”?

Or do you second New Yorker reporter Nathan Heller’s view: that “college education, even a poor one, isn’t the final straightaway of self-realization, after all. It is the starting gate.”

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Comments | More in News | Topics: college, excellent sheep, higher ed

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The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


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