Mar 5, 2015

Reaction to William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep

I just finished reading William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, a best-seller whose lament for America's culture of achievement rings familiar; this same message is echoed in much of Venture for America’s marketing, including our founder and CEO Andrew Yang's Smart People Should Build Things.

Deresiewicz criticizes the herd mentality common among students of America's most elite universities. Economics is the top major at 26 of the top 40 schools, he writes, and far too many of today's elite college grads are electing to pursue consulting and finance. Deresiewicz laments the lack of "passionate weirdos" in college, the place where people should feel most free to explore new interests. Instead, attempting to measure up to a narrow definition of success has left our "best and brightest" stressed out, burned out, and even depressed.
“The system 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." --William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
Ultimately, growing up requires taking responsibility for our own choices, an entirely internal process. But it's hard not to take the safe path, especially with student loans looming.

Most compellingly, the rise of excellent sheep parallels exploding wealth inequality in America. Affirmative action in elite colleges has greatly increased racial and gender diversity, but not socioeconomic diversity.
"Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri, another one from Pakistan, or one plays the cello and the other one lacrosse—never mind that all of them have parents who are bankers or doctors. They aren’t meeting “all kinds of people,” as they like to say. They’re meeting the same kind of people; they just happen to come from all kinds of places." --William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
Of course, colleges have little incentive to change their admissions policies to admit more students in need of financial aid. In 2014, Haverford College was forced to roll back their policy of meeting all student aid with grants, rather than loans, because the policy had simply gotten too expensive.

America's higher education system is failing too many students, and Excellent Sheep is worth a read for anyone who values higher education and a world full of passionate weirdos.