Excellent Sheep | William Deresiewicz

Summary of: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
By: William Deresiewicz


Welcome to the world of ‘Excellent Sheep’, a book that sheds light on the consequences of the miseducation of the American elite. Through an insightful examination of Ivy League schools and elite colleges, the author, William Deresiewicz, highlights how these institutions are breeding ‘excellent sheep’ who lack diversity, critical thinking, and the ability to enact productive change in society. The book addresses the factors that contribute to this alarming trend, including academic pressures, the attitudes of parents, and the misguided emphasis on research over quality teaching. Dive into this engaging summary to discover the impact of this miseducation on the nation, its institutions, and the lives of the students themselves.

The Problem with Elite Education

The Ivy League’s Lack of Diversity and Critical Thinking

In “Excellent Sheep,” author William Deresiewicz critiques the Ivy League and elite college education in the US, citing the lack of true diversity and critical thinking abilities among students. Deresiewicz notes that the best and brightest students, typically coming from privileged backgrounds, are funneled into the Ivy League and other elite colleges, leading to a homogeneous student body with similar views and experiences.

These students, who have known nothing but success, enter college already suffering from stress, loneliness, and depression. The extreme admissions standards and fierce competition only reinforce their inability to take risks and think critically. This perpetuates the system, as these students go on to fill the top ranks of prestigious law, consulting, finance, and banking firms, leading the country but running it into the ground.

Deresiewicz argues that true diversity, not just of race and religion but also of experiences and perspectives, is essential for students to learn how to think critically and challenge the status quo. Without this, institutions, economies, and governments will continue to fail. He calls for a reimagining of the education system to value creativity and independent thought over conformity and achievement.

The Pressure of Elite Colleges

The pressure to impress elite colleges hinders students from pursuing their interests and diverging from their peers. The college experience no longer promotes intellectual curiosity and learning but instead emphasizes preparing for a future career. Students who choose alternative paths to their ultimate goal fear rejection from their communities. The few who find purpose outside of traditional careers still fear judgment and conform to their peers. The idea of slowing down, having thought-provoking conversations, and creating a rich inner life becomes secondary to achieving academic success.

The Pressure Cooker of Elite College Admissions

Elite colleges in the US were once known for having anti-Semitic and racist admission practices. However, in the 1960s, Yale University’s new president changed the system by establishing a selection process based on merit. Since then, standardized tests like the SAT and AP classes have become crucial, along with high GPAs and numerous extracurricular activities as students compete to get into prestigious colleges. Today, colleges encourage students to apply so they can reject them and boost their rankings. Parents also contribute to the pressure by pushing their kids into organized activities and insisting that only losers get bad grades. As a result, students develop a false self, directed towards meeting the expectations of their parents and authority figures, and never discover their own interests and passions.

Reimagining the University

Colleges and universities have lost emphasis on providing a well-rounded education and instead focus on funding, revenue, and producing future donors. This has caused a shift towards specialization and vocational skills rather than traditional humanities education. Professors prioritize their research over teaching, and their rewards come from publications rather than quality pedagogy. As customers, students expect to get good grades and degrees with minimal effort, and professors oblige due to their own research and evaluation based on student satisfaction. This cycle has led to a “mutual nonaggression pact” where both parties pretend to provide and receive education respectively.

The Problem with Modern Leadership

College produces leaders that keep the system going, lacking principled and committed ideals. Real leadership means asking questions, criticizing plans, and challenging the status quo, but that often makes people uncomfortable. Even so-called activism is reduced to trendy CV-building. However, employers prefer hiring liberal arts graduates because they have critical thinking skills, excelling in lateral thinking and dealing with change, complexity, and uncertainty. Such skills last longer than technical vocations and are harder to teach. To build better societies requires thinkers, readers, and intellectuals, not just technical skills.

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