This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self . . . about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college. I was like so many kids today. . . . I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank.” That’s how William Deresiewicz begins his blistering, arm-waving jeremiad against Ivy League colleges and their dozens of emulators, which are creating a caste that is ruining itself and society.
The members of this elite “have purchased self-perpetuation at the price of their children’s happiness,” he concludes 240 pages later, summing up his damning review of “the panic, the exhaustion, the sense of emptiness and aimlessness, the fearfulness and cynicism” in elite-college life. The social consequences for this new aristocracy are just as fearful: the “mediocrity, the cluelessness that comes of social segregation, the spectacular failure of leadership. . . . It is a kind of nemesis or tragic retribution. You think you’re screwing other people’s kids, but you also end up fucking up your own.”
So the preacher’s targets (and customers) include students’ parents, themselves increasingly products of the elite-college machine who must face their complicity and captivity: These schools “are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it.” Helicopter parents and their children depend on increasing inequality, both to pad their social privilege and to provide undercompensated service-sector labor to shore up their overscheduled lives. In the elite colleges themselves, platoons “of advisors and tutors and deans” make sure that students “receive an endless string of second chances.”
Deresiewicz urges the young captives to rise and overcome the psychological and spiritual damage being done them—and to build a better society by first rebuilding themselves. They must break free from the gilded cage, even if doing that brings isolation and fear and horrifies their parents. “The time has come, not simply to reform that system root and branch,” Deresiewicz writes, “but to begin to plot our exit to another form of leadership, another kind of society, altogether.”
Having taught at Yale for fourteen years after working and writing for as many years in north-central Brooklyn, I can testify that the dysfunctions Deresiewicz sees at the top of our social order are sometimes as enraging and heartbreaking as those at the bottom. He also notes rightly that the top colleges have replaced a racist, sexist aristocracy with a more “diverse” but more skittish elite that lacks the old faith in God and country (for which many students gave their lives), and even in the humanities’ Great Conversation about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.
Today’s colleges wave Salome-like veils of elitist meritocracy and diversity as “a cover, even an alibi, for increasing economic re-segregation.” They accommodate efforts “to dismantle higher education and sell it for parts” via online courses, rankings that reduce liberal education to job training, and financing that makes students bear debts that should be public, as they were with the GI Bill and the great expansions of state universities in the 1960s. Collegiate crucibles of civic-republican leadership have become career-networking centers and multicultural gallerias for a global elite that answers to no clear polity or moral code.
But too much is wrong with Deresiewicz’s remonstrance for it to deliver a depth charge instead of mere fireworks. First, like many other itinerant preachers, he opens by misrepresenting his life story as that of his listeners. Hardly a clueless zombie for whom “college was a blank,” he followed two older siblings to Columbia, where their father was an award-winning senior professor and where all three children got degrees. (He mentions some of this later in the book, but Excellent Sheep virtually exempts Columbia, which Deresiewicz worships, from the ill-disguised scorn it pours upon Yale and other Ivies via damning sound bites from students.)
Second, not only was Deresiewicz well prepared to enter the Ivy bubble; he stayed in it for more than twenty-five years, ten at Yale, until it denied him tenure in 2007. A humble adjunct myself, I admire some people who’ve been denied tenure at Yale: The philosopher Richard Bernstein and the professor of history and Middle Eastern studies Juan Cole have outshone their detractors with engaged scholarship. But Deresiewicz isn’t in their company. Since leaving New Haven, he’s assailed Yale’s literary paladin Harold Bloom as a self-devouring narcissist, apparently convinced that to strike at the king he must kill him. A similar body of psychological tensions seems to inform Deresiewicz’s recent, delicious New Republic takedown of Yale law professor Amy Chua; she clearly deserves it, but in the book he notes that he’s a product of tiger parenting like hers.
His prescriptions for the rest of us are discordant echoes of the 1960s—self-ish Timothy Leary of Harvard (who urged students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”) and the would-be revolutionary Mario Savio of Berkeley (who told them to “put your bodies upon the gears . . . and . . . make it stop”).
Deresiewicz doesn’t quite tell anyone to do drugs or take to the streets; he tells them, fairly enough, to “take time off to slow down, to give yourself perspective, to break the cycle of incessant achievement.” He also insists that “the morally courageous person tends to make the individuals around him very uncomfortable. . . . People don’t mind being trapped, as long as no one else is free. But stage a break, and everybody else begins to panic.”
One might assume that the author of those words has made his own break from the Ivy bubble, at last, to teach for a few years at Fresno State or Berry College in Georgia or Hostos Community College in the Bronx, or to found a school, or, true to the passion he says drove him to literature, to try his hand at an Ivy Middlemarch—now that would be taking a risk! Or he might write a luminous account of someone’s pilgrim’s progress from zombiehood to personhood via liberal education.
But it hasn’t happened. Deresiewicz disparages Barack Obama, the failed prophet, as a consummate product of the Ivies’ ersatz diversity and meritocracy. But it was in the summer of 2008, as Obama was making his own stirring, vague calls for Change, that Deresiewicz published “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” an essay that went viral and prompted what he tells us was a deluge of heartfelt letters from students and recent grads confessing their sins and depression and begging for guidance to redemption. Excellent Sheep is that essay writ large, its sound bites and typologies culled from the letters, its banalities revelatory mainly to an adolescent:
I cannot emphasize enough that inventing your life does not come without potential costs. People say “find your passion,” but they don’t say, “be prepared to suffer” (if only by surrendering the status that you might have had). They say “follow your dreams.” . . . How absurd it is—how disgusting, really—for commencement speakers to get up and mouth those exhortations at the very schools that do so much to preclude their fulfillment.
But, far from tending “to make the individuals around him very uncomfortable,” Deresiewicz has been mouthing these exhortations for honoraria at Yale’s St. Anthony Hall, Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, the US Military Academy at West Point, Cornell, the Association of Boarding Schools (at whose annual conference he was the keynote speaker), Claremont McKenna (where he gave the Athenaeum Lecture), the Business Ethics Society of the University of Virginia, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (where he won the Hiett Prize), and Stanford’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, where he addressed the question “Are Stanford Students Just Excellent Sheep (Revisited)?”
That’s only half the list, and he can’t stop telling us about it: “When I suggested, at an event at Harvard . . .”; “I was speaking of these matters to a class at Stanford . . .”; “I was talking to an intro philosophy class at Claremont McKenna . . .”; “I’ve spoken with a lot of recent graduates over the last few years . . .”; “I’ve talked to teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, not to mention doctors, who feel that . . .”
This parading of formidably credentialed hosts and peers suggests a panic all his own. And Deresiewicz and his publishers have crafted this book for a coronation by the gilded cage’s resident pundits and conscience keepers, who’ll use it to guide the kept through yet another empty ritual of self-flagellation on the way back to college this fall. Excellent Sheep will join Christopher Hayes’s more excellent Twilight of the Elites (which I also reviewed for Bookforum) on many a Manhattan coffee table. Deresiewicz will collect more speaking fees from the colleges he’s been assailing. After sampling the gratifications of itinerant preaching, the Great Awakener is finding his market, if not himself.
He’ll continue to enumerate his listeners’ sufferings brilliantly, exhorting them to confess their sins and anguish; then he’ll slip town, leaving bromides behind. Having urged students to shuck their addiction to self-marketing and to flattering every grader or likely recommender, he has used Excellent Sheep to flatter anyone who might review or discuss it. The conservative New York Times columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks can’t endorse his prescriptions but will call the book thoughtful because it quotes them respectfully and repeatedly.
Finally, what’s most consequentially wrong with Deresiewicz’s jeremiad is his selective history of the old colleges: “We need to go back before the start, to the Gilded Age, the last decades of the nineteenth century,” a period he knows well as a scholar of its fiction. He dismisses the colleges’ founding missions as too little, too early; like the sociologist Jerome Karabel in The Chosen, he doesn’t quite know what to make of the fact that, as late as the 1960s, the Ivy WASPs mobilized their oldest, toughest Protestant and civic-republican virtues to prepare “the ground for their own supersession” by retiring age-old quotas based on ethnicity and race (though, significantly, not the ones based on economic clout) and to “put the interests of the nation as a whole above their own.”
I witnessed that firsthand as an undergraduate at Yale, whose president Kingman Brewster Jr., a descendant of the minister on the Mayflower, gave an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, when some alumni still considered King a rabble-rouser. Brewster understood that the civil rights movement was renewing the Exodus myth that had moved his Puritan ancestors (and my own Jewish ones) to make history. Yale’s radically Calvinist chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., leading resistance to the Vietnam War, defied the state in the name of a higher power that, for some of us, was the living American republic itself. So have Howard Dean, Jonathan Schell, Ned Lamont, and other Ivy graduates in our time.
That mystic chord of memory seems broken now, as do the colleges that honored it. Deresiewicz tells them to stop cooperating with commercial college-ranking systems; to base affirmative action on class, not race; to discard preferences for legacies and athletes; to weight SAT scores for socioeconomic factors; to discourage résumé stuffing by curbing extracurriculars and by counting financial-aid service jobs as service. And he makes his grand, sweeping calls for change.
But how to summon the will to fight for these worthy goals? Beyond his exhortations and potted invocations of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, the preacher hasn’t a clue.
In 1906, at the height of British imperial might, G. K. Chesterton composed an astonishing hymn: “O God of Earth and Altar, / Bow down and hear our cry, / Our earthly rulers falter, / Our people drift and die; / The walls of gold entomb us, / The swords of scorn divide, / Take not thy thunder from us, / But take away our pride. / From all that terror teaches, / From lies of tongue and pen, / From all the easy speeches / That comfort cruel men, / From sale and profanation / Of honor and the sword, / From sleep and from damnation, / Deliver us, good Lord!”
This hymn was sung in massive Church of England cathedrals, to the accompaniment of thundering organs, by bejeweled congregants who in confessing the enormity of their sins confirmed the immensity of their power. Chesterton saw through this purely ritual self-laceration. Legend has it that when a newspaper asked him and others, “What is wrong with the world?” he wrote back impishly, “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”
Deresiewicz might ponder that response during Excellent Sheep’s coronation and consider that American colleges’ receptivity to him owes something to the break their founders and Kingman Brewster’s ancestors made from the Church of England. Instead of sermons in a gilded cage, we need an account that unlocks the mystery of the old colleges’ defiance well enough to reawaken their power, which some of their graduates have deployed to good ends even in our own time.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton, 1990).