Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lets be clear. I AM an EXCELLENT SHEEP, and saw myself critiqued in the pages of this insightful book.
My college-bound daughter discovered this book on the bookshelf of her college counselor, with whom she meets regularly in this, her junior year. I graduated, according to her, back in the paleolithic age, from a school in Tallahasse, Florida, that requires meters of excavation to uncover from the archeological record. Surely NOTHING I learned applies in this accelerated, Modern era.
[Actual quote from, at-the-time-7-year-old daughter: “That was back in the age of dinosaurs, when =I= wasn’t alive, but you were.”]
So, I dutifully picked up this book, as she found it too tiresome to have to explain to me what Modern high schoolers were facing, and how many misconceptions I had carried and how many opportunities I had missed during my own Jurassic years. She was certainly NOT going to replicate my folly.
OK, so I attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and Stanford University for medical school. We will just leave aside the snarky comments of “Ohhhh, you went to Haaahhhvahhd. I’m surprised you even talk to little people like us.” This lead to the decades-long behavior of being vague about my undergraduate career: “Oh, where did you go to school?” “Um, back East.” “Oh, where back East?” Um, Boston.” “Oh, Boston U?” “Um, no.” “So, where?” “Harvard.” “Ohhhh, Haaahvaahhhd! …”
But I digress. The Daughter has informed me that she will NOT be looking at Harvard, not interviewing, not planning on attending there. Instead, she’ll be seeking a college “experience” that is challenging, a smaller school with excellent teachers in smaller classes, a breadth of liberal arts subjects, as she is currently interested in EVERYTHING, good sports, great art, strong science, math, engineering, a place that will give her a chance to discover and grow, and not a treadmill rat race.
Compare that to my upbringing. I do recall the strong suggestion from my parents that “being a Doctor” seems like an excellent career choice to support a family and at least a few grandparents… Interestingly, my over-the-top uncle always insisted that the hard-working Chinese immigrant would “take over America” in several waves: First generation: study math and science, become Engineers! because poor language skills are not a handicap in this field. Second generation: continue math and science, but now, you have better language skills: become Doctors! Third generation: who cares about math and science, because with outstanding language skills: become Lawyers! Time to Take Over the government! So, 3 generations until the Immigrants run the place. Sure, I played my part.
Where was I? Oh yes, and that First Generation drive to excel pushed me into the biggest name University that my parents could think of: the big H. In the years since graduation, I must say that although quite a number of my classmates have gone on to do great things and look back with fondness on those years, a surprising number have mixed memories and some consider it a mistake: a roiling cauldron of 5000 high powered, driven students looking for a stepping-stone to a professional degree: MD, JD, MBA. And on the flip side, did Harvard open doors that were closed to grads from other schools? Perhaps a Stanford Med spot? Possibly, but not for certain. Would I have become a physician regardless? Almost certainly yes.
Big H was big. Economics 101 in Sanders Theater: 1000+ students in one class. Never met the professor. Psychology 101: more than 800 students. Inorganic Chemistry: 400 students, and I approached my first college exam, being ready to regurgitate, as my high school well taught me, the facts I had stuffed in my head. Instead I was faced with 5 impenetrable essay questions: “Let’s theorize a new universe where instead of the usual S and P electron orbitals, there are now 13 electrons in a shell. Hypothesize how molecules would form differently?” Just as I was flipping through the pages, realizing that I could answer NONE of the questions, one of the students in the front row (whom we later understood had taken too many NO DOZE the night before), began to have a seizure. He was carried out by paramedics. We looked at each other in a panic: apparently college exams KILL STUDENTS.
The pressures then were intense, and now that it is several times more difficult to navigate the waters to an admissions letter, I imagine the pressure is even greater. Reports of suicide and high rates of anxiety and depression seem to confirm these fears.
I think I was lucky in my ancient days: finding a small cadre of like-minded students, forming what we called the “Oligarchy” and causing all sorts of pseudo-governance shenanigans. For example, using my new Macintosh to print posters taking credit for social functions organized by others: “The OLIGARCHY welcomes you to tonights’ Dance.” “The OLIGARCHY invites you to come to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s latest masterpiece.” “The OLIGARCHY is sponsoring the French Accent Table tonight at dinner.”
You see, amongst the pompous French, Spanish, German language tables at dinner at Dunster House, we formed the “French Accent” table, sat one row over from the French table, and proceeded with our best, overly-loud Monty Python accents to overwhelm, dismay and ultimately dismantle and chase away the overly serious. Seriously, though, finding a group where you can belong, can make all the difference in a large University that is seemingly uncaring, and too large to look after all the students all the time.
Excellent Sheep describes the slow evolution of students being shaped by geologic forces into perfect specimens, designed specifically to assemble the perfect high school resume: over a dozen AP courses, straight A’s, months of SAT and ACT prep, a collection of club presidencies, a collection of varsity sports lettermen jackets, and oh, yes, don’t forget those few months spent with the Peace Corp.
Julie Lythcott Haimes, freshmen dean at Stanford, writes in “How to Raise an Adult” that every year the Stanford freshmen class is more impressive than the last. Have we not perfected the high school resume? Justin Hoffman’s The Graduate was a perfect specimen, only to realize he was disenfranchised and fossilized in the older generation’s expectations.
Malcolm Gladwell notes, in his book “David and Goliath” that students with comparable SAT scores who attend the best school they can get into and graduate in the middle of their class, do far worse in their subsequent career (sometimes even quitting their chosen field because of overwhelming competition) than students who go to a strong, smaller school, find a good mentor, a comfortable yet challenging culture in which to excel and graduate nearer the top of their class.
I think I’m taking all this time, reminiscing about my pleistocene years, to meander around to my point. I’m actually fine NOT having my daughter attend Harvard. There are thousands of excellent schools that do not cater to, and do not want Excellent Sheep. They intend to grow strong adults, with a sense of identity, of curiosity, of perspective. Did Harvard serve me well? Sure, and maybe I was lucky. Do I want to use my advantages and push her into a Legacy spot in the Harvard Admissions queue? Surprisingly, I think my answer has become “no.”
Ms. Lythcott-Haimes perhaps should have the last word. I (ineptly) paraphrase: “Our children are NOT hot-house orchids, requiring perfect care and feeding. They are instead wildflowers of an unknown genus and species.” And it is up to all of us to help them discover what they will become.
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