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Following the leader?

image of excellent sheep book coverBy now you’ve probably heard of William Deresiewicz, the controversial former Yale professor whose new bookExcellent Sheep, has been making the usual promotional rounds. Before you ask: no, I haven’t read it (it was only released last week). I am going to do what I always tell my students not to do, which is criticize it anyway. As I understand it, the full book is wide-ranging, although nonetheless primarily focused on elite universities. So I’m restricting my criticism to the part I have read: his excerpted essay in The New Republic.

As a full disclosure, I went to an Ivy League school (if you are interested, you can Google me). I am not particularly loyal to it, in the sense that I have not been to a reunion or donated money and do not plan to do either in the future. I have also attended, respectively, a non-Ivy private university, a world-class public university in the UK, and a non-Ivy graduate school, and I teach at a large public institution. I point this out not because my experiences are particularly interesting or even unusual, but because they’ve given me a broad view of the educational landscape across three Anglophone countries, both at the elite and non-elite levels. I suspect that Deresiewicz, whose education has been limited to elite instititions, can’t say the same.

The TNR article is long, and my space is more limited. I’m going to counter his observations (as far as I can tell, Deresiewicz just collected personal anecdotes from colleagues and students) with a few of my own, focusing on two claims: first, that Ivy students are only interested in a “high prestige” career like finance; and second, more briefly, that Ivy profs are uninterested in their students.

Based on his article, Deresiewicz’ complaints about the Ivies are that the students who attend are anxious overachievers who have no goals beyond making money, and that they perpetuate economic privilege. The latter is indisputable (although there are other factors at play there as well, and I assume that these are addressed at greater length in his book). It was his depiction of his students that struck me more, though, as depressed, anxious, soulless, confused, more interested in social life than study, and out to make a million. If these descriptions sound like an everyday assortment of teenagers (a Breakfast Club for the Millenial era?), that’s because it is, and this is where I think Deresiewicz’ argument ultimately fails: he wants these students to be in some way different from their peers at midrange public institutions.

Let’s ignore the fact that his students were talented enough to come up with the book’s title. Deresiewicz expresses concern that “[a]s of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting … Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part.” He worries that youth are being forced into unfulfilling careers with “vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.”” What he leaves out is the reality that ‘consulting’ often includes work with politicians (and do we really need more of those?) and governments, religious organizations (declining in membership), academia (much debated), and other industries. Military careers are a relatively new option due to the return of ROTC to many Ivy campuses. And given the widely publicized adjunct crisis, do we really want more students entering academia?

Because Deresiewicz doesn’t cite his sources in the online edition (I assume the book does better), I don’t know where he gets his data for the career choices. Quartz reports slightly different numbers for Harvard, and the NYT offers significantly higher percentages for Princeton, although the general spirit is in line with the figures in TNR. It’s also interesting that medicine doesn’t make the list of ‘ignored’ professions. I suspect, perhaps cynically, that this is because liberal-arts colleges – which is what the Ivies are — tend not to have large feeder pre-med programs. In other words, students who go to an Ivy might go… because they want a career in finance or consulting. This is a little different from Deresiewicz’ Romantic image of the lost student who bumbles into a high-paying career.

As for the professors, it is true that at research-intensive universities, more value (sometimes much more) is placed on research than on teaching. But this is not true of all Ivies (Dartmouth, for example, famously calls itself a College because of its commitment to undergraduate education and has long been a top-ranked undergraduate research university, and Princeton’s first-year seminars are led by permanent faculty), or even all departments within the same school (not only true of elite universities). I am not sure about Yale, where Deresiewicz taught, but as an undergraduate in a small department I was invited to dinner with my professors — multiple times — and have been recognized by all I have subsequently encountered in a professional context, despite (perhaps foolishly) not keeping up with most through graduate school.

In other words, no, sometimes the professors do care, even if they are ultimately rewarded for research. And I think Deresiewicz knows that. He certainly seems to get a lot of mail, even though some of it sounds about as realistic as an advice column: “Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them…” Well, no. Deresiewicz is an English professor; he ought to know the difference between sympathy (feeling sorry for someone) and empathy (‘feeling their pain’, as Bill Clinton famously said). I will provisionally accept that you need to interact with people in order to empathize with them; to sympathize, you simply need to recognize that they are suffering. I think we can all sympathize with Ebola victims in Africa, for example, without putting on Hazmat suits and trying to treat them.

So what is the take-home message from all this? For one thing, students probably aren’t as clueless as they’re often made out to be, and having a trust fund doesn’t bar you from having a life plan, too. But I also worry that Deresiewicz is sending the wrong message to the wrong people. The Bushes, Gores, and Kerrys of the world aren’t going to stop sending their children to elite universities because of a book. But the people who could benefit from meeting them just might. And that will only entrench the elitism that Deresiewicz is apparently trying to conquer.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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