This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”
Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.
This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.
Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.
Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”
Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today.
Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.
The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.