William Deresiewicz on Class, Pressure, and Ignoring Your Parents at College

Getting schooled.
Aug. 18 2014 11:01 AM

“My Most Offended Readers Are Ivy-Bound 18-Year-Olds”

A conversation with Excellent Sheep author William Deresiewicz.

William Deresiewicz.
William Deresiewicz.

Photo by Mary Ann Halpin

In his introduction to Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes today’s Ivy League as a highly competent zombie factory, one that “manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He then spends the rest of the book explaining how the alleged best higher-education system in the world got this way—and what can be done to foster a top-tier college environment at once more diverse and less miserable.

If you, like many readers and critics, were irate at the excerpt that ran in the New Republic in July and are thus searching for a bone to pick with Deresiewicz, the book in its entirety will offer you a veritable skeleton because its scope is so vast. From the racket of the U.S. News rankings to the overextended misdeeds of poseur-scholar James Franco, from the history of the “legacy” system (originally put in place to keep out Jewish students! I learn something new every day!), to the overuse of adjuncts, there is little in the contemporary higher-ed landscape—in which he spent two and a half decades as both student and professor—that Deresiewicz leaves unquestioned.

In a recent email conversation, I did my level best to discuss at least a fraction of what Excellent Sheep covers—and to give its unfailingly thoughtful author a chance to engage with his critics.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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Your tour for this book is almost exclusively to the very institutions you lambaste for their corporatized fostering of elitist mediocrity. Any awkward moments?

I’m speaking at those schools because that is the audience that most needs to hear my message. To the credit of the individuals or groups who have invited me, at least some people on elite campuses recognize as much. I’ve actually been speaking on these topics at schools like that for the last six years, often at the invitation of student groups. In fact, those conversations were instrumental in helping me develop the book—in giving me a sense not only of what’s going on with high-achieving students now, but of what they need and want to hear. So I’m not worried about awkward moments. I welcome whatever questions or responses students (and professors, and administrators) may have. Besides, I’ve found that today’s students are unfailingly polite—almost to a fault, I would say.

In your early chapters, you present a heartbreaking paradox of students who are overworked and miserable—all, likely, in the service of a lucrative but empty consulting career that will (perhaps) result in a midlife crisis. Will you tell me a little bit more about what you refer to as “the opportunities [elite education] closes down”?

I mean the opportunity not to be rich—or high-status—and still live a good life. In other words, if you’re a smart, talented, energetic young person in America today (especially if you grow up upper-middle-class or higher), if you’re the kind of kid who goes to these schools, you have the opportunity to live a life of meaning and purpose and still make a perfectly decent living. This is a very rare opportunity in human history, and the only thing that can screw it up for you is if you allow yourself to buy into the kind of standards that the system works so hard to instill, that desperate need for the constant affirmation of credentials and gold stars, whether in the form of A’s or of ultra-high salaries and prestigious titles.

I’m sure you’re aware of the unintended consequences of talk of “doing what you love” and “vocation,” which is the monetary devaluation of artistic or creative work. The very adjunct professors whose conditions and overuse you rightly deplore in the book, for example, are often told they should not be teaching for the money anyway. Is there a Golden Mean between the soul-sucking $150K consulting job and the rhetoric of “vocation”?

Yes, I’m quite aware of the way the rhetoric of love and vocation has been co-opted by people who don’t want to pay their workers (intellectual, creative, or otherwise) what they deserve. But that doesn’t mean that love and vocation aren’t real things. People should strive to do work that’s meaningful to them, and they should also insist (to the extent they can, which is a lot greater if people act collectively) that they get paid a fair wage for that work. “Love” should matter to you; as far as your boss is concerned, it’s none of their business.

I should also add something very important: I am not telling students to go into any particular kind of work—the arts, academia, service work, whatever. Being a lawyer can certainly be a very meaningful occupation. Purpose and pay are separate issues. The point is not what you do but why you do it, how you choose it.

The excerpt that you published in the New Republic has ignited some backlash among current students or recent grads, self-identified “financial-aid kids” from underserved backgrounds, who do not feel now and have never felt part of the “privilege bubble” you describe. In the rest of the book, it’s clear that you have thought very hard and care very much about the needs of nonprototypical Ivy (that is, rich) kids, but for those who have only read the excerpt and are filled with righteous indignation: What would you like to say to them?

I would say, first of all (as I did in the book), that there are exceptions to everything I’m saying. Yes, there are some kids on elite campuses who don’t come from affluent backgrounds. But we know, as a matter of statistical fact, that they represent a small minority. At the top 100+ schools, according to a study from several years ago (if anything, things are probably worse now), only 3 percent of students come from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, 75 percent from the top quarter.

When we talk about diversity on elite campuses we focus on race and gender too much, and not enough on class. Over the last few decades, elite colleges have made enormous strides in bringing in more women and students of color—I mean enormous compared to where things stood 50 years ago, when there were often none of the first and few of the second. That’s what “diversity,” which has become a central campus value, means. What almost no one pays attention to is the fact that more recently, over about the last 30 years, those campuses have actually become less diverse with respect to class. It’s not about lower-class white males. It’s about lower-class students in general. That’s why, while selective colleges were instrumental in creating a multicultural elite, they are now helping to perpetuate a class system that is growing ever more static.

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