William Deresiewicz has a problem. He loves academia, but he hates what academia is doing to America. As a member of the Ivy League establishment for more than twenty years, as a student and then as a professor, he has participated in and benefited from an institutional system that, perhaps more than any other, is responsible for this country’s ever-growing gap between rich and poor. That troubles him. Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, has been billed as a book about what’s wrong with elite higher education. But at its core, this book isn’t about education as much as it is about classism.
Deresiewicz is worried about income inequality, and about the consolidation of political power among the educated elite. He blasts the Ivies for the very significant role they play in keeping wealth and power in the hands of the privileged. Consider the White House. The majority of nominees for the presidency in the last twenty years have attended either Harvard or Yale. The same goes for the Supreme Court, and for senior officials who make up the president’s cabinet.
Seven presidential elections have taken place since 1988, and each time America has put a Harvard or Yale man in the White House. Is this a bad thing? Deresiewicz thinks so. Because a two-university monopoly on political power suggests a political system based not upon candidate merit but on connections, cronyism, and big-money alliances. It has the look of a fixed system, or at least of a system stacked in favor of a tiny number of America’s educated elite. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, he surely envisioned a class of individuals that extends beyond the attendees at the latest Yale Club cocktail mixer.
Many have complained about the Ivy League lock on political power, including David Brooks of the New York Times. But Deresiewicz adds a new wrinkle to this critique by claiming that five of the last six presidential nominees who attended elite schools were admitted as legacy students. In other words, the folks with the lock on power aren’t getting it on merit alone.
We are living under an Ivy-ocracy. A small group of powerful people are “running society for their own exclusive benefit,” which they justify by buying into the myth that their power derives from merit alone. Deresiewicz refers to this as “grandiosity” or “the illusion of supremacy.” Even though many pay lip service to the evils of “white privilege,” inwardly they harbor a sense of justifiable paternalism—in the end, they feel they know what’s best for the plebs. Despite all their supposed diversity efforts, elite colleges are drawing enrollment largely from the top 10 to 15 percent of income earners. The Ivies operate under the myth that they educate “the best and the brightest,” but what they are mostly doing is educating the best and brightest of the upper class, and funneling them toward careers of immense power and wealth within organizations populated by alumni.
I recently spent several days in a tiny rural town in Tennessee. The kind of place with a couple of traffic lights, a Wal-Mart, and not much else. I grew up in a town like that. Elite students are typically raised in a bubble of privilege so impervious they cannot even imagine what it is like to live in such a place. The problem, Deresiewicz believes, is not just unequal opportunity, but the psychic distance between elite students and most of the people they will eventually govern. Students are happy to serve—a week in New Orleans, a month in Guatemala, two years in Teach for America—but from a position of superiority and guilt, not genuine empathy. Deresiewicz has a scathing definition for the Ivy League brand of résumé-building as service: “Charity you give to others after you’ve impoverished them.” Moreover, he warns that “railing against ‘the one percent’” is too often just a way for liberals in the top 10 percent to “let themselves off the hook.”
For all such criticism, Deresiewicz actually writes with great sympathy for the students— barely-sleeping, antidepressant-popping student body presidents clawing through high school carrying a dozen AP classes, awakened daily by fierce and disappointed Tiger Moms nagging that they’re late for violin practice. Professional résumé builders, these students have no identity apart from their accumulation of credentials. Above all, they fear failure. They march through college, avoiding challenging classes for fear of a low grade. Beyond lawyering, doctoring, investment banking, or management consulting, they can see no possible future. They do not know what they are capable of or what will make them happy. They are cogs for the corporate machine—gold-plated cogs, yes, but cogs nonetheless. They avoid risk at all costs.
“The system,” Deresiewicz writes, “manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose…great at what they’re doing but no idea why they’re doing it.” Ivy League students have endured an admissions process so extreme that they have, by definition, “never experienced failure.”
I remember at my own college graduation ceremony one of the speakers said something like, “Follow your passions. Money isn’t everything.” A student in the row behind me immediately responded, “Yes it is.” I have a hunch that after generations of legacy admissions and academic inbreeding, Ivy League schools reflect the culture of elite students as much as they shape it.
Although Deresiewicz makes clear more than once that he is “not religious,” he employs religious language to describe what a student should get from an education: independence, freedom from the expectations of parents and peers to develop an inner Walden Pond, to break free from consumerism and status jockeying. Students need a sense of “soul,” not just a better résumé. Deresiewicz even paraphrases Christ, asking at one point, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?” That’s a good question. But if Deresiewicz’s argument has a weakness, it’s that he invokes the language of faith in which he claims not to believe to describe why the unwavering pursuit of power and riches is bad. That doesn’t mean that his diagnosis is wrong. I’m just not sure that his conception of “soul” is clear or compelling enough to persuade the elite students he wants to enlighten. Deresiewicz comes close to quoting Christ again on his last page when he calls readers to “love our neighbors’ children as our own.” Perhaps his moral argument is best summed up as an argument for humility. It’s not your fault you were born with privilege, but don’t think you are better than those who weren’t. Unfortunately, Deresiewicz’s appeal to human virtue feels more like a fantasy than a prescription for change. He doesn’t seem fully to acknowledge the selfishness of human nature, or the necessity of faith in overcoming that selfishness.
Deresiewicz seems to be bothered not by poverty, but by economic inequality, which is something slightly different. This portion of his argument is a little weak. He seems fuzzy on economics. He calls social mobility “a zero-sum game” and claims we live in “a winner-take-all society.” “For every person who climbs up the income distribution, someone else falls down,” he writes. But that’s only true if you believe a millionaire next to a billionaire is just as bad off as a guy who makes a thousand a year is next to a guy who makes a million.
These humdingers aside, Deresiewicz doesn’t generally resort to liberal platitudes. A contributor to The Nation among other left-leaning publications, he nonetheless reserves plenty of criticism for the liberals who control the Ivy League. At times, there is something almost conservative in his critique of the academic elite. In one passage he rails against the “rule of experts”—a line that could have come straight from William F. Buckley.
What Deresiewicz really wants is to strip the elite of their monopoly on wealth and political power. He wants to even up the odds for gifted kids born in poverty. This is a noble aim. And he offers some good, straightforward steps toward that end: Ivy League schools should abandon legacy and special admissions for children of wealthy donors; universities should put more emphasis on literature and the liberal arts, on teaching rather than pure research. He also suggests broader reforms, such as the nationalization of K–12 funding, with more funds going to poorer schools. It’s doubtful that throwing more money at public schools is going to improve them much. And simply changing the admissions procedures of a few elite schools won’t eradicate poverty. But there’s no reason to add another roadblock in the path of the gifted poor via legacy admissions. At Yale, for instance, legacy admits constitute about 10 percent of the entering freshman class; among America’s top thirty schools, legacy status increases an applicant’s odds of admission by more than 45 percent.1
Deresiewicz wants class-based affirmative action to replace race-based affirmative action. That is probably his best and most practical solution. The lip service that elite schools constantly pay to diversity is grating once one recognizes that their vast majority of students come from wealthy families. But don’t hold your breath waiting for these reforms. Deresiewicz displays more faith in the goodwill of those who run elite schools than they deserve, given their track record.
Elite universities, like the students they enroll, are obsessed with status and riches. Students and universities have entered a “commercial relationship” rather than a pedagogical one. Deresiewicz argues for a return to a more paternalistic style of education. Universities need to give students what they should want—“guidance in addressing the important questions in life.”—not what they do want. Deresiewicz even suggests that Ivy Leaguers should consider transferring to a public university: “Don’t surround yourself with excellent sheep if you don’t want to become one.”
Rather than nurturing “rich inner lives,” Ivies produce students “addicted to comfort and approval.” Deresiewicz argues that elite universities cultivate a sense of “entitled mediocrity.” You get greedy investment bankers and clumsy CEO’s wrecking the economy. You get a young George W. Bush bumbling through school and life on his way to riches and power. You get a young private school-educated Barack Obama slouching and toking his way through college on his way to Harvard Law school, on his way to—you guessed it—riches and power. You get limousine-riding executives of environmental and humanitarian nonprofits grandstanding and enriching themselves and doing little good for the world. You get professional bureaucrats. Instead of the audacity of hope, you get the “audacity of ambition.”
The opposite of entitlement is empathy, a mixture of compassion and humility, something Deresiewicz believes universities should instill in students. He also wants students to be brave. To follow their passions and take risks. There is no reliable formula for being a professional musician or artist or author. You have to risk failure to do it. You have to risk disappointing your parents and your elite peers. Deresiewicz highlights a paradox: Ivy students develop the view that pursuing a passion as “selfish,” while pursuing a safe path to wealth as “not-selfish.” That so many Ivy Leaguers come from wealthy homes exacerbates the problem. Accustomed to being rich, many simply can’t imagine living on less, so they choose the career paths that appear to guarantee safety and comfort. Deresiewicz pleads with students, “You know the thing you wish you could do, instead of what you are doing now? Just do that thing.”
Excellent Sheep contains a warning for all of us. As a democratic society, we must not ignore the plutocratic stench of the Harvard-Yale behemoth, whose greedy reach extends from Wall Street to D.C. It also contains a warning for elite school students, for whom the great battle is to resist the pressure to join forces with the beast. You have options. Chances are, however, if you played by the rules long enough to get into an Ivy League school, you are too frightened of failure to see your choices. As Deresiewicz writes, quoting Allan Bloom, “The most successful tyranny is the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.”