The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Twilight of an Idol

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

William Deresiewicz

Free Press, 2014.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale University, is not a fan of American elite education. He says that it “manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” The entire system of elite education, he argues, reproduces an American upper-middle class and its aspirations, distorted values, and sense of entitlement. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale no longer form purposeful, reflective young adults; they reproduce aimless, credential-craven zombies––the final products of a cultural system whose only end is the relentless pursuit of prestige and perfection. The path from preschool to Princeton is strewn with these lifeless overachievers who live off the validation of others.

Is he wrong about today’s “elite” students? The students that Deresiewicz describes—high-strung, stressed out, obsessed with credentials and with being “the best”—are certainly real. (I teach some of their public-university kin at the University of Virginia.) Although they are sheep, Deresiewicz approaches them with pity as much as scorn: “I used to be one of these kids.” He compares his past self, devoured by ambition, to Satan in Paradise Lost. In providing a typology of this kind of student, Deresiewicz performs a valuable service. And in his disdain for the modern university, which “does nothing…to challenge the values of a society that equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success,” he gives voice to a moral criticism whose real object is American elites.

But there’s still something suspect about Excellent Sheep, and the whole growing genre of books lamenting the decline of the college. Such books include Andrew Delbanco’s more historically focused and nuanced College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), as well as Mark Edmundson’s more essayistic and personal Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (2013), both of which Deresiewicz cites repeatedly.

Most of these laments, including Excellent Sheep, are written by literature professors extolling the liberal arts college as the unique site of self-transformation. Before an impending life of professionalism, college, they remind us, is a four-year hiatus allowing for self-discovery—one accessible to only certain classes of American society, to be sure, but nonetheless worth preserving. Citing Walt Whitman, for instance, Delbanco describes college as a time when “I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

But what are Deresiewicz, Delbanco, and Edmundson—not to mention the countless faculty committees busy reimagining undergraduate education—talking about when they invoke college as a sacrosanct institution? “To ask what college is for,” writes Deresiewicz, “is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for.” Its most confident advocates treat college like a sui generis ethical resource, uniquely capable of guiding, or as Deresiewicz might have it, “misguiding,” the self-transformation of America’s elite. But when did “college” come to bear such an impossible burden? Walt Whitman, after all, did not even go to college; he ceased his formal education at the age of eleven. To loaf, it would seem, one need not necessarily go to Swarthmore.

This is a common problem for the recent defenders of college. They invoke a collegiate ideal without explaining how it can live on without the normative and ethical resources to which it used to be tied or the larger social ends that such an education was intended to serve.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, American colleges such as Princeton, Yale, and Harvard were explicitly religious institutions. As they transformed into universities, however, they became generally nonsectarian Christian institutions devoted to broad, often vague public goods such as freedom, democracy, and economic and technological progress. The university, as University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper put it in 1899, was the “prophet [and] priest” of democracy, the keeper “of holy mysteries, of sacred and significant traditions.”

In the Harvard Report of 1945, General Education in a Free Society, some of the more respected scholars in the country acknowledged that American education was in “supreme need…of a unifying purpose and idea.” But religion wasn’t a possibility. “Given the American scene with its varieties of faith and even of unfaith,” Harvard faculty considered an explicitly religious basis for the undergraduate curriculum impossible. They opted instead for civic citizenship. They replaced the certain purpose of one institution, the nineteenth-century college’s formation of the Christian gentleman, with another, the formation of the postwar American cultured citizen.

When Deresiewicz directly acknowledges the gap between the self-transforming aspirations of college and its capacity to deliver such experiences, he inevitably mentions religion. Religious colleges, however obscure and regional, he claims, “often do a much better job” of transforming young adults. Deresiewicz prefers the term “ideals” to “values,” because the former continue to carry the force that “religious belief once commonly did.” He even describes the humanities as an ersatz religion:

The humanities are what we have, in a secular society, instead of religion. They are compatible with religion, but they have also, in important ways, supplanted it. As traditional beliefs were broken down across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—by modern science, by the skeptical critique of Enlightenment—the arts emerged as the place where educated people went to contemplate those questions of meaning and value and purpose.

As colleges and universities gradually drifted away from religious traditions, they struggled to recover the sense of wholeness and unity that holistic, religion-based curricular orders had afforded. The humanities and humanistic education were the replacement. From Columbia and Chicago’s core curricula to St. John’s Great Books program, these curricular innovations were surrogates for what had been religion-based visions of the unity of knowledge, learning, and culture. Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, colleges have attempted to reshape themselves and their curricula in these vaguely humanistic terms, inventing general education and “Great Books” programs whose coherence and purpose was tied to a “common” study of what it is to be human.

The more contemporary language of self-transformation and the invocation of “liberal learning” and the “liberal arts” are understandable and laudable attempts to resist instrumental, pre-professional notions of higher education. But it also seems an untethered language, a vestige of older, now lost languages based on particular religious and cultural traditions. This is why so much of it—in the preambles of curricular documents, or the perfunctory speeches of college presidents and deans, or the railings of a Deresiewicz—seems so tired, unsure, and, ultimately, unpersuasive.

And it’s at this point where the now-ubiquitous lament over “college” is revealed for what it really is: an anxiety over what is thought to have been lost in the shipwreck of modernity. The social institutions that can shape souls are collapsing. The threats to the collegiate ideal are seen as markers of a broader social, intellectual, and moral poverty. Contemporary colleges, unable to return to their pasts, are still rummaging about for sources of meaning. Some invoke democratic citizenship, literature, and, most recently, habits of mind like “critical thinking.” But only half-heartedly—and mostly in fundraising emails.

In the end, Deresiewicz’s college is less an institution devoted to a common end than it is a self-help retreat. (It’s no coincidence that Deresiewicz’s first book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Mattered, treats the Victorian novel like self-help literature.) His defense is not really of college at all but of a particular kind of person. The book is not an attack on the current higher education system so much as its students. In his focus on character, he follows a tradition that goes back to at least John Henry Cardinal Newman. But unlike Newman, he never considers the particular ethical resources or traditions that make “self-transformation” possible. Nor does he ask if a transformation of the self is sufficient to resist the fragmenting and stultifying effects of the upper-middle-class American culture he decries.

Solipsism, careerism, consumerism—none of these evils will be undone by pushing the idea that college is ultimately about self-realization. Deresiewicz’s over-achieving sheep cannot easily be replaced with a society of self-actualized Walt Whitmans. Nor would such a change really be desirable. At best, a college education today might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and in the larger society as well. Creating a society where, in Deresiewicz’s words, we “love our neighbor’s children as our own” lies outside the scope of college—as, indeed, it always has.

Chad Wellmon is an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author most recently of Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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