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'Excellent Sheep' calls for colleges to reform their admissions process

William Deresiewicz, Ivy League grad and former professor, critiques current standards at colleges, but offers little data to back up his assertions.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz, Free Press, 256 pp.

William Deresiewicz, a former university professor, self-identifies as a “cultural critic.” The word “critic” carries many shades of meaning in that usage, but, for Deresiewicz, the meaning when it comes to commenting on higher education in the United States is straightforward – he is critical, preaching that prestigious American universities are failing students in every important respect.

Deresiewicz bases his sour assessment on attending college at Columbia University all the way through earning a doctorate; five years of teaching at Columbia while completing his degrees there; and ten years of teaching at Yale University. He flavors his criticism with anecdotal material gained from students whom he has interviewed or corresponded with.

My job as a reviewer (I never call myself a “critic”) is to explain the author’s content, decipher how the author reaches his conclusions, and provide an evaluation of a book for potential readers. In this instance, my review is surely influenced by my own higher education – two degrees in journalism from the University of Missouri; 35 years of teaching journalism to University of Missouri students; a semester-long guest professorship early this year at Davidson College, an elite liberal arts campus; and invited guest lectures on 25 campuses across the United States.

None of that experience qualifies me as an expert. It does, however, qualify me to state that Deresiewicz and I seem to have been inhabiting different planets. Yes, each of his separate tirades against universities contains some validity. But his evidence of pervasive incompetence and misguided counseling is thin at best. From my perspective, Deresiewicz is especially misguided with his generalization that universities have abandoned the admirable goal of students experiencing self-discovery by replacing that journey with an emphasis on achieving material success.

As a journalist, I often write about murder trials and other courtroom dramas. Deresiewicz reminds me of an overzealous prosecutor who, lacking persuasive facts to present to a jury, relies heavily on innuendo.

I have registered my dissent. But perhaps my evidence is just as anecdotal and skewed as that offered by Deresiewicz. This seems certain: whoever turns out to be most correct, and whoever turns out to be most misguided, the outcome of the conversation is important for the future of American higher education. And because the nation’s future policymakers are quite likely to graduate from college, the future direction of American higher education is no trivial matter.

Describing the archness of Deresiewicz’s critique can be accomplished only be letting him speak for himself, so here is a passage: “Has there ever been a leadership class more pleased with itself than our own? Has there ever been another one whose failure is more obvious? The contemporary meritocracy, which in all its glory is presiding over an era of unprecedented national decline, is an exact reflection of the educational system that is charged with reproducing it.”

Deresiewicz’s evidence that the United States is experiencing “an era of unprecedented national decline”? I have no idea what evidence he has gathered. As an empiricist, I would state there is no way to prove whether the “national decline” of one era exceeds that of another era. Put less delicately, Deresiewicz is entitled to his opinion. But he is not entitled to his own facts, if they even exist.

Not so incidentally, Deresiewicz introduces the quoted passage by riffing on the phrase “the best and the brightest,” which seems to describe the best students on elite campuses. Deresiewicz comments, “What a perfect irony that hoary old cliché entails. Nobody apparently remembers that the phrase originated as the rancidly sarcastic title of a book about the architects of the Vietnam War, the so-called ‘whiz kids’ whose arrogance and overconfidence enmeshed us in a quagmire.” Deresiewicz’s belief that “nobody apparently remembers” again demonstrates that he and I must have been residing in different universes. I remember the irony of that phrase vividly, and I would wage that more than 90 percent of my contemporaries remember the irony, too. From his perspective, Deresiewicz might see himself as correct. From my perspective, he comes across as misinformed when he generalizes like that.

Perhaps I will cheer Deresiewicz someday – if his call for elite colleges to reform their admissions process yields an impact, if his push to decrease inequality within the student population prevails, hooray. Until then, I will consider Deresiewicz an impediment to positive change; name-calling without solid evidence rarely accomplishes anything good.

Steve Weinberg is working on his ninth book of nonfiction, a biography of Garry Trudeau.

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