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Excellent sheep

The miseducation of American college students

Created date

May 27th, 2015
college students
college students

While a professor at Yale University more than ten years ago, Bill Deresiewicz began to notice something. What he saw he found deeply troubling.

He was teaching some of the brightest students in the world at one of the most competitive universities in higher education. Yet, a critical piece of the picture was missing. 

Many of these brilliant minds were adrift. They were incapable of thinking creatively or critically—unable or unwilling to question the world around them. 

They were without purpose and had no idea how to find it. From what a number of these students told Deresiewicz, the course of their lives appeared to lead nowhere. 

As he began to consider the circumstances more closely, the problem became clear to him. These students were products of a high-pressure college pipeline that started at home with their parents during their high school years. 

“Working with students at Yale, I realized that so many of them were depressed and, in some cases, actually despondent,” says Deresiewicz, who chronicled his observations in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2015). “Foremost, they were frustrated with the fact that they had done so well in high school, made it into a university as selective as Yale, and still felt aimless, as if there were no substance to their achievements.”

The numbers mean everything

Indeed, a preponderance of high school students hear from the very beginning that success means and, therefore, strictly requires the strongest grades, the highest SAT scores, the most extracurricular activities and, ultimately, the best colleges—that they are nothing without the numbers. 

The popular benchmark for gauging such success is U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges Ranking. A simple glance at the columns offers a quantitative sense of the competition.

The fall 2013 acceptance rate at Princeton was just 7.4%; Harvard, 5.8%; Yale and Columbia, 6.9%; and Stanford, 5.7%. Accordingly, by focusing on the stringent GPA, SAT, and countless additional admissions requirements, students rob themselves of a meaningful educational experience and wind up miserable in the process.

But Deresiewicz goes one step further, saying:,“It’s not so much that students are having a terrible experience. They’re not having any experience at all.”

Throughout the writing of Excellent Sheep, he spoke with countless students, who readily admitted that their college years and perhaps even their lives have been predominantly about making the grade and nothing else.

As one of his former students remarked, “People at Yale do not have time for real relationships.” Another quipped: “I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”

Part of what troubled Deresiewicz was their resignation—the idea that misery is a necessary component of success. What could be responsible for such a breakdown in the higher education system and, more importantly, the bleak outlook of elite students?

The answer is many things. 

Conformity over exploration

As he describes in his book, at the heart of the matter are broken high school curriculums, overbearing parents, and major universities that encourage ideological conformity, not original thinking. 

“If you look at the high schools and colleges these days, the humanities have essentially been abandoned for the so-called more practical pursuit of the sciences,” he explains. “The underlying consequence is that we have huge populations of students who aren’t able to think critically or independently.”

On top of this, Deresiewicz points out how parents squeeze their children into the mold of the perfect collegiate specimen—sky-high grades and SATs garnished with a slew of extracurricular activities. Meanwhile, these students are overburdened and overwrought—nervous wrecks before the age of 18.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me about how their high school and college experiences were all about the grades,” he says. “Instead of absorbing the subjects and genuinely thinking about the material, they spent more time figuring out what they needed to say in order to get an A.”

It’s like a game, and the task isn’t learning and understanding. It’s figuring out patterns and replicating them to get to the highest level, whether it be an A, a diploma from a top-notch school, or the highest-paying job.”

As for solutions, Deresiewicz first suggests that parents change their frame of mind. 

“Don’t think about fitting your child into the perfect college,” he says. “Find the college that’s the perfect fit.”

Secondly, colleges and universities, he insists, should return to nurturing thinkers rather than manufacturing scientists and executives. 

“Higher education is about a diversity of ideas; it’s about exploration,” Deresiewicz adds. “It’s time to stop pressuring and manipulating kids. We need to teach them.”