By Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein
“Those were the best four years of my life.” So goes the classic epithet of the American college experience. For anyone lucky to get into a prestigious school, this hopeful expectation might be misplaced. According to William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and author of the recently published Excellent Sheep, America’s elite system of higher education is broken not only for the champion hoop-jumpers who manage to clear the admissions bar, but for the country at large.
The vision of the American liberal arts experience is as unique as it is ambitious. Its mission is as much personal exploration as it is intellectual. The current scenario depicted by Excellent Sheep is, however, bleak. That liberal arts dream has been lost in a toxic cocktail of global competition, rankings listings, and corporate management structure. The freedom and self-discovery promised to students is hamstrung before they even set foot on campus: a heady admissions mania surrounding a handful of schools places ever more extraordinary demands on kids from an ever younger age, and that’s for those who can even afford to play the game of endless extracurricular activities and SAT tutoring. (See the study that links SAT scores to parental income here.)
Honed by this exacting process, students’ anxiety-ridden expectations of success continue to shape their college careers, their lives, and then those of the entire country once they have graduated and are pursuing equivalently prestigious professional opportunities. In short, our elite education system trains students not only to climb ladders, but to look for ladders to climb. According to Deresiewicz, our top institutions actively (and shamefully) encourage this state of affairs: it is in their interest as competing brand names and endowments to boast miniscule acceptance rates and shovel ample numbers of future donors into lucrative and powerful career tracks.
The book presents quite a few numbers in support of this harrowing critique. To take two examples: on the individual level, self-reported emotional well-being of students was at an all-time low in 2011 since one study’s 25 years of existence. At a societal level, elite education has absolutely become more stratified. One can point out that in spite of liberal financial aid packages, Harvard’s student body includes only 3 percent from society’s bottom 25th income percentile.
To this interviewer who shares a university affiliation with Mr. Deresiewicz, the topic is as murky as it is large. While problems with the status quo are clear, the need to sear the institutions themselves with blame is less so. Clearly they have an essential role in the welfare of the students spending four years on their campuses, but could conferring upon them total responsibility for student dissatisfaction and national leadership failings be misplaced?
Regarding individual students, one could point to the generational trends that Mr. Deresiewicz himself documents which may be warping Millennials’ search for the ‘bigger questions’ both in their own lives and in society at large. And one cannot overlook the value of the immense intellectual and material resources that these universities make available to their undergraduates. Perhaps it takes an extra degree of self-awareness and courage from incoming students not to fall prey to false forces. Hopefully this book will provide that, as well as encourage others to consider their college future in terms more broad than ‘Ivy’. On a societal level, a looming question remains unaddressed: is there any place for elite education in a democracy at all?
Host, Writer – Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein
Video Editor – Andy Morell
Script Supervisor – Matthew DeMello
with guest – William Deresiewicz