In 2008, William Deresiewicz published an article in The American Scholar on “The Disadvantages of Elite Education.” Drawing on his years of study and graduate teaching at Columbia and his time at Yale, he argued that his education had made him incapable of carrying on a conversation with his plumber, had prepared him for a life of privilege. More, he argued that “Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions.”
Now Deresiewicz has expanded his argument into a book, Excellent Sheep. Most students don’t use their college years to follow their passions because they are too busy being high achievers to determine what those passions are. “Credentialism” is the plague, and students think that if they don’t keep up the credential-mongering, they won’t get the six-figure jobs in finance and consulting that most of them want. Students are anxious, fearful, risk-averse, lost, uncertain about what college education is for.
Deresiewicz traces the origins of the problem to shifts in admissions standards and to larger trends in American society. He offers suggestions for pursuing a life of meaning and learning, focusing on the importance of the liberal arts and the centrality of teaching.
But he understands the difficulties. “Find a good teacher” and a faculty mentor: Good advice, but Deresiewicz knows that the university is structured in a way that inhibits faculty from teaching and toward research. Students may be lucky and find what they’re looking for, but the ultimate solution is to make teaching central to the mission of the university once again.