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Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life [Kindle Edition]

William Deresiewicz
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (137 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A groundbreaking manifesto for people searching for the kind of insight on leading, thinking, and living that elite schools should be—but aren’t—providing.

As a professor at Yale, Bill Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively, and how to find a sense of purpose.

Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw firsthand as a member of Yale’s admissions committee. As schools shift focus from the humanities to "practical" subjects like economics and computer science, students are losing the ability to think in innovative ways. Deresiewicz explains how college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path. He addresses parents, students, educators, and anyone who's interested in the direction of American society, featuring quotes from real students and graduates he has corresponded with over the years, candidly exposing where the system is broken and clearly presenting solutions.


Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* It might surprise the countless students competing for admission to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford that they could be fighting for a dubious prize. But in this probing indictment, a former Yale professor accuses America’s top universities of turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their résumés and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life’s most important questions. Craven conformity, not free-spirited independence, is what Deresiewicz sees students learning in a campus world populated by hyperspecialized professors who pursue arcane research agendas and leave the teaching of undergraduates to adjuncts and TAs. The time has come, Deresiewicz asserts, for college professors and administrators to make students their first priority by giving them a challenging liberal-arts education. Grounded in the humanities, such an education would give students real intellectual and imaginative breadth, not just a professional credential. Besides pressing for this curricular and pedagogical realignment, Deresiewicz calls for radical reform of admissions policies, so reversing the trends that make the university an enforcer of caste hierarchies. Deresiewicz’s controversial full agenda indeed means an end to rule by meritocracy and a beginning of fairness for the working class. An urgent summons to a long-overdue debate over what universities do and how they do it. --Bryce Christensen

Review

“In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz sets out to unnerve the current and future college students of America (and their parents). He succeeds brilliantly, with an indictment of elite education that should launch a thousand conversations. Read this book to remember what learning should be, and then pass it along to the next sheep who should leave the flock behind.” (Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy)

“This is a book of great importance to our society. It deserves to transform our understanding of integrity and achievement and success. William Deresiewicz is a genuine humanist with a profound faith in the promise of democracy, and he has an uncommon gift for wisdom without platitudes. Excellent Sheep is a withering analysis of the transactional spirit that rules American education and American life, and an inspiring example of a better ideal. A true teacher speaks here. He has my admiration and my gratitude.” (Leon Wieseltier)

“William Deresiewicz’s book is in and of itself a higher education, and to read it is to learn what’s a college for. The author is an inspired teacher, and his lesson is of a truth sorely needing to be told.” (Lewis Lapham)

“William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is a searing and important critique of our morally bankrupt educational system. He argues, correctly, that colleges and universities, awash in corporate money and intend on churning out corporate managers and conformists rather than scholars, have betrayed not only their mission, but the students they purport to teach and by extension the wider society. Independent thought is subversive, uncomfortable and lonely. It requires us, as Deresiewicz points out, to challenge and question reigning assumptions rather than kneel before them. Deresiewicz’s book is not so much a call for reform as for revolt.” (Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, with Joe Sacco, of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt)

"William Deresiewicz is one of America's best young public intellectuals. He has written a passionate, deeply informed, and searing critique of the way we are educating our young. Whether you agree or disagree - and I found myself doing both - you must read this book. It should spark a great debate on America's campuses and beyond." (Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World)

Excellent Sheep is likely to make…a lasting mark…for three reasons. One, Mr. Deresiewicz spent 24 years in the Ivy League, graduating from Columbia and teaching for a decade at Yale….He brings the gory details. Two, the author is a striker, to put it in soccer terms. He’s a vivid writer, a literary critic whose headers tend to land in the back corner of the net. Three, his indictment arrives on wheels: He takes aim at just about the entirety of upper-middle-class life in America…. Mr. Deresiewicz’s book is packed full of what he wants more of in American life: passionate weirdness.” (Dwight Garner The New York Times)

"It might surprise the countless students competing for admission to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford that they could be fighting for a dubious prize. But in this probing indictment, a former Yale professor accuses America’s top universities of turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their résumés and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life’s most important questions. . . . An urgent summons to a long-overdue debate over what universities do and how they do it." (Bryce Christensen Booklist (starred review))

 “Welcome to what is sure to be the most polarizing education and parenting book since Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” (Town & Country)

 “This refreshingly barbed indictment of America’s prestige-education addiction reveals what college students are really getting out of all that work, all that struggle, all that stress – and all those tuition loans.” (MORE Magazine)

"Excellent Sheep challenges parents to break from the herd mentality, to question what we really want from our children, who we really want them to be. The book filled me with both hope that there could be a more authentic, creative way to raise a new generation of thinkers--and with the courage to try to find it." (Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter)

“Deresiewicz’s critique of America’s most celebrated schools as temples of mercenary mediocrity is lucid, sharp-edged, and searching … he poses vital questions about what college teaches—and why.” (Publishers Weekly)

“An unquestionably provocative book that hopefully leads to productive debate.” (Kirkus)

"Not only does Deresiewicz speak with candor about the ins and outs of the educational hierarchy from an insider's point of view, but he prompts some serious questions about the potential for reform and what we as parents can do to encourage our children from a young age to change the way that they’re learning, and as a result, what they take from the world in exchange. A much recommended read, especially for those currently with or planning to have children." (Briana Burns High Voltage)

“[A] good case that these colleges are failing in their most essential mission: to help kids "build a self." (Mother Jones)

"The ex-Yale professor effectively skewers elite colleges, their brainy but soulless students (those 'sheep'), pushy parents and admissions mayhem." (People Magazine)

“Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood . . . it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self. . . . [Deresiewicz] reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.” (David Brooks The New York Times)

"Unofficial required reading at selective schools." (Jennifer Schuessler The New York Times)

“[A] biting critique of higher education…This is a book that begs to be argued with.” (The San Francisco Chronicle)

“A sharp analysis of the dark side of the lot of a high-achieving student being groomed for a place in America’s meritocracy.” (The Seattle Times)

“Some of the solutions he offers will doubtless provoke parents currently shelling out thousands of dollars for SAT tutors.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“[Deresiewicz] has written a polemic against the transactional values of American elite education, the helicopter parents and early-admissions frenzy that annually feed overachieving teenagers into the elite colleges and universities.” (The Chicago Tribune)

“Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“[Deresiewicz] is a charismatic and elegant writer.” (The New Yorker)

“[I]t’s hard not to agree with the forest of [Deresiewicz’s] argument, that when it comes to selecting, educating, and sending our elite into the world to do what they will do, something is seriously messed up.” (Inside Higher Ed)

“Deresiewicz’s book is a brilliant and devastating critique of America’s higher education system – especially its highly-selective “elite.”  Anyone considering college today should read it with close attention.” (Village News)

“Deresiewicz is an engaging writer.” (The Chicago Reader)

“Deresiewicz’ central observation that Ivy League students lack purpose should resonate in our Ivy ears. His harrowing characterization of the modern elite student as 'anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose' is honestly not that far from the truth. Deresiewicz exhaustively criticizes the institutions for their lack of true diversity and inability to engage student’s ‘souls’.” (The Cornell Daily Sun)

“Anyone interested in higher education would benefit from reading this hard-hitting and passionate book.” (The Charlotte Observer)

Product Details


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
179 of 191 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Super People, Excellent Sheeple? August 21, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book piqued my interest because my son just graduated high school and is entering college. His classmates range from the "Super People" (author William Deresiewicz's phrase for the highest achievers) who are on their way to elite universities, to the more typical students who are starting their higher educations at community colleges.

In each book review I try to include a few well-written sentences that concisely illustrate an author's point of view. This book is so well written that I could have chosen just about every sentence. Here are some of the best:

=====
The compulsive overachievement of today's elite college students-- the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can-- is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish.

Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping... that got them into an elite college in the first place--the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches , tutors, leadership, service -- left them no time to figure out what they want out of life.

Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spent using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake up in crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.

"I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, expect to hate my job, and this is just how it's going to be for the rest of my life."

The result is what we might refer to as credentialism. The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars.
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110 of 120 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Correct Diagnosis -- Incorrect Prescription September 14, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When I saw William Deresiewicz's New Republic piece, "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy League," I jumped at the opportunity to read it. As a partial Ivy League apostate myself, the thought of somebody -- a former Ivy League professor at that! -- calling out the cultural problems within these institutions excited me. The piece made waves, with students and professors alike responding, and getting people excited for Deresiewicz's book, Excellent Sheep. It worked. I bought his book and worked my way through it, hoping for an intricate analysis of a serious cultural issue and a nuanced solution.

While at an Ivy League university -- the University of Pennsylvania, in my case -- I see many of the issues that Deresiewicz identifies in his New Republic piece and in interviews on the book. Students who came to school wanting to change the world and make it their own place, to be in the driver's seat of their lives, quickly fell into an assembly-line-like mold. They may have entered school wanting to start a business and offer a new service, or to write a book, or to become a professional speaker, but by their second or third years, many had their eyes set on the crown jewels of the Ivy League experience -- On Campus Recruiting (OCR). They designed their resumes and schedules around exactly what recruiters from Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley would want and slowly extirpated the things they had passions for coming in to school. They became barely identifiable with their starry-eyed freshman selves. It wasn't infuriating as much as it was sad.

The problem is not necessarily that students want to go work on Wall Street after their time at school -- if that is truly your dream and what you believe will make you come alive, then by all means, please go pursue that!
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57 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cry of Conscience August 19, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One of my friends, as a Harvard undergraduate, was the subject of a survey. The question was simply: "What's your major?" His answer: "Pre-Wealth."

William Deresiewicz passionately believes that a true education should be something else: a habit of questioning, a constant search to understand the universe, the world, the society we live in and with that understanding to work for justice. He's asking for moral imagination, and he's shocked at its lack in universities that are stifled by the money they cost, the donations they chase, and the student debt that sends students into "practical" (lucrative but spirit-deadening) careers.

In truth, of course, elite universities are not entirely devoid of the values he champions, nor would he claim that. Some elite schools such as the Phillips Exeter Academy teach by the Socratic method; Oxford tutorials are meant to reward originality (though too often they and the Oxford Finals system reward mere fluency). But that doesn't at all detract from the validity of Deresiewicz's case, especially since it is written as advice to students.

The larger failure, I think, is a failure of the universities to foster an understanding of 21st century reality as a never-ending, uncertain, open philosophical inquiry. There are those, inside and outside, elite education engaged in that, from the Resilience Alliance to Stuart Kauffman to Frans de Waal to a superb journalist such as Elizabeth Kolbert, but it ought to be the heart and mind of a liberal education. For that to happen, universities will not only have to drop money-obsessed "practicality"; they'll also have to tear down some of the disciplinary walls assiduously maintained by doctoral and professorial guilds. It can't happen too soon.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars It's Okay...
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life – A Book Review
By Dr. S. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Dr. S. Brook Henderson
5.0 out of 5 stars You had me at "bionic hamsters"
Deresiewicz had me at "bionic hamsters," a term he uses early on in Excellent Sheep to describe today's elite students, who may be focusing on their double and triple... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Jennifer Grey
5.0 out of 5 stars Proof's in the pudding
I graduated from a small liberal arts college 45 years ago with a BA in English. Although the world of business has been my career passion, I could not have had a more personally... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Jane Rawlings
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
ok
Published 21 days ago by Laszlo Daroczi
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wake-Up Call
Excellent Sheep is an excellent account of higher education today. We are indeed at a time where our children are not receiving the world-class education we are paying for. Read more
Published 22 days ago by Lady Haase
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
I enjoyed this book. Let's hope that it's not written only for parents of non-Ivy students!
Published 26 days ago by Carolyn Weiss
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece of outrage and a call to action! But who's ready to pick...
"Excellent Sheep" is a brilliant analysis that made me reflect on my life, not just my college days long ago in the '60s at plenty of non-elite colleges and universities,... Read more
Published 27 days ago by Roger Fraser
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing, but it rings true.
Disturbing, but it rings true. Our higher education system...especially admissions to elite schools...is pretty broken. Read more
Published 27 days ago by Deniz Ozan-George
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book
“Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what do next.”

I come from standard middle class upbringing. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Reid Mccormick
5.0 out of 5 stars a must read
If you are a parent, an educator, or you simply want to be informed, you must read this book! I throughly enjoyed it and praise the honesty in which it has been written. Read more
Published 1 month ago by William Hill
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