Excellent Sheep: An Interview with William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life is being published today by Free Press. You can read an excerpt from it at the New Republic, along with a critique I wrote as part of a symposium for Minding the Campus. I interviewed him via email about his book.

 

JW: Your book begins by expressing concerns about “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression”(8) among elite students because they are trained for “compulsive overachievement.”(10) But I see a greater danger in student underachievement, where grade inflation, less time spent studying, and a party atmosphere on campus all discourage intellectual work. What is the evidence that elite college students are working too hard in school?

WD: There are a couple of things to say here. First, elite campuses are very different from other kinds. There are two (or more) Americas in college, too. There may be grade inflation at selective private schools, but there certainly isn’t a party atmosphere. What there is–between classes, extracurriculars, internships, and whatnot–is an environment of constant frenetic activity, sleep deprivation, competitive credentialism, and resume-building.

As for the toll this kind of pressure takes on student health and mental health, there is in fact a great deal of evidence. First of all, we have numbers with respect to the situation in adolescence–that is to say, in high school. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine, a psychologist who works with teens in Marin County, cites a raft of troubling statistics: “Preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families…experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.” “As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression.”  Mental health problems “can be two to five times more prevalent among private high school juniors and seniors” than among their public-school counterparts. As it happens, the Times recently published a piece about the situation in South Korea that reads like an only-slightly-exaggerated version of what happens in our upper-middle-class communities.

There is no reason to believe the situation gets better when these kids get to college, and many reasons to believe that it does not. Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior” (a litany that echoes Levine’s). I know that a number of people, in response to the excerpt in the New Republic, have questioned my assertions about this, but the fact is that the closer you get to the situation, the more aware of it you are. High school teachers know about it. People in deans of students offices and campus mental health services know about it. Professors know about it, at least the ones who pay attention to their students. And of course, the kids themselves know about it, and a lot of them have been telling me about it.

 

JW: You have particular disdain for college extracurricular activities, calling them “all-consuming,”(64) “displacing intellectual pursuits”(14) and part of an epidemic of networking on campus. But it seems like extracurriculars have at least the potential to provide what you think is missing at college: student-driven, creative, social, service work. What should colleges (and students) do to improve extracurricular activities on campus?

WD: The problem, as I suggested above, is not with any one particular extracurricular activity. The problem is the way they have, as I said, become all-consuming and displaced intellectual pursuits. I don’t know what colleges can do to improve the situation. They can start by making their courses academically rigorous again, so students will actually have to spend some time on them outside of class. And they might put some kind of limit on the almost literally round-the-clock nature of those activities, like mandating that meetings be over by a certain hour–something I believe some colleges at least used to do.

 

JW: You were famously a victim of Yale’s old system of purging junior faculty without giving them a tenure review. Did not getting a tenured post at Yale liberate you to criticize the Ivy League in a way that you wouldn’t do if you were still employed there? And do you think that the tenure system creates the kind of risk-taking faculty that you want students to have, or is the tenure system more like what you think the Ivy League has become for students, a hyper-competitive system that encourages faculty to accumulate credentials for advancement while causing them to play it safe? What reforms would you recommend for the hiring and promotion of faculty?

WD: I think you’ve already answered both of those questions. I’m sure that not getting tenure did liberate me to make these criticisms, though I wasn’t exactly shy about speaking my mind beforehand. But I think that getting tenure would also have liberated me. I mean, that’s the point of it, isn’t it? I’ve always wondered why people still seem so timid after they receive it. I always saw it as a license to do and say whatever the hell you want. On the other hand, I never had a chance to test that proposition.

But that gets us to your second question. Yes, academia seems to socialize people to be intensely risk-averse, and I think that that’s a tremendous shame: for them, for their students, and for their fields of knowledge. You could propose certain reforms to address that–an end to credential inflation where people are required to publish more and more, pumping out lots of little bits of scholarship instead of being given the time and support to work on a single, large piece of work–but the main problem is cultural, and I’m not sure how you address that. It would be up to senior people, starting with their students in graduate school and on up to their junior colleagues and junior peers in the field, to create an atmosphere that encourages iconoclasm and risk and minimizes the need for deference and political maneuvering. That’s what the profession is supposed to be about, after all, isn’t it?

 

JW: You encourage students to consider avoiding the Ivy League colleges, and go to public universities and liberal arts colleges which have a more diverse student body. But doesn’t the prestige of an Ivy League degree play a role in getting a job, graduate school admissions, and academic hiring? How much preferential treatment do Ivy League alums get, and is it right to advise students to give up those potential advantages, not to mention the extra resources often available at an Ivy League institution?

WD: Yes, I want to be perfectly clear about this, as I am in the book. The reason that I called my original essay, six years ago, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” is that the advantages are so obvious. Eschewing the Ivy League for the sake of going to a place that gives you a better shot at a real education (and before that, for the sake of having an adolescence that allows you to develop as a human being) is not without cost. The system, to put it in a nutshell, forces you to choose between learning and success (I mean learning in the broadest sense not only of intellectual development but also of the development of the self). That means that you can’t have it all. If you want to choose learning, you have to give up at least a certain amount of success. And everybody’s going to have to make that choice for themselves. The point is, it is a choice: the high-achievement track does not come without costs, despite what everybody claims.

One point of clarification, by the way. I recommend public universities and liberal arts colleges for different reasons. The former are more diverse; the latter offer something closer to a real liberal arts education. There aren’t a lot of institutions that do both, though the honors colleges in public universities may come the closest.

 

JW: Chris Lehmann, criticizing your book at In These Times, argued that you need to go further and “nationalize American institutions of higher learning, abolishing anything more than a nominal tuition fee.” And you argue for free public higher education as a reform. Although most of your book is focused on the education of the 1% in elite colleges, what you think should be done to improve the education of the 99%?

WD: Yes, I was disappointed to see that review. It seems like he stopped reading the book 5 pages from the end. I call for pretty much exactly what he wants: free public higher education that is so good that nobody will feel the need to go to the Ivy League anymore.

I do want to be very clear about something. When we talk about the most selective colleges–and I don’t mean the eight schools in the Ivy League, but something like the top 100, including those liberal arts colleges– we are not talking about the 1%. We are talking about, roughly, the 10%. The fact is that “the 1%,” as a concept and slogan, is a very convenient way for the upper middle class, the rest of the elite—-the people, by and large, who went to selective colleges, and who plan to send their kids in turn-—to let themselves off the hook. The 1% has been doing incredibly well for the last 30 years, but the rest of the 10% has also been doing better and better (however much they might feel otherwise). They need to step up, too. That’s why, while my book focuses on the elite, it’s ultimately relevant to the whole system. The money to create (or re-create) that system of free high-quality public higher education needs to come from the segment of society that, by and large, doesn’t need it.

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