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The vengeful scream of a former instructor at Yale denied tenure, he suddenly discovers that the entire education system to which he has devoted his professional life is not worth the paper on which his Ivy League degrees are printed A ridiculously overbroad attack on elite education, this book ranges from parenting advice you don t want to opinions on politics, economics, religion, life philosophy, the right books to read, and of course, education In fact, there really isn t any subject that the author is unqualified to opine on, and he s happy to tell you as much while he sorts the good from the bad spoiler it s all bad Tiger Mom Amy Chua, absurd in her own way, comes in for some harsh criticism for turning her children into the very excellent sheep the author denounces Given the author s unflattering comparison of today s elite students to the WASP elite of yesteryear, it s a short hop to wonder whether the author is really mad at all the Asians, struck in Amy Chua s image, who attend elite schools If you ve gone to college in the last 40 years, there s nothing this book will tell you that you don t already know about single minded pre professional kids, aimless kids, and kids living their parents dreams No, you don t have to attend an Ivy League school to be happy, and the author spends hundreds of pages to convince you to go to State U., and then settle into your dream job selling insurance and knowing in your bones how to chat with the plumber Unfortunately, the author s own elitism and resentments Yale prefers regular publishing rather than preternaturally talented teachers like him, don t you know overwhelms any useful information that might otherwise be in the book. Worth a read, but is really a good magazine article stretched into a meandering book that s ok, idea books these days are My suggestion is read the Part 1 Why our colleges are filled with overstressed, well trained, bland, rich kids and Part 4 Why these same people are doing such a crappy job of running the world You can skip the middle Why we need to read, why humanities matter, and why having a soul matters, and no our college system doesn t help you do that very much I assumed that was obvious Unfortunately Mr Deresiwicz is a better at articulating the problems than identifying solutions That said, it is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. A Groundbreaking Manifesto For People Searching For The Kind Of Insight On Leading, Thinking, And Living That Elite Schools Should Be But Aren T ProvidingAs 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 4.5 starsIn his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz shows what the elite schools of the United States lack the ability to produce free thinking students and independent minds He provides insight from his own experience as a student and graduate instructor at Columbia, as well as from his years teaching English at Yale His critique blends how the current system of education reinforces class structure, how the lack of rigor at top schools prevents real learning, and how the race to get into a good college obscures students search for their true selves The best part of Excellent Sheep stems from Deresiewicz s willingness to provide answers he gives tangible and specific methods to improve the education system we reside within An example of a solution Instead of service, how about service work That ll really give you insight into other people How about waiting tables yourself, so you can see how hard it is, not only physically but mentally You really aren t as smart as everyone s been telling you you re only smarter in a certain way, and only than your peers in the propertied class There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college, and often precisely for reasons of class There are smart people who are not smart You ve heard that there are different forms of intelligence Now go and find it out through actual experience.Deresiewicz writes in an argumentative and insightful way He makes sure to drive in just how bad the current education system has gotten while still tempering his criticisms with plausible solutions He connects his commentary to the mental health of students, to parenting success and failures, and his own personal experiences While I wish I had gotten perspective from schools outside of Yale, Pomona, and a couple of others, Deresiewicz still presents well balanced ideas and thoughts outside of his own A paragraph I enjoyed about the purpose of education We have always seen our nation as a work in progress We are always striving to create a perfect union So college is indeed about than just you If you are going to be the leader that your education is supposedly preparing you to become, then you need to question the very terms of that education itself Instead of worrying so much about building your resume, you need to start working on building your mind.A few takeaways from the book that I agree with instead of giving preference to students who attend programs or trips thanks to their parents money, reward students who survive and surpass real struggle Base affirmative action on socioeconomic standards Search for students who excel beyond baseline measurements of GPA, SAT score, and quantity of extra curricular activities Within college, allocate attention to undergraduate teaching and engagement as opposed to research Encourage students to delve into the humanities, subjects that require asking the big questions Make college about creating oneself one s values, one s way of thinking, one s worldview.Overall, a splendid work of nonfiction I would recommend to anyone associated with the education system at all students, teachers, parents, professors, administrators, and We need people thinking like Deresiewicz e.g., thinking for themselves , and we should strive to get these changes made soon. Full disclosure I am going to like any book that claims that the way to a better society is for people to become English majors I did in fact find myself agreeing with most of Deresiewicz s critiques of elitism in higher education The admissions process at selective universities drives a meritocracy that has already privileged kids competing with each other from a very early age to secure an artificially scarce spot at the most presitious schools where prestiige is dubiosly defined by being the hardest schools to get into Perhaps I should rather say that it is the parents who push their kids into a needless stress as they gather the credentials to make themselves competitive The promulgation of the worldview that the only way to succeed is through cut throat competition produces a generation of kids whose only definition of success is to get to the top, but can t say why it is worth getting there As a professor and a mother of a child going through the college application process right now, I wish this could all stop It is so hard to step out of the crazy making when that is the cultural norm Even some kids in the small, nonselective school where I teach have themselves tied up in knots because they think they need straight As and 3 majors in order to be hireable They are missing out on the period of exploration, growth, and self discovery that one needs to become a full adult, and are afraid to take a course that might challenge them they might not get an A or pursue any outside interests Deresiewicz gets a little ranty near the end of this book, and it is written in unremarkable prose, hence the 3 stars However, I recommend this book for anyone who is questioning the rat race our kids participate in from pre school to grad school And I agree that English majors would make the world a better place or at least help kids lead meaningful lives. Dennis slogs into my therapy office at about 5 30 in the afternoon, looking worse for the wear and tear He s a good looking 33 year old guy, nattily dressed in his bespoke suit, but his face and body sags.He sits down and says, I ve done nothing to improve my lot this week I ve had to work till two in the morning every day I haven t even been able to think about anything else Dennis makes a lot of money working for a venture capital firm, but he hates his job He s got a boss who seems to know how to invest in the right company, but doesn t know a thing about human beings He treats Dennis like crap.Dennis has been too afraid to quit, and has no idea what he d want to do if he did get out of his current position I ve never had a passion, he tells me, with sadness in his voice.Educated in expensive private schools, this was the track Dennis thought he was supposed to follow He s watched his peers travel down this same road, and though he longs for something of greater meaning, he would feel ashamed if he didn t make as much money as his friends.He tells himself that he will focus on what he wants to do with the rest of his life on the weekends, but instead, he binge drinks Sundays are spent recovering from a hangover He has random hook ups with women he quickly grows bored of He thought he d be on his way to have a family by now, and is perplexed about why that isn t happening.I get home late that night, myself, at 9 30 pm, to find my daughter, who is in sixth grade at an elite school in Westchester, New York, still doing her homework She has an incredibly good attitude about this, considering she has been working for three hours I tell her she s done enough, and it is time to get some rest Her eyes brim with tears She says, If I don t finish my homework, my teacher will get mad at me She finishes up in the next fifteen minutes, and begs to be able to watch some TV on her computer before she has to go to sleep, in order to get up at 6 30 in the morning, to get ready to go to school and take a math test For the first time, she is saying that she hates school She complains of backaches and headaches.I m all about standards of excellence I hold a deep ethic about discipline and the value of hard work Compared to the limitations of public schools, with inconsistent quality of instruction, unpredictable budgets, and teaching to the test, I know my daughter is very lucky to be in the school that she currently attends But I feel afraid.I ve got lots of people in my New York psychotherapy practice like Dennis I m certain that the people who run my children s school, and educators in general, want the best outcomes for the kids, and think hard how to achieve these aims However, is there something we are all missing Are we thinking hard enough about the kinds of people we are creating by the way we are educating our children I ve railed about this issue to the many clients in my practice who suffer from Dennis s syndrome, but I have felt like a voice crying alone in the wilderness until I read Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz This the most important book I have read in many years.Deresiewicz s book is a passionate indictment of our culture at large, and most pointedly at the pinnacle of our educational system, the Ivy League schools, which are supposed to represent the ideal of achievement in our culture When he describes the kinds of people our top educational system creates, he is talking precisely about guys like Dennis Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they re doing but with no idea of why they are doing it And Look beneath the fa ade of seamless well adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation Mr Deresiewicz believes that the system is actually working in the way it is meant to it is creating a class of people who are than willing to sacrifice their lives and individuality for their corporate overlords, who are excellent at doing the soul numbing tasks required to make their bosses obscene amounts of money, and whose form of American servitude includes a very nice bonus at the end of the year What Wall Street has figured out, as Ezra Klein has put it, is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next Mr Deresiewicz asserts that though this system produces an endless stream of chattel to fatten the pockets of their Wall Street bosses, it is not only bad for the health of the individual victim, but ultimately, as the history of the last six years has borne out, bad for the economy as well That is, at least as far as the bottom 99% is concerned.Then, there is a good chance that the highest achievers become the masters of the universe It is no mystery that the financial crisis was caused in no small measure by the amoral machinations of the financiers at the top In an educational system that rewards the cleverest manipulator but does little to forge goodness and character, is it any wonder that the results would be, in the end, for the greatest number, ruinous Mr Deresiewicz s solution is a good one, but it does seem quaint in our technocratic age humanism He believes that the best college education is a liberal arts one The humanistic purpose and method of education is the realization of what is best in the individual, through a deep penetration of the greatest works that culture has wrought.This educational approach has a thread that extends from Confucius in ancient China, where studying the ancient texts of the wise was the source of the greatest pleasure to the German idea of bildung, which asserts that the purpose of education is a self cultivation that leads to the optimal development of the whole person leading to the greatest contribution to society as a whole to the American ideal of the educated citizen, which is the foundation upon which true democracy is built The fact that Mr Deresiewicz s solution would seem so radically pass is a measure of how far we have fallen away from the humanistic ideals that gave birth to our American civilization.Mr Deresiewicz is a passionate writer and his strong point of view makes his book especially engaging Of course, it is always fun to read a good argument made for a point one agrees with I don t want to quibble on the grounds of political correctness, but if I had any argument with his polemic it is that he does not spend enough time pointing to the long history of humanism, and how it popped up in lots of cultures other than European ones.The rest of Mr Deresiewicz s book is a wonderful, encouraging, inspiring rant directed at the young seeker who is about to embark on a higher education This is a book that I will give to my children to read at the right moment Young folks of a certain age live for ideals What our society needs of is that group of young idealists to let us know how we have mucked the whole thing up and who demand a better answer And the best we oldsters can do is give them the means and encouragement to do that This part of the book does just that.The ideal that Deresiewicz offers is to use college, not to get the best entry level position, but to figure out who you are, what you believe in, what matters to you, and how to live your very own unique, extraordinary life.Sure, one could make the argument that there are bigger problems than the ennui of the privileged classes, and the solution of taking four years to read the great works to figure out who you are is a solution that only the affluent can afford.As far as the former is concerned, all too often, though the material needs of well off children are met, their emotional suffering knows no class distinction Witness the young woman I worked with who was forced her whole life to sacrifice her desires, was relentlessly pressured into becoming a lawyer working eighty hours a week, and hated her life so much that she jumped out of a window.Also, this is a problem that ultimately impacts everyone The folks who go to fancy schools tend to end up running everything, and when you ve got a bunch of unfeeling robots with stunted souls at the top who only care about the benjamins, and little understanding and concern for the greater whole, things tend to go a bit awry Witness income inequality, for example, or the machinations of folks like the Koch brothers who want to make sure that climate change plunges the planet into destruction.As far as the question of the solution being as elite as the problem is concerned, Deresiewicz points out that the availability of college to the few is something wrong with our culture, not with the dream Everyone should be given a chance to go to college and learn how to be a meaningful contributor to society by being their best selves.Given the state of our politics, realizing this ideal of a universal liberal arts higher education may all seem a little too way out of reach Maybe the forces that want to maintain the status quo are too powerful to be changed But my guiding principle as a psychotherapist, naive though it may be, is to do what I can as an individual to buck the tide For me, I do my little bit to change the world by helping one person at a time become true to themselves.As far as changing things is concerned, I ll start with my own kids I ll do everything I can, though it may make life in my house a little noisier, to teach my kids how to think for themselves, and to do so effectively I ll support them in developing their power to articulate their viewpoints I ll give them permission to use that power And I ll encourage them to feel, so they can be passionate in pursuing the good and the true, as they have come to understand it My goal is to give them the means to figure out well how they want to live their own lives, and give them my blessing in pursuing it.Along with that, I ll take on the responsibility of questioning the system that is charged with shaping who our children become, to make sure that our schools are prioritizing the cultivation of good, happy, people, and not simply creating competent money earners.And I ll recommend this book to any kid who is about to enter the arena of life, and wants some guidance for this great journey.And for all you parents out there Wanna know what you can do Start by reading this book, too One day, I hope that my client Dennis will quit his job, and find his voice, and take on meaningful work that he loves, and forge a relationship with a partner he respects, and discover happiness in who he is As long as I have compatriots out there like Deresiewicz, I ll never stop fighting to make this possible for him, and for us all. A while ago I was doing some research into the Teach for movement and that meant I had to read lots and lots mostly journal articles and books on how it got set up, what it was aiming to do, what it thought good teaching meant, those sorts of things And, in terms of the last one, what it believed good teaching meant was quite simply being a leader In fact, as this book points out, a large part of the point of the Teach for movement is to put high achieving young people into the classrooms of the very poor and dispossessed so as to close the education gap which basically just means stuffing their students heads with stuff that might, just might, get them into college Not the sort of colleges that the people teaching got into but some form of college all the same One of the things that was made clear was that the Teach For movement essentially think that everything that happened in education up until the start of their movement itself was basically a mistake Most education reformers are revolutionaries in this sense they generally have never had any connection with teaching anyone anything, they have only ever been on the receiving end of the education process, but they know they really know exactly what is wrong with the 100 million or so teachers in the world and they absolutely know how to fix them Similarly, I ve driven on bridges a lot in my life, and so I guess I should be able to design a perfect bridge by now how hard can it be For Teach for, teaching is leadership That s it So, no point defining a teacher you need, instead to define a leader And this is the beauty of the whole game a leader is a leader is a leader if you can be a leader in one situation, you can be a leader in any A leader sets big goals A leader gets their subordinates to be inspired by those big goals A leader breaks those goals down into bit sized chunks And a leader measures how fast and how well chewed those chunks end up being by their subordinates It hardly matters if you are running a classroom or running a bank it s all the same, it s leadership And so, for the types of people who have just finished Uni and are looking for a 2 year giving back experience that will also sharpen their Resume well, how could you go past Teach for Some of the literature I read from within the Teach for movement referred to books that discussed leadership so, I figured I should read those too It was a bit of a harrowing experience for me Too often I felt a bit like I had joined a cult And I certainly didn t feel like I was learning anything from these books Then, recently, someone spotted some of the reviews I had written at this time and suggested two leadership books I might find interesting this is one of those.This one also discusses Teach for America and in terms that are hardly complimentary than I ve been here His criticism is that the elite students encouraged into TFA are brought there by the desire to be saviours, and that maybe what the poor kids they are teaching need isn t saviours at all In fact, TFA is teaching these young people to be leaders and therefore the ruling class and maybe, again, that isn t really what they need to be taught, but rather, perhaps instead, some humility and humanity might be appropriate A lot of this will tell you things that are fundamentally wrong with the elite colleges in the US and why, even it you are from the ruling class, sending your kids to such schools might not be the best idea for them The bottom line being that such colleges the Ivy League in the US, for instance are basically cookie cutters and while it is great that they produce young people who will go on to make lots and lots of money maybe those young people may have been better off following their dreams.Oh, I m so conflicted with this stuff You see, I basically did what he is proposing these young people ought to do I studied philosophy and literature in my undergraduate degree, hardly the most utilitarian of subjects, I got a masters in teaching and never taught, and now I ve a doctorate in education and am not totally sure that that even means although, it has only been a couple of years, so maybe the penny is about to drop and all will be revealed I doubt it somehow I should have been nodding knowingly and saying, yep, your dreams, they are there to be followed, off you go, as I read this Except, he also talks a lot about vocations callings what Aristotle referred to as Arete something like the perfect thing that makes you what is the real you, your very own personal excellence And my problem is that I don t believe in that at all I think people spend far too long looking for what it is that they are meant to be and really, you don t ever want to become someone how is one thing Don t get me wrong I love going to the symphony orchestra and watching people play instruments like they have been born holding them in their hands all their lives but I would never want to be one of those people Years ago, when I was studying philosophy, one of my lecturers said of Marx that he had this very strange idea of what his utopia would look like Marx had said you could be a fisherman in the morning, a butcher later in the day, and a poet in the afternoon, and a philosopher after dinner It doesn t sound terribly practical, was the summary my philosophy lecturer ended on, somewhat oddly, when you think of philosophy in general I remember smiling at how stupid Marx was at the time But since then I ve really come around to Marx s side on this Let me be lots of things, without ever being any one of those things entirely That does sound like a kind of utopian paradise to me And so, the overly long chapter in the middle of this book which, as I was reading, I kept thinking, we must be closer to the end than I imagined where the author does the whole you can be who you truly ought to be left me much cold than I think he might have expected it to.All the same, the problems discussed here in relation to research universities, the quality of teaching you receive in them, the fact everyone you are studying with will want to become an economist or gain an MBA oh god, kill me now All of that does fill me with despair and certainly does need to be said This is a book directed at the elite by someone from the elite The individualisation of all problems tends to be my major problem with such books but even so, this book does pose some problems that we ought to be thinking about as we move further and further into a post work world. First things first, I must declare a massive bias here because I come from a most distinguished flock of excellent sheep Eat your heart out Amy Chua, my mom and dad George and Effie Tolis of Athens, Greece clocked 15.5 years of Harvard tuition between their three offspring My brother additionally spent 6 years at a lesser institution in New Haven, but has meantime somewhat redeemed himself he teaches at Harvard these days You have been warned, I am writing with considerable bias On the other hand, I believe I am at least as excellent a sheep as the author and thus reasonably qualified to comment.Second, I must declare that I disagree with a whole lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say, but quite perversely I totally loved the book nonetheless The last book that made me think as hard about my system of beliefs was The Worldly Philosophers by Heilbronner This book was truly cathartic for me to read It made me look inside my soul, it made me think about my own children s education, about meritocracy in education and about meritocracy in the world in general.The book has three very distinct parts that are spread over four chapters It s three books, really, but with a common theme running through them.From my angle, the most impressive was Part III, but I should probably first go over Part I.Part I is about the psychological travails of the excellent sheep The author describes the horrible ordeal students go through in order to secure for themselves a place at the elite institutions of the Ivy League, MIT and Stanford, the hoops they must jump through, the youth they never have, the true learning that never takes place, the whole pantomime we all had to endure Apparently it s all gotten a lot worse recently If the author is right it no longer starts during your Sopho year in high school, these days you need to have it all planned out straight out of nursery Four fake activities no longer suffice, you need ten One wrong step and you re out Apparently a good 15% of all kids in America are part of this rigmarole and the psychological effects are devastating Studies and statistics quoted in the book leave no doubt the author must be right But I don t see it that way To me it sounds like1 the 85% who don t play this game are not affected so we re only talking about the kids of the pushy parents who to some extent get what they deserve the parents, I mean 2 the schools in question have thousands and thousands of spots, so everybody ends up somewhere good and everybody can rationalise ex post how he ended up where he should have gone Stanford had been my first choice, but my dad refused to pay for me to have fun in California, so I speak from experience 3 the kind of person who gets in, the kind of person who can ace tests for that is the only indispensable skill , is possessed of exactly ZERO self doubt I m pretty full of crap now, at age 47, but when I was 19 I genuinely thought I was God s gift to any school that would be lucky enough for me to deign to apply to No, really I only applied to Harvard because Stanford did not offer early admission, that is the sole reason I bothered to apply to two schools I think I m much typical than the self mutilating students described by the author He dedicates far too much time to the less excellent sheep who are not as full of themselves as I was and still am Well, yes, if a kid does not think nay, know success is assured, this could potentially be a harrowing experience.4 don t believe the kids who say they got anorexic took up drugs cut themselves up because of the pressure of applying to college Again from experience I can say that stuff is all about who s boss clearly me, not my mom, I can do as I please with my body and will carry on doing so until she drops the subject and it happens WAY before college appears on the horizon, though it probably does happen to the same kids, because they rebel against defy the same pushy parents who later in life want to send them to the Ivy League MIT Stanford Summary of my point Deresiewicz has the causality wrong The relationship with the parents and the weight of the parents expectations is the place to go looking for the problems he describes, not the life the kids need to lead in order to ace the college application The kids who suffer would suffer the exact same breakdowns if they went to Disneyland with their mom and dad Acing tests and pretending to be interested in model UN is, if anything, an escape for people who can do the work Math and science, in particular, come naturally to those who do well in those subjects My sister aced GCA A Level Math the UK equivalent of AP Math when she was 14 and her primary motivation was to prove the point that she was as good as her older brothers it had nothing to do with her college application 4 years later and it did not cause her any grief whatsoever She probably thought highly of her tutor and wanted to impress him, but there s nothing wrong with that and it s not the situation the author is describing.The bit I KNOW the author nailed is to do with the psychology surrounding the motivations of the excellent sheep He describes my personal motivations of 25 years ago fully and makes a point I had never realised about myself until I read the book as well as another important point that I had already figured out Excellent sheep, according to Deresiewicz, are motivated by exactly two things 1 They need to be doing whatever is the hardest Check My Freshman week in college we were presented with a choice of three flavors of Sopho year naturally calculus In order of difficulty it was Math 21, Math 22 and Math 25 There was a test to be taken I aced it of course and without even examining the syllabus I selected Math 25, by far the least appropriate class for me hello Peano axioms, delta epsilon proofs, sundry modes of convergence but the one advertised as hellish in the Confidential Guide My first day there this kid walked up to the teacher at the beginning of class and said I actually placed into Math 22, but I was told that with your permission I could still take Math 25 I m very good at Math, I just forgot how to integrate in the placement test There is no moral about hubris and fall to this story the kid was absolutely right, his name is Chris Woodward, he s a natural and he was a tenured Math professor at Rutgers within 10 years of this incident I, on the other hand, suffered the indignity of my first ever B because I m not a genius, I was quite simply exquisitely well prepared thanks mom and dad 2 Excellent sheep are the the best and the brightest and the world is their oyster and they attach maximum importance to keeping things that way, to making triple sure all options remain open Excellent Sheep don t only join Goldman Sachs or McKinsey consulting because it s the toughest option for those who don t go to Law School or Med School The true appeal is that these choices don t shut any doors You could leave Goldman or McKinsey and go run the Ford Motor Company or the US Treasury or go teach yoga and that s what it s all about I must confess that here the author has me TOTALLY FIGURED OUT and I never even knew it I left it till two weeks before graduation to decide if my degree would say Applied Mathematics or Engineering Sciences or Economics on it When I got off the fence from having to decide between my offer from Salomon Brothers the hot ticket in the spring of 91 following the publication of Liars Poker the summer of 90 and the choice I went for and my offer to study Applied Mechanics at Stanford, I decided Applied Mathematics would look best Had I gone to Stanford to do Applied Mechanics I would have chosen Economics because that would have looked oh so diverse Ah, and I lied I did not turn down Stanford I asked them to wait a year for me to attend And then another year I was a total ass and I did not even know it, basically Thank you William Deresiewicz for imparting this bit of self knowledge on me I spent that crucial part of my life doing my utmost to keep options open, rather than delving into something I loved, or at least looking for something I loved.With your permission I ll move from Part I straight to Part III and get to Part II last.Part III of the book discusses the place of meritocracy in our society, our civilization and our democracy It s heady stuff and comfortably the best part of the book, much as it is also the least resolved part of the book.The three parts of the book are not separate, and the main idea is planted as early as page 119 of 242 where the author gives his working definition of what it means for a society to be civilized it s a society where it s a legitimate option to be poor.I d happily read a book five times as long and ten times as wrong if I knew it would contain such a total gem Maybe I don t read enough, or maybe I m reading the wrong books, but I cannot fathom of elegant a definition The full text reads as follows We re still a very wealthy country by any reasonable standard, which means that you ve been presented with a rare and remarkable chance, one that s far precious than the opportunity to be rich the opportunity not to be To find your purpose and embrace your vocation, and still to live a decent life BANG That hit me so hard.The author fears that we are in the midst of a massive move in the opposite direction, heading quickly toward a dystopia where we will be governed by an aristocracy formed at Harvard, Yale and Princeton While as recently as 1985 only 46% of the students at the 250 most selective universities came from the top quarter of the income distribution, by 2006 we were looking at 67% and the main reason is not that college has been getting progressively expensive it has, of course but that it the cost of rearing excellent sheep, the tutors, music lessons, private school tuition, fake activities, Stanley Kaplan etc has been building a moat around the offspring of the ruling class.Meanwhile, the colleges don t endeavor, according to the author, to teach as much as they aspire to act as finishing schools for the new members of the gilded class When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills those luxuries as instruction in how to be broad minded and cultured The truth is that they are, than anything else, instruction in how to be wealthy he quotes a student as saying.A lot of the damage is already done Pages 226 to 230 are in my opinion REQUIRED READING FOR ALL AMERICAN CITIZENS and I do not jest In these short 5 pages the author tears into every single recent US President and most presidential candidates Here s a quote If Romney seems like an out of touch elite, consider the two Democratic nominees who preceded our current president, Al Gore and John Kerry one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly unable to communicate with the larger electorate In fact, consider our current president a graduate of Honolulu s prestigious Punahou School as well as of Columbia and Harvard Law who despite his race, his oratorical skills, and his years as a community organizer, is equally incapable of making an emotional connection with the people he calls folks The point is made that both Bushes, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama and Romney all attended Harvard or Yale, leading to the main thesis that we have abdicated government to mandarins who know how to gather credentials but know zero about the real world because they have only ever operated outside it, in the bubble defined by our only nominally meritocratic system Speaking about Obama again, Deresciewicz homes in for the main message of this book He also couldn t understand why people might object to some of his appointments figures like Timothy Geithner or Larry Summers, both of whom were central to creating the conditions that led to the financial crisis They re the best after all whom else would you choose to run the economy Obama s arrogance and that of his advisors, as ill concealed as it has proved to be unearned, is that of the double 800 crowd It s as if he can t believe that anybody might reject those commonsense solutions once he has explained them carefully enough as if he has no conception of competing values, interests, or perspectives, no idea that society is than just equations With his racial identity and relatively humble background, his election has been called the triumph of meritocracy The sad thing is that that s exactly what it was Even harsher criticism is justly in my view reserved for Bill Clinton, the ultimate dog that caught the car He does not want to finish the book on a bad note, quoting E Digby Baltzell who once wrote History is a graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privilege to leadership and proposes that the way out of our predicament is to invest heavily in our state school system, thereby ensuring that privilege cannot be handed down The argument is left incomplete, I actually think the author is merely observing the manifestation of our current political impasse in the space called Education rather than examining the root cause of today s ills But there can be no doubt that one of the reasons America is great is it twice in its history got ahead of all other nations in terms of imposing good, free education and it would be a fantastic idea if we had a third go now.Amazingly, Obama just announced a plan to offer free community college to all Americans, possibly heralding the third such revolution.But he would not find Deresiewicz in agreement, I don t think Not on the evidence of Part II of the book, at any rate.Part II of the book can be summarised as don t go to Harvard Get a liberal arts education instead The argument is built around two axes 1 This is your chance to discover who you are College is your time to be selfish, ask yourself the big questions, figure out for yourself what all the big thinkers have said that is relevant to you today If you go pursuing some kind of vocational education you will be throwing out the window your one chance to explore the accumulated knowledge of all previous generations, which is distilled in the good books and in literature in particular Go ahead, ditch the pre med curriculum, get your hands on the good books, become an English major You ll find out that not only will you land that coveted Goldman job law school spot med school spot regardless, you will actually perform better than your peers because your four year search for your soul will have equipped you better The author, of course says this much better than I ever could 2 Don t go pursuing this liberal arts education at some place that could not give a damn about teaching, go to a proper liberal arts college that will offer you attention, seminars, the appropriate size of class and other students might not be of the same calibre of your potential Harvard classmates, but they won t be robots, they will think like you do The teachers will be just as good as they are at Harvard because there s a massive glut of amazingly well educated PhDs out there and the small liberal arts college will actually force them to teach Their peers at Harvard will actually be on the publish or perish treadmill and will have zero incentive to meet you, assuming you overcome the competition of the other fivehundred of your classmates in the lecture hall and manage to get to them somehow The argument is very weak It s so impossibly weak I really don t know where to start, but here s my rebuttal 1 First let s get the easiest bit out of the way Suppose you want to go to med school or law school and suppose you re sitting on a Harvard undergrad admission You re sitting on gold This is probably your only chance to get into med school or law school without straight A s If you get a B average from Harvard which, as the author alleges is not that difficult and ace your MCATs or LSATs, that s it You re in Not so if you get a B average at a good liberal arts college You re out And here comes the best bit You can use the spare time afforded by the luxury of only aiming for the B average to shop all the English seminars, philosophy classes etc you ever hoped to attend And they will be taught by the same Helen Vendlers the author adulates And you can even play spot the guy on the treadmill with your enlightened friends My roommate Pete did exactly what I m describing He got a C in orgo, OK He took a class about Beethoven and dared to disagree with his teacher s main thesis in his final paper, earning himself an undeserved B Because he could He had a ball One night his Columbia girlfriend sent us her math for poets homework and we sat around and worked it all out from first principles and sent it back to her We most certainly did not do our work that night, we did hers And one day he woke up, took the train to Salem because he d left it till the last minute to apply , sat the MCAT cold, aced it and a few months later matriculated at Columbia Med He s now a prominent anaesthesiologist With a C in orgo HOW ABOUT THAT If you are the type who can ace the MCAT cold you probably aced the SAT too, you might be sitting on a Harvard admission and if you re considering grad school you ve got to tick that I accept box, beg borrow or steal the tuition and go to Harvard Case closed Four years of liberal arts await you, if that is your wish.2 Second, suppose you are a genuine genius Not a bloody minded hard worker with the right set of parents like I was, but a proper genius You can go become the star student somewhere else, or you can measure yourself against your true peers at Harvard So I was there from 87 to 91 The Putnam exam is the big deal among math competitions between college students, look it up Wikipedia will show you Harvard won it all 4 years I was there From tens of colleges that compete and thousands that are eligible What Wikipedia won t tell you is that none of those four years did we win it with our first team We won it with the second, third or fourth team we fielded And that is because a good 70% of the US Math Olympic team my year and presumably the ones above and below matriculated in my class, with the remaining 30% spread across America Unless I knew which exact field of Math I was looking to study and that the best faculty for that field was at a particular other college, I d need some serious convincing to go study Math somewhere else THAT S JUST ONE EXAMPLE Bottom line, if you are a genius, you would do yourself a disservice to forego the opportunity to hang out with your true peers for the sake of going to pursue some liberal arts discovery wild goose hunt Go to the proper school and take a year off to study the good books Or three Nobody will care.3 Third, suppose you want to go to college as a preamble to entering American business or politics You genuinely cannot pass on the opportunity to make the connections you will make at an Ivy League college They ACTIVELY RECRUIT the scions of the richest and most influential families on earth The grill in my house was operated by the son of the CEO of Goldman OOPS, I M ON THE DREADED WORDCOUNT REST OF REVIEW ON As I ve said in other reviews, every time I read a book about higher education, it stirs my emotions up to such an extent that I cannot help but write an intensely personal review You ve been warned Here goes.If you were raised in a middle class American family, then quite likely, the main goal not just of your education but of your entire childhood was to get into a good college As the book so brilliantly puts it, We re not teaching to the test we re living to it A kid who gets into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stamford earns his parents an A in child rearing And even if your parents didn t feel that way, as mine didn t, if you were placed in a gifted class through elementary and high school, your very identity was tied up in your academic success You had teachers to charm and were surrounded by competitive peers Getting accepted into the Ivy League meant the ultimate validation Aside from this high pressure, hoop jumping mentality, the author has another beef how cynical Western education has become It s not just that the majority of students are choosing career oriented majors it s that the Big Questions of Life that the humanities are meant to address are given mere lip service Anyone who actually takes these questions seriously is considered a joke I know that only too well because I was that joke In high school, I was like Luna Lovegood, socially clueless and professing beliefs in things all my peers knew were ridiculous, namely Marxism and astrology Yet I was sorted into Ravenclaw the gifted track, so I was academically inclined As the author would put it, I was a fool with a high IQ Perhaps not much has changed.I was rejected from Vassar, so I chose state university instead, a so called public ivy I knew from the first week that it was a terrible fit, but when I called home crying, my mother told me to stick it out When I failed out two and a half years later, I was a spaced out pothead having a nervous breakdown with religious overtones, eerily similar to Franny of Franny and Zooey. Someday, I may write a memoir about it Perhaps, like the article that gave birth to this book, it may even go viral I can t be the only person whose college dream turned into a nightmare.It s no exaggeration to say that I ve carried around the weight of my college failure for my entire life It s not just the academic failure it s the guilt for wasting my parents money and the shame of having dabbled in paths and relationships that are absolutely forbidden by the Torah But this book has made me look at things differently College, Prof Deresiewicz argues, is really about building your soul, but as he says in another brilliant line It s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is selling theirs When I left college, my soul was in shatters I sought to heal it in Torah Judaism Most secularists consider religion the ultimate sheepiness, but Prof Deresiewicz observes that his religious students are often better adjusted than all the other excellent sheep who ve been made neurotic by over testing and competition So perhaps I, who failed out of college in spiritual crisis, might have done things right after all I took the Big Questions to heart.My very favorite part of the book is when Prof Deresiewicz discusses Dorothea from Middlemarch. He s an English professor, so the book has quite a few literary references, but Dorothea gets the most attention or perhaps, as a George Eliot fan, she just naturally draws mine In trying to live by the highest ideals, Dorothea chooses Casaubon It s a tragic mistake, and she pays dearly for it, but when she gets her second chance, she doesn t sell out She still chooses idealism over materialism, and because she s older and wiser, her choice gives her a happily ever after Dorothea, argues Prof Deresiewicz, is an object lesson for college students We have to live according to our ideals, fall flat on our faces, and rise back up again Students who take time off in the middle of college, he says, are usually mature, dedicated to their studies, and willing to ignore all the social B.S when they return That, too, is the way things went for me But even though so much of this book rang true to my experience, I didn t agree with everything the author had to say His biggest inconsistency was ragging on Teach for America as a form of academic slumming In another part of the book, he makes a call for improving conditions for teachers so that talented students will be attracted away from the well worn career paths of finance and law If some excellent sheep decide to share the benefits of their elite education, wouldn t that make a start on correcting the educational inequality he decries so strongly throughout the book It s like he s trying to inspire future teachers on one hand and then smacking them for their arrogance with the other A minor point I disagree with is his disparagement of technocrats, as though there s something wrong with problem solving He says that a focus on problem solving is treating the world as though it were a giant math test Now, it may well be that the technocratic mindset is what formed our test centered school system, but I prefer when politicians say, This election is about solving problems, to, This election is about values Give me a technocrat over an ideologue any day Finally, there s the issue of return on investment in college education He understands that people think about this and as the cost of higher ed rises He quoted one of his students, who, in planning her schedule chose a career oriented course for my parents, and a humanities course for me Prof D argues that since college is all about you becoming you, all your courses should be about you I see his point, but I ve got my own variation I plan to use it with my own kids One major for love one major for money Heck, if it comes to that, major for money, and minor for love People have to be practical, says the Bachelor in Philosophy who earns her living as a secretary I was trained to read, reflect, and write in college It remains my favorite activity, which is why I m so active here on Goodreads But as much as I wish someone would pay me to write what I think, nobody does Reading, writing, and reflecting have enriched my life in all the ways a college education is supposed to But a little less idealism and a lot practicality would have done me good. Absolutely one of the best books I ve ever read about higher education, but so much than just that This is a dangerous little book, it really exposes some dirty secrets of the hidden American class caste system This is something you almost never see talked or written about, an expose of how the game is and always has been rigged to perpetuate wealth, American dream be damned There s an element of dark humor and satire here which I loved, he s been hurt and is willing to air a lot of dirty laundry in this book as a privileged, but ultimately alienated insider This is a great book for any college student and their parents to understand the real nature of academia, this was a very, very useful book in terms of career discernment and really picking the best school and major for yourself He flat out tells you, the schools are NOT on your side and I can say having obtained two degrees and worked within higher education for over a decade, he s right on the money Most of them don t care about students or learning at all, crazy to say, but anybody who has worked there and still has their soul can confirm what I say This book is important too because it savages what passes for leadership in this country and how it has derailed our country Yes, the rot flows from the very top in all areas be it politics, sports, medicine, education, business, religion, media, you name it This author nails it, wasn t expecting that all This is a wake up call for our country to reclaims its soul, we ve lost it, the switch began a long, long time ago when leadership became associated with personality instead of character We ve been sold a false bill of goods, the good character of Americans has been attacked and destroyed and replaced by these self serving, conformist, technocratic clones Our leaders do NOT deserve our respect or cooperation any Can t say enough good things about this book, finally someone else gets it