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Amazon synopsis: “As a professor at Yale, William 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. Now he argues that elite colleges are turning out conformists without a compass.
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, students are losing the ability to think independently. It is essential, says Deresiewicz, that college be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success in order to forge their own paths. He features quotes from real students and graduates he has corresponded with over the years, candidly exposing where the system is broken and offering clear solutions on how to fix it.”
Length and medium: 245 pages, hard copy
Published by and date: Free Press (division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.) on August 2014
Let me start by saying I thought I was solely a fiction person. I love getting swept off into a different life or a different world and getting to experience something through someone else’s lens. There’s nothing like rejoicing when your two favorite FICTIONAL people finally get together, whether in a book or movie or tv show. Or the pure sadness you feel when a character dies. I can’t express in words how strangely comfortable I am with feeling for fictional characters.
With that said, this book has me rethinking my ban on the nonfiction genre. A mentor suggested I read it and even let me borrow his copy. The premise sounded interesting enough. I basically got hooked by the idea of undergraduates being in such a rush to become successful adults that they never find time to discover themselves, what truly makes them happy.
Personally, I agreed with so many points made throughout the book. The first part describes how students feel. Most recognizing their brilliance but not understanding why they keep themselves so busy. Constantly running from class to club meetings to internships only to make themselves look more interesting. Most of the things these students participated in were merely to place on their resume. There was no desire to learn for the sake of learning.
This struck a chord with me, especially now that I’ve graduated and I’m looking around wondering why I even went to college. I did sports, joined clubs, and took as many AP classes as possible in high school only to drop most of those interests once I got to college.
I thought college was a time to reinvent myself and truly learn who I was but I was a chemistry major at UCSB (for those unaware, this is one of the major research universities in California with a large emphasis on science and engineering). There was no time for the things I was really interested in. To be honest, I only chose chemistry because it was the one thing I was decent at in high school that I saw some real money in.
I joined a sport right away because I was accustomed to team sports. Between a sport that required all my free time and my major that had an insane amount of homework, I only had time to hang out with my roommates because they lived with me.
The second part of the book focuses on what a college education should be and the importance of finding the self. He shares that students need to learn to think for themselves, not to regurgitate the same stances and beliefs they’ve heard over the years.
This is something I felt was taken from me as a chemistry major. I didn’t like the emphasis on memorization. I wanted to be challenged to think and have the time to do so but that never seemed to be the case. It felt like I was being groomed to be a robot in a lab, not a well-rounded person capable of thinking for myself.
It wasn’t until I took a few quarters off and returned as an Anthropology major that I started to find the kind of classes that really challenged me to think about things in a different way. So many essay prompts were open-ended and I had no idea how to approach them.
I once got a D on an essay because I was so swept up in trying to give the teacher what I thought he wanted, I hadn’t really thought about what I got from the movies (it was an African cinema class).
The third part shares how schools are forced to play this game. Schools are expected to keep donors happy and coddle students into becoming new donors, encouraging them to become bankers or lawyers to ensure maximum return on their investment. These high ranking schools are focused on funding but the value of the education taught continues to decline as the competition to acceptance gets harder.
In my own undergraduate experience, I never saw my chemistry teachers outside of class. The first day of class they make sure you know your TA and go to them first with any questions. Once I switched to Anthropology, I still had teachers that were focused on their own research (as is the case at a research institution), but I had a lot of teachers that made time. They had their office hours and answered emails. They even offered to meet with students that couldn’t make it to office hours.
The final part of the book takes a broader look at how this educational system has affected society and questions where do we go from here. The entire book outlines a problem and its history, only to discuss how we can better navigate our future. Education is a valuable and important part in reshaping our society.
He explains the gap between upper and middle class widening as our society elites become more and more engrossed in their own world that they forget how to connect with people of a lower social status. It’s like when a coworker complains about the same things you do day in and day out but once they get a promotion they don’t even bother changing anything. They become out of touch with your ailments and therefore, don’t concern themselves with it.
And we have an entire upper class behaving this way! Making decisions for us that they can spin as helpful but really benefits us in no tangible way. This calls for an overhaul of our current system and Deresiewicz offers a unique solution.
I, one hundred percent, recommend this book to anyone who feels like they rushed through college and are now on the other side of that finish line wondering what else is there. I’d also recommend it for anyone interested in becoming a university teacher to remind them to always push their students to really think and not just give the crowd-pleasing answer.
If you’ve read this book or are interested in discussing your thoughts on the higher education system, comment below.