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Bar News - July 19, 2017

Book Review: Excellent Sheep a ‘Rollercoaster Ride’ of Insight Into Elite Education


Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
By William Deresiewicz
Simon & Schuster, 2014, Hardcover
Free Press, 2015, paperback, 246 pages

If your kids are thinking of applying to an elite college or university, you should read this book. Even if your kids aren’t applying to elite schools, you should still read this book, especially if you remember what your SAT scores were, or which schools rejected you, or the subject of your application essay.

You should also read this book if you are concerned about students who are sidelined by our elite schools. Excellent Sheep is on your side. It means to burn down the academic establishment. As The Cornell Daily Sun put it, the author’s “harrowing characterization of the modern elite student as ‘anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose’ is not that far from the truth.” Inside Higher Ed was more succinct: “Something is seriously messed up.”

The book is a rollercoaster ride. One page shines with insight and the next page makes you crazy. First published in 2014, the book prompted a lot of comment. It describes the inequalities and skewed values of many elite schools and what that has done to our educational system. “It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Bloomington or Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.”

How does the author fit all this together? He starts by describing “the sheep.” His conclusion? “[T]oday’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared.” He next describes the self-preoccupation that drives too many of our best students to major in finance and economics for personal gain. They should be studying liberal arts, the author says, because the liberal arts are about what matters in life. And what matters is not personal gain. That road leads nowhere.

The author then turns to the schools themselves, which are a closed, self-perpetuating fraternity. “One study found that a hundred high schools – about 0.3 percent of the nationwide total – account for 22 percent of students at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Of those hundred [high schools] all but six are private.” That sounds right to me. One of my Dartmouth classmates graduated last in his prep school class, something that would never have worked for a public school kid like me. But even Dartmouth fares poorly. The most prestigious law firms, investment banks, and consultancies consider schools like MIT, Columbia, and Dartmouth “second-rate,” notes the author.

Do our elite students understand what’s happening here? No, says the author, elite students of today don’t think for themselves. They just work well within the system. Take a recent Supreme Court appointee as an example. As the author sees it, Elena Kagan “made it all the way to the Supreme Court without depositing a paper trail.” Too many others are like Justice Kagan, “resume jockeys devoid of discernible passion carefully maneuvering their way to the top.” As I said, one page shines with insight and the next page makes you crazy.

If schools and students aren’t going to fix the problem, who is? Here the author lands on unexpected turf. He nails the 2016 presidential election. That’s quite a feat for an author writing two years before the election on another topic.

Obama, says the author, got it wrong about the 2008 financial crisis. He appointed Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. Obama did not understand why they were poorly received. In fact, “both... 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.” Excellent sheep, not true leaders.

And why is this so? This, says the author, “is the inevitable outcome of the elite’s attempt to privilege their children to the detriment of everybody else.” Or, in terms that sound like Donald Trump, “we also all know, in our heart of hearts, that social mobility is a zero-sum game.” The author’s authority for this? He points to E. Digby Baltzell’s classic The Protestant Establishment; “History is a graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privilege to leadership.”

What could work? “For kids to have an equal chance in college, they need to get an equal chance before they get there.” Are kids going to get that equal chance? That question should resonate in New Hampshire, which ranks near the bottom in state spending on both K-12 schools and higher education, and has the highest public tuition for higher education among the 50 states.

Nationally, the author notes, “it’s not that the system is unsustainable, it’s that we’re not sustaining it.” In fact, “we decided that we didn’t want to have to pay for it anymore. Instead of taxes, we have student loans.” And my favorite: “If you want to see who is to blame for student debt, just look in the mirror.”

Read this book. After a day of lawyering, go home, kick off your shoes, mix a drink and read a chapter before dinner. You will amaze your spouse and your children with your knowledge of topics such as gap years, admission to Harvard, and reasons not to major in business. And you’ll have a lot to think about, too.

James Allmendinger

Jim Allmendinger has practiced labor and employment law since 1977, mostly representing unions and employees. He currently works out of the Law Offices of James F. Allmendinger in Durham, NH.

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