In the first installment of this blog series, I examined the damaging effects of achievement culture on privileged teens. Additionally, I noted problematic parenting styles – isolation and narcissism – that perpetuate anxiety and maladaptive perfectionism among ‘high-performing’ students. My piece concluded with a pointed criticism by William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and contemporary educational pundit, indicting the Ivy League for reinforcing an American obsession with achievement, especially among the affluent. In his critically acclaimed book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life, Deresiewicz argues that the Ivy acceptance letter serves as ultimate vindication for an adolescence of grade-mongering. The unintended consequence: our brightest students exit high school as skillful automatons – fabulous at tackling academic pursuits – but lacking the fortitude and self-possession to build a distinct identity and live a satisfying life.
In spite of Deresiewicz’s bleak depiction of our educational system, he also sees college as the greatest force in its redemption. Undergraduates with ‘brittle selves,’ once defined by the superficial aspirations of parents and peers, are able to reconstitute their identities with new beliefs about truth, goodness, and meaning. Unlike any other opportunity in life, Deresiewicz believes that college is the ideal space to learn to think as an individual:
[It] is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of your career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students ‘the precious chance,’ as Andrew Delbanco has put it, ‘to think and reflect before life engulfs them.’
In this post, I’d like to further explore Deresiewicz’s critique of the contemporary college experience, review the practical purposes of college from a historical perspective, and define the process of ‘self-making’, which Deresiewicz heralds as the most important activity within a university’s walls.
To understand Deresiewicz’s thesis, lets begin by reviewing the shifting aims of undergraduate education as these features evolved over time.
Moving from Caste and Character to Scores and Grades
In the early 20th century, top universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale served a very different purpose than they do today. The majority of students matriculating at ‘the Big Three’ came from wealthy, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) families hoping to move from one incubator of privilege to another. In many ways, universities functioned to maintain the status of the upper class, providing young men with the skills and social connections to lead successful lives in elite circles. In addition to achieving these political ends, college was meant to inculcate a distinct set of virtues rooted in the ideal of the ‘gentleman’ or ‘whole man.’ Being a ‘whole man’ meant things like: having a nuanced understanding of the classics, mastering the social graces of the aristocracy, showing appreciation for leisure and culture, and being a good ‘sportsman.’ Deresiewicz describes the university of the early 20th century as an institution of ‘caste and character development’ for a homogenous few.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, as the goods of social mobility and meritocracy spurred from the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, the exclusionary nature of the Ivy League came under fire. Both the American public and administrators at high-ranking universities argued that the value of college should be defined by economic advancement, particularly among underrepresented groups. Subsequently, admission practices underwent dramatic reform, offering spots to students that showed academic promise rather than those who simply came from ‘the right families and the right schools.’ Pedagogically, the ethical training of ‘whole men’ was supplanted by the cultivation of professional expertise.
Although Deresiewicz believes that career readiness and skill-building are central to a successful college experience, he asserts that their perceived importance has crowded out other essential activities: building an independent worldview, developing emotional resilience, and discovering personal talents that will point students to a successful career path. To support this claim, he provides some insightful national survey data that captures popular assumptions about the function of college:
In 1971, 73% of incoming freshmen said that it was essential or very important to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life,’ 37% to be ‘very well-off financially.’ By 2011, the numbers were almost reversed, 47% and 80%, respectively…no wonder students have come to believe that college is all about getting a job.
The Purpose of College: Building a Self
So what’s wrong with career readiness? Isn’t it ideal for a college senior to have a lucrative job prospect on the horizon?
Deresiewicz understands why job security is of principal concern to students, but he encourages a more reflective posture toward education and work in general. In Excellent Sheep, he provides a surplus of case studies, stories about downtrodden, disillusioned ‘Ivy League’ alumni who had assumed that financial success would yield unparalleled happiness in adulthood. Instead, many of these young professionals feel that they are trapped within high-paying jobs divorced from the passions that brought them fulfillment. Even worse, some of these elite alums failed to utilize college as an opportunity to identify personal interests, and consequently, never fully grew out of the credentialism – the manic quest for gold stars and perfect grades – that defined their adolescence.
In Deresiewicz’s opinion, a meaningful post-college career can only be acquired after a young adult has taken adequate time to reflect and ‘build a self.’ The ideal context for these processes is college.
The natural question arises: what exactly does ‘reflection’ in college look like? What in the world is ‘self-making?’ I’ll start by describing these activities in theoretical terms, and then I’ll use a personal anecdote to illustrate how self-making occurs in the classroom.
Plato, Doxa, and the Liberal Arts
According to Deresiewicz, when students first enter college, their identities are indistinguishable from the values espoused by their home environments. Notions of goodness, truth, and beauty are presumed to be universal, mostly because students are unaware of alternative belief systems.
The first goal of college, then, is to point out the constructed nature of our values – what Plato called doxa – and to throw light on the cultural and historical forces that engendered them. Through completing our undergraduate coursework and discussing our views with professors and peers, we determine whether or not to integrate doxa into our personal worldviews. For Deresiewicz, liberation from doxa (a ‘liberal arts education’) is necessary for the development of autonomy and authenticity – qualities necessary for success in adulthood. This process of liberation is particularly important for the ‘high-achieving, privileged’ students described in Part 1, because their self-concepts are often characterized by an obsession with academics and/or the narcissistic ambitions of their parents.
An Example of Self-Making: Re-thinking Criminality in College
To make the process of self-making more concrete, I’d like to reference my own experience at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While a Banana Slug, I had the great privilege of taking a psychology course taught by Craig Hainey, co-author of the famous ‘Stanford Prison Study.’ In Hainey’s class, students were asked to examine their private theories about the origins of criminal behavior and evil. Many of us entered the class with the belief that criminality, especially in its most heinous incarnations (i.e. serial killers like Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacey, and Jeffrey Dahmer), was the product of internal, psychological defects. Throughout the class, we reviewed the purveyors of contemporary doxa – online journalism, television news, crime dramas, film, etc – and a unifying theme emerged in their accounts of criminals: the tale of the psychopath. According to popular media, psychopaths were unfeeling, disinhibited, neurologically disordered individuals that lacked the capacity for empathy, and thus, were able to commit crimes without remorse. They were born disturbed and too far-gone to benefit from therapeutic interventions. Consequently, the best way to deal with psychopaths was to identify and incarcerate them before they hurt innocent people.
In his class, Hainey cast doubts on notions of ‘incorrigible,’ ‘throwaway’ criminals. As a group, we examined some of the most infamous psychopaths in American history and meticulously reviewed the life events that preceded their greatest transgressions. Although mental illness was clearly a factor among some of the perpetrators, we also noted a series of contextual risk factors that correlated with the committing of violent crimes. These risk factors included things like: 1) excessive travel and home instability, 2) early exposure to emotional and physical abuse, 3) poverty, 4) early exposure to drugs and alcohol, 5) absence of parents and/or adult models, 6) and social isolation.
By the time the class had culminated, many of my peers had recalibrated their original presumptions about criminality. The doxa-inspired myth of of the psychopath was replaced by a more nuanced, constructivist approach to crime and morality. Suffice it to say, the course had a transformative affect on my classmates and me, forcing many of us to redefine our beliefs in light of empirical research. I would argue that we left Hainey’s course as new people, new ‘selves.’
This is Deresiewicz’s ‘self-making’ process in-action.
You Have Built a Self. Now What?
Critics of Deresiewicz ideas usually attack their lack of practical application, particularly when it comes to translating ‘self-making’ into a job after college. In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz’s career advising is summarized in a straightforward way:
Do the thing that you can immerse yourself inside for hours at a time…There is by now a robust literature on the nature of happiness, and it converges on a pair of observations. Beyond a moderate level of material comfort, happiness consists of two things: feeling connected to others and engaging in meaningful work.
Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.
For students and parents with an anxious eye turned toward the future, Deresiewicz’s attitude toward ‘organically discovering your passions’ may sound irresponsible. What about jobs in engineering, science, and medicine that require special training prior to entry? Should a student prioritize the liberal arts and ‘self-making’ over courses that teach more specialized skills?
In the third and final installment of this series, I will review a rebuttal to Deresiewicz’s claims by Stephen Pinker, a journalist and professor of Psychology at Harvard College. Pinker goes after the fuzzier, metaphysical pieces of Excellent Sheep and defends the utility of an ‘elite’ college experience that is more squarely defined by career readiness. Here is a sneak preview of Pinker’s argument in the New Republic, which will be further elaborated in my post next month:
It’s easy to agree with him that ‘the first thing that college is for is to teach you to think,’ but much harder to figure out what that means…The skills necessary for success in the professions include organizing one’s thoughts so that they may be communicated clearly to others, breaking a complex problem into its components, applying general principles to specific cases, discerning cause and effect, and negotiating tradeoffs between competing values. In what rarefied ivory chateau do these skills not count as ‘thinking?’ In its place Deresiewicz says only that learning to think consists of ‘contemplating things from a distance,’ with no hint as to what that contemplation should consist of or where it should lead.
I haven’t read the book, but from the description I certainly sound like a typical “sheep” (though I went out of my way to avoid dressing like one). I didn’t even know what critical thinking or ethical decision-making or social awareness were until I had a nervous breakdown halfway through law school (Ivy League!) and had to relearn “how to think” from the ground up. I didn’t learn it in college, that’s for sure. It was way too easy to view every class as a game that you won by anticipating what the teacher wanted and providing it in some really earnest, creative way…not as anything actually designed to help one become a more observant, analytical, or well-informed person than we were in high school.
I wonder if colleges actually do provide this opportunity or just would like to be able to say so. And I wonder how to convince kids who’ve succeeded academically all their lives and think achievement and wisdom are somehow analogous that there’s a lot more out there to care about than meeting/exceeding others’ expectations. If you’ve never though about yourself any other way, it’s hard to imagine how it even works…let alone work up the courage and motivation to try.
Fabulous comment, DC. You nail the predicament on the head. Losing the ‘sheep’ mentality requires an unmaking of the self – redefining one’s relationship with achievement and academics – that is seldom an organic or painless experience these days. So glad to hear you had that epiphany in law school (although I’m sorry to hear that it began as a breakdown). Cheers to coming out the other side!
This is not a new critique but there is a way in which Deresiewicz’s presumption regarding what constitutes a “meaningful life” is representative of a very specific understanding of how one’s life should be. There are certainly ways that we can use measures of life satisfaction or other metrics to support Deresiewicz’s arguments but it does seem slightly presumptuous to put forth the idea that students can only create meaning for themselves in a particular way. It is fair to make a case about the benefits of different types of perspectives—ones that might be more expansive—but this process must also account for the pleasure or satisfaction that students might derive from their current circumstances. If we are to make the case that the grass is greener on our side of the fence, we must first acknowledge the difficulty of relinquishing a hold on a measure of fulfillment for satisfaction that is potentially even greater.
The key here is the identification of colleges’ role in the American educational system, which is why it is great that you give a brief overview of the history of elite colleges in the piece. There is a potentially productive way that we can think about colleges as the conferrers of social mobility and how this latent—or maybe explicit—function informs our understanding of current phenomena.
Going back to Deresiewicz’s laments, we can think about how his visions for college graduates represents one set of ideals that does not necessarily align with how youth (or their parents) understand the purpose and the role of college. Sure, we can make an argument that college offers a space “to think and reflect before life engulfs them” but this particular stance rests on an assumption that such a practice produces something that is universally valued. Deresiewicz’s model might present some benefits for students and families but it seems unlikely that his vision is necessarily the most salient for many families.
Indeed, we might even question whether it is the goal of colleges themselves to produce graduates who can engage in “self-making.” In short, has the Bachelor’s degree come to be viewed as merely a credential? Why do we make a fuss about college without thinking through the way in which the modern American education system developed out of an effort to produce good workers (see for example, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/how-to-break-free-of-our-19th-century-factory-model-education-system/256881/)? Are colleges and universities trying to serve all masters, developing business skills at the same time that they are desperately trying to encourage critical inquiry? This is not to suggest that these two concepts are unrelated or mutually exclusive but merely that our conceptualization of the goals that we have for students can appear to work at cross-purposes.