* Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is a book-long rant against the current higher education system in America, which makes very good points, and in particular that elite schools give outrageous preference to rich kids, both through alumni preference and the preference for certain feeder schools, mostly private, which by definition enroll the wealthy.

Other aspects are less rational. In particular, the author is obsessed by the fact that students choose economics as a major rather than liberal arts, and that universities cater to their preference. While we can deplore that young adults may feel pressured to study topics they don’t enjoy (but who says they would enjoy literature or other liberal arts pursuits?), I find it heartwarming that they are putting some thought into selecting a major and a career that are marketable. If we are to coach our children into becoming English majors (the author’s recommendation), it seems to me that many will be very frustrated when it comes time to find a job.

In fact, it seems that many of the opinions stem directly from the author’s experience as a late-bloomer English major, and some of the anecdotes are bizarre, for instance the author’s admission that, with his numerous degrees, he could not talk to his plumber. Really? How about starting by treating the plumber as a peer, as a human being. Perhaps that would help. All the educational reforms in the world won’t change the fact that humans can and should treat each other as equals.

Finally, his prescription for students, that they don’t talk much to their parents when in college and don’t ask them for help of any kind seems overdone, if not downright silly. How about the fact that most students’ tuition fees are paid by their generous parents. Isn’t that a big kind of “help”?


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