A fascinating if somewhat biased book about the importance of higher education by a former Yale professor.
Title: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
Author: William Deresiewicz
Publication Year: 2014
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Review: I don’t remember where I heard about this book, but I was definitely intrigued by the title. I was pretty sure I was exactly what the author meant by an “excellent sheep”. Having attended two top tier schools (Stanford and Caltech), I’ve always felt sort of, well, sheep-like. I go with the flow and have always done what is expected of me. I’m not rebellious. I can’t speak for my peers, but I personally don’t consider myself a leader. “Excellent sheep” sounds like an appropriate term for me.
When I started reading this book, a lot of it definitely resonated with what I remember of high school and college. There are descriptions of high school students with a full load of advanced placement classes, sports, and a dozen after school activities. (That was me.) There is a discussion of the motivation of these students, doing clubs, sports, and lessons specifically to pad their college applications. (Definitely me. I never liked running, but did track and cross-country since colleges like athletes and it was the one sport that didn’t require coordination.)
Once in college, the author says that students frequently change their majors to have better job prospects and earning power. (Also me — astronomy to engineering). He then essentially asserts that all this effort was for nothing. While I wouldn’t personally say “nothing”, as a stay-at-home mom of 3 kids, I’m not in a position to argue with that. At this point in my life, I would have likely been nearly as successful going to a public college and not getting my doctorate. (Though, to be fair, I am very grateful for the work-at-home opportunities my PhD has afforded.)
However, about half way through the book the author starts to lose me. He seems to hold a certain hostility and bitterness toward the sciences which I can’t understand. He praises the value of a “liberal arts” education over science and engineering. While I agree that that a liberal arts education is valuable, particularly if the student is passionate about their area of study, I really don’t think the humanities are inherently superior to the sciences. I would argue that someone could be just as passionate about math and science (me for instance).
On page 163, the author says, “‘Do you really lead a better life for having had a liberal arts education?’ a student asked me once. Yes, you do, and those around you might lead better ones, as well.” I find this somewhat offensive. If the author is simply saying that people should be educated in a wide range of topics (literature, politics, history, etc.), then I can get behind that. If he is saying that students shouldn’t pursue fields they aren’t interested in simply to make money, I agree with that too. However, if he’s saying that everyone should be a liberal arts major, that’s a little too condescending and presumptuous in my opinion.
I also think it’s problematic when on page 199, when considering whether kids should skip college and launch start-ups, he says, “In purely financial terms – wage premiums, unemployment rates, lifetime earnings – college is not only still a good investment; according to a recent study, it is the best investment you can make.” I definitely agree that kids should do all that they can to try and get a college education. However, I can’t help but wonder if those lifetime earnings and other benefits he mentions are partially due to the student bias toward high-earning majors like engineering and economics, which he strongly opposes. Does a poetry major benefit in the same way?
Overall, despite the author’s somewhat uppity tone, I’m glad I read this book. Having gone to ivy-league equivalent schools, I would never pressure or even secretly hope that my kids go to them too. I want them to enjoy their childhoods with minimal stress and not overwhelm themselves with “college application” activities and experiences. I would be just as happy with them going to state schools or community colleges as opposed to ivy leagues. I also would not pressure my kids to pursue science, engineering, economics or other money-making fields if that is not where their passions and interests lie. I already intended to be supportive of my kid’s life decisions, whatever they may be, but having read this book, I am more confident that I’ll be able to follow through with my intentions.
(Personal Rating: 8/10)
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maryanne @ mama smiles
I completely agree with you that it is possible to be passionate about science and engineering – my husband certainly is! Those are fields I pursued because they were “safe” fields, and I suspect that is what the author is fighting against. It would be easy for me to now say that I should have just stuck with the things I loved more (music and making), but my parents didn’t feel safe with those options and I still see why. I earn some money through blogging, but my engineering husband is very much the primary wage earner – and if something happened to him I likely would fall back on my “practical” degrees in public health and education for the health coverage benefits those fields offer.
It definitely is complicated. I would never want to push my kids to pursue fields which they wouldn’t enjoy just so they can be financially “successful.” I definitely know people that have done that and they seem perpetually disappointed. At the same time, I want my kids to be self-sufficient and at least somewhat financially secure in the future. I guess my hope is that when the time comes, I’ll be able to help my kids look at all their interests and choose the one that is at least somewhat practical to pursue as a career. I know it won’t be that easy. I also know plenty of people who pursued “safe” majors and are still struggling right now. It seems like there is an element of luck no matter which direction you go.