Addressing His Flock
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
A conversation with William Deresiewicz.
By Kunal Jasty
After spending 24 years in the Ivy League, William Deresiewicz is now its fiercest critic. Upon receiving a B.A., M.A, and Ph.D. from Columbia, he spent ten years teaching English at Yale University. Since leaving Yale in 2008, he has written acerbic? relentless? pitiless? unforgiving? critiques of elite American colleges with titles such as “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” and “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” This past year, Deresiewicz published Excellent Sheep, an indictment of the elite schools that he claims produce students with “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” Deresiewicz met with Kunal Jasty, SEAS ’16, to discuss what he calls “the miseducation of the American elite.”
The Blue and White: You write in the introduction of Excellent Sheep that elite American colleges “manufacture students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
I’d love to discuss how you think we got to this point. Your book has a great history of colleges from the 19th century to the present. Can you trace that history?
William Deresiewicz: Sure, but let me begin just by qualifying the passage you quoted, which is simply to say that I recognize this is not true of everybody. I think this is a typical product of the system and I think it’s the direction in which the system is headed. I also think it’s a clear and present danger that faces just about every student that goes through the system. So even if it isn’t necessarily true of you, it may be more true than you realize, or it may also be simply something you are surrounded by.
I think the way we got to this point is pretty simple to a first approximation, although there are other complexities. About 50 years ago, the elite private universities, which had been bastions of WASP-male privilege—Columbia included—radically changed their admissions practices in a fairly rapid period of time to open up access to previously marginalized groups, including women, Jews, Catholics, and students of color. [They developed] a different conception of what they were looking for, emphasizing intellectual excellence in a way that they quite frankly hadn’t before.
What that really did was fire the starting gun of what we call “meritocracy.” And since then there’s been an ever-accelerating arms race for the kind of credentials that are needed to get into a top private university. Someone wrote very recently, I can’t remember who off the top of my head, that “students are engineered to the specifications of admissions committees.” I’m hardly the first person to talk about this. Nicholas Lemann, who was the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote a great book about the SAT called The Big Test, where again he talks about risk aversion and empty ambition.
The main thing that I’ve seen, as I read about this and talk to students, is a difficulty in generating an autonomous sense of purpose—basically a difficulty in becoming adults, which means being morally autonomous in the sense that you can make choices for yourself. That, and a corresponding, ever-increasing, level of anxiety. People talk about the mental health crisis on campus … it’s a real thing. It keeps getting worse.
B&W: You write that nearly half of college students report feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, or depression. Do you think that anxiety is a direct result of the admissions process, or is it the pressure-cooker environment when students get here?
WD: No, no, it’s just as bad in high school. It may be worse in high school. There are lots of mental health statistics about high school, and those statistics are worse in affluent communities and in private high schools than they are in the rest of the country and in public schools. What does that tell you? It’s about this ridiculous pressure that you guys are under, and not to work hard. There’s something deeply meaningful about work if you’re doing it because it’s something you want to do. But when you’re doing it for reasons you haven’t chosen, for reasons you might not understand, think through for yourself or accept on your own terms, then you’re like a rat in a maze.
B&W: You’ve said that Excellent Sheep is a letter to your twenty-year old self. You graduated from Columbia in 1985 and came back to Columbia a couple months ago to speak. I’m wondering, as Columbia students are going to read this, would we even recognize the Columbia student of 1985? Would they recognize us? What do you see as the difference between us?
WD: There are huge differences. On the one hand, the system already existed and was already in the process of acceleration. On the other hand, the quantitative differences have become so great that they’ve become qualitative differences. There’s no question that I would never have gotten in to Columbia with the kind of high school record I had in 1981 … Ever! Of course, if I were applying today, I wouldn’t be the same person I was. I would’ve gotten with the program.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a young person. Your first stage of young-adulthood, which is developmentally, intellectually, psychologically so important … so many important things are supposed to happen during that time … and it’s all shut out because you’re just hitting the vocational benchmarks. That’s a huge problem.
B&W: Is this problem being driven by elite colleges in particular, or is the problem a society that no longer values that type of education? What’s actually driving this trend?
WD: There are a lot of moving parts. Since I published the book and I’ve gotten feedback from the world in all kinds of different ways, I’ve realized even more than I did when I wrote the book how much of what I say applies not just to non-elite colleges but to primary and secondary schools, and in other countries.
American higher ed is this incredibly prestigious, coveted, global cultural brand that elites in all other rising economies like Brazil and China and Korea and India are aspiring to. So the impact of a limited number of college admissions officers is quite profound.
B&W: You’ve written that students have become the “clients” of universities.
WD: Clients, customers, consumers … and a lot of this was forced on universities. There were deliberate public policy changes in the seventies that helped to do this. Instead of giving money directly to the schools it was given through the students, and then students made their consumer choices, which was coupled with the beginning of a drastic long-term defunding of not even just public higher ed, but also public funding of scientific research. Universities are reacting in predictable and understandable ways. They’re just really unfortunate ways.
B&W: I’d love to go back to the student part of this. Part of me thinks it’s because the stakes are so high now … maybe it’s just a more competitive world. We have the lowest levels of social mobility and highest levels of inequality in a couple generations and it feels like it’s a winner take all world. You get out of college and you see that all the money is in the same jobs, and all the internships are in the same fields. How much of this do you think is the economy, and the fact that students are just reacting to monetary incentives?
WD: It’s complicated, but the short answer is it’s not. And the reason I know it’s not is that this didn’t start in 2008. This acceleration has been happening in good times and bad. There was a Reagan boom or bubble in the ’80s, Clinton’s high tech boom in the ’90s, then Bush—maybe it was all a bubble of debt but it certainly looked like this ridiculous unending prosperity—in the 2000s. This acceleration has kept going in every single decade since the seventies. So no, this is not about students responding to the new realities of the last seven years. A lot of this is status competition.
I would also say that I think students at places like Columbia have a very distorted picture of what their life chances are.
WD: Meaning they’re going to do fine. It is true, for some of the same reasons that all of these changes have taken place in higher ed in the last 40 years, that we are increasingly a winner take all society. I say in the book that you may have to make tradeoffs. Fulfillment may come at the cost of a certain amount of wealth and status. But it’s also true that a big part of the reason social mobility has slowed is precisely because the meritocracy has figured out how to reproduce itself through selective, private higher education and its admissions offices. On the one hand you say kids want to get into an Ivy League school because they’re worried about social mobility, but on the other hand those are the kids already at the top. And remember, when social mobility slows down, it means that if you’re born at the top, it’s easier to stay at the top.
B&W: There’s this other thing, though, which I can’t quite put into words. Columbia costs $64,000 a year. I know you don’t like the term “return on investment,” but when you pay $64,000, it seems almost irrational to me not to expect to earn that back. The price is somehow telling you something about the value of your degree…
WD: Well, I think you’re making a good point. I haven’t heard anyone put it that way, but I have no doubt that a lot of people feel it to be that way. College is this very high priced financial transaction, even if you’re not paying for it personally and aren’t taking out loans. You feel like there has to be some kind of financial payoff that’s commensurate with the financial investment. I think it’s understandable and I think it’s very unfortunate, because it just reinforces the idea, which has also been in ascendency for about 40 years, that all values can be measured as monetary values. That you are a function in the market as a consumer and producer, and anything else of value doesn’t really exist. So if you say “I’m spending all this money for this education, I should really get something commensurate out of it,” I’m willing to say yes you should, but it doesn’t follow that that something is measured entirely in money.
B&W: No, but then I think to myself, how much would I pay for this experience if I didn’t get that degree at the end? And I don’t know what that number would be, even if the experience were what you say education should be. It seems like that number represents that intangible thing.
WD: I would actually say that that thing is not just a “thing.” It’s the thing. I’m not going to say it’s worth anything you pay for it, but I can’t imagine anything that’s more valuable, because it is the central thing. It affects what you’re going to do with your life and how you’re going to do it. It affects the quality of your relationships. It affects how you are going to continue to grow. So it not only affects the person you are at 22, but also the person you are at 42 or 62. I agree that it’s really fucked up that we’ve reached the point where it has to happen in this container, and that it’s gotten so incredibly expensive.
B&W: In the time we have left, I’d love to develop some fixes. If you were to create your own college, if you were to pick your own students, your own professors, what would it look like? What would the curriculum look like?
WD: I hesitate to answer this for a number of reasons, partly I’m not very good at constructing solutions. I’m better at pointing to problems. Partly because I don’t think there’s just one solution. Partly because I don’t the ultimate solution has to do with constructing a different college. To me the most important thing is for the affluent to decide, once again, to tax themselves to pay for high-quality free public education.
I’m also hesitating because I don’t want to be glib, and I don’t want to say it would look like Reed College, which is actually I think a pretty impressive place in a lot of ways, and I wouldn’t have been aware of it if I didn’t live in Portland. It’s really rigorous, they have a pretty traditional Great Books curriculum, and students work really hard. They have as little free time as they do in the Ivy League, but it’s because they’re in the library all the time. The academic standards are incredibly high, partly because there’s no grade inflation. And the school doesn’t cooperate with U.S. News, so it refuses to play the game. And as a result it’s probably fifty or sixty places lower in the rankings then it would be otherwise. It’s like seventy-something, and it would easily be in the top twenty if it actually reported its numbers.
But I also don’t want to say every school should be like Reed. I like Great Books curricula, but I’m not sure they’re right for everybody. I loved teaching Lit Hum when I was a graduate student, but I hated having students in the class who didn’t want to be there. I would want professors who were incentivized to teach.
B&W: At the risk of sounding elitist, is this the kind of education that every college student needs, wants, or would benefit from?
WD: Yeah that does sound elitist. It’s OK of me to say that because I’m often accused of being elitist. That question often comes to me, and especially from people in elite colleges. Let me first of all point out that a lot of students at elite colleges don’t want this type of education. So really they should back off on the arrogance about that.
Let me put it like this. The heyday of public higher education was the 1960s because there was a huge higher ed boom after the war and the GI bill flooded campuses with students. We were literally opening a new college every week for like 35 years. Public funding was rolling in. The University of California was free. It was precisely then, when the middle class and even the working class was beginning to go to college, that the percentage of humanities majors was at its peak.
Why would these kids who supposedly only want to go to college to better themselves and climb the economic ladder and take specific, practical subjects major in English and Philosophy? Because people do! I don’t think that everybody should go to college, and I don’t think that everybody wants to. But I think that the people at the few most elite schools, just like they think that they’re the only good schools in the country, also think that they’re the only students who have intellectual appetite.
The truth is that this notion of a liberal arts education, for the purpose of not just vocation but life, was essential to the American idea of education for citizenship. This is Dewey, right? So I think it’s a function of our own time that we now believe that only a very select few are interested in or capable of enjoying the kind of education I described.
B&W: The reason I asked that question is because we have people all the way up to the president saying “No, this isn’t the model we want. We want people in STEM, we want vocational schools, we want engineering, we want tech, we want you to graduate with a job.”
WD: I think it was really inexcusable, horrible, pathetic and indicative that Obama went to a college in Ohio, I don’t remember which one, and said, “Hey kids, don’t major in Art History.” Even our democratic, maybe liberal, certainly intellectual, humanities-oriented president is saying stuff that, in its ultimate intent, even if not in its language, is no different than what Scott Walker tried to pull in Wisconsin when he tried to rip out all that language in the state university charter and just say, “The purpose of the University of Wisconsin, one of the great public institutions, is to train jobs for the state workforce.” That is neoliberalism in a nutshell! And that is the logic of neoliberalism applied to education. Victorian England could not do a better job thinking of society in terms of predetermined class.
I don’t know if you remember that quote from Woodrow Wilson in my book: “We want one-class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class […] very much larger […] to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific manual tasks.” That’s not what America was, but it’s what we’ve become again.
B&W: Will social reform in this country will lead to education reform, or do we need to start reforming colleges before we can create a society that has these values again?
WD: I think the only real answer is it’s not either or. What you’re fundamentally trying to do is to change the mindset of society. I was a senior in high school the year Ronald Reagan was elected, so I’m just old enough to have seen this entire phase play out. A decade before Reagan’s election, the idea that the values he represents would become ascendant and even consensus values was unthinkable. There was a bipartisan consensus called the liberal consensus. And it was about a lot of the things that we’re talking about in the way society saw itself. It was about what we owed to each other, and what the job of government was. That’s what really we have to change, and we have to not be shy about saying that. We need to talk about the larger philosophy and to reclaim the notion of a public.
Your generation is actually tuned in to try to make the world a better place in a way, I think, that hasn’t been true of any generation since the ’60s. But you also seem to have lost faith in the public, or to never have had faith in the idea of the public. You want to do it through private means. You’re a very libertarian generation. And you think that public solutions don’t work. And I think that’s problematic in practical terms, but I especially think it’s unfortunate in ideological terms.
The real thing we need to do is not have 12 private universities at the top of the heap. We need to not have an artificial scarcity of educational resources. Eventually corporations are going to want to hire the best people and banks are going to want to hire the people they think are going to make the most money for them. I want my surgeon to be as smart and skilled as possible. But we’ve created a system where that sorting has largely happened by the time you’re 18, and in fact, by the time you’re eight. And it’s not just unfair, but it’s an enormous waste of our collective human resources. That’s one of the the big reasons that the WASP aristocrats decided to betray their own class by opening access to these universities. The country needed it. It needed all those other people and what they could contribute.
B&W: By the time this interview is published we’ll be a few weeks away from commencement, so I’d love to hear your brief, tweet-like, 140 character commencement speech to all the seniors reading this who are going out into the world. What would you say to them?
WD: [Laughs] Oh my god…
B&W: It’s a tough question, I know.
WD: Especially because I much prefer to address people before they get to college. I would say that if they’re really going to make a better world, which you guys all say you want, then you may need to give something up. You may need to sacrifice a significant portion of your own advantages and especially your children’s advantages. It can’t just be a matter of good intentions and trying to do good. I think real change is not using your position of privilege to help others. It’s probably going to require undermining your own privilege, or at least the system that’s helped create it and is supposed to help you pass it on to your kids. It requires a much bigger sacrifice than just sacrificing your time and giving away some money.