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Monday, August 25, 2014

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Hiya crazy kids. "Where have you been," I can hear you asking. Well, I was on vacation with my family week before last and read seven books and didn't really have convenient access to a computer plus I had comprehensive high-stakes exams for my doctoral program this week LAST WEEK and had to take so much Xanax that the world should be calm, so I might have just disappeared for a while. But I'm back. Rest easy.

I recently read William Deresiewicz's excerpt of this book in The New Republic, fell in love, and immediately had to get my hands on a copy of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. (Also, today's post is dedicated to one of my besties, Mike, who is also madly in academic bro-love with Deresiewicz.)

What is the purpose of higher education? Is it to prepare students to enter the workforce in white collar professions or is it to prepare students for life by giving them an opportunity to explore who they are through exposure to a variety of new information? Is it to compete for positions in the economy or is it to think critically and creatively? Does failing a class mean you are a failure? These are just some of the jumping off points of Deresiewicz's exploration of what higher education was, is, and is aiming to become.

I have been meditating on these issues for sometime, as I teach a a very specific pre-certification population that wishes to follow a predetermined career path. What is the purpose of a college education? On one hand, it's hard to justify the exorbitant cost while encouraging young people to "find themselves," but at the same time the conversations, self-exploration, and finding what interests students is completely lost. Grades are the numbers that define people, followed by the number of zeroes in your salary, and excuses for not doing work and a lack of responsibility are rampant in both of these settings. The desire to make your college degree "worth it" has created a student body of what Deresiewicz calls excellent sheep--flocks of young people who go with what they are told and measure success in number of dollars, leading students away from careers they might otherwise choose in favor of making the big bucks.

While reading this book I turned to my brother who is currently pursuing an undergraduate education and asked him what he thought college was. He fit exactly into the mold of this book--for him it's about gaining skills to go into business and make a lot of money. It's about being marketable in the economy from the perspective of business (read: economics, finance, and other white collar jobs). It's not about exploring sociology, philosophy, the classics, the sciences such as biology, psychology, or even a deeper understanding of what business is. It's about being competitive in the workforce. And it made me disheartened.

See, I was a Classics major in undergrad. Even 15 years ago people were asking the worst question ever: "What are you going to do with that?" Or, "Are you going to teach?" My response was always no, that I wasn't going to teach. I would do something else. I loved Classics, I learned so much more than I could have in any other major, and I figured out a little bit more about who I was as a person. It was about obtaining a college degree where I could explore and become, not be and do. I didn't understand then as I don't understand now why it had to be a direct path to a career--why couldn't it make me a more knowledgeable person? This is what I think is Deresiewicz's point. I would say that I am no failure--in fact, I'm pretty darned good at what I do and am successful at it. I didn't take a direct path here, and thank goodness. I have had so many life experiences, career experiences, and most importantly, college experiences. All of which made me a pretty good contributor to society.

Granted, Deresiewicz comes out of the Ivy league and certainly speaks to the extreme of this position in the way of wealth and privilege (another issue I would love to explore in more detail), but it's clear that this is the position that a good number of students (and arguably parents and even educators) have toward institutions of higher education. Can't we see it taking shape even earlier in the "college and career ready" push in K-12 education? I think if you teach in higher ed, secondary education, are a parent, have been to college, or just live and breath, you should take the time to read and really think about Deresiewicz's book. What do we want our society to be?

Hard copy for purchase below.

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