In Excellent Sheep1, American author and literary critic William Deresiewicz explores what is happening to young people before, during and after their time in the US college system. In this system, students are trapped in a culture of credentialism, and with it “comes a narrow practicality that’s capable of understanding education only in terms of immediate utility, and that marches, at the most prestigious schools, beneath a single banner: economics.”
So extreme are the admission standards now, so ferocious the competition, that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They have been haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure …
The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. That is one of the reasons that elite education has become inimical to learning. As Harry R. Lewis, the former Harvard dean, has written, nobody wants to take a chance on a class they might not ace, so nobody is willing to venture beyond the things they already know and do very well.
When a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have time, I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
What is not reasonable is that we have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished twenty-two-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives: no sense of purpose and, what is worse, no understanding of how to go about finding one. Who can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination—or the courage, or the inner freedom—to invent their own.
Deresiewicz wonders what has happened to the idea of a liberal arts education:
In the liberal arts, you pursue the trail of inquiry wherever it leads. Truth, not use or reward, is the only criterion. That is why you don’t just learn a certain body of material when you study the liberal arts; you learn how knowledge is created. You don’t acquire information; you debate it. How do we know it is true? What further questions does it raise? What are the premises that underlie the discipline in question (be it biochemistry or political science or American studies), and what are the methods by which it proceeds? You learn, in other words, that there is no “information,” strictly speaking; there are only arguments. You do the hard, slow, painstaking work—four years is scarcely adequate to make a decent start—of learning to analyze the arguments of others and to make your own in turn: to marshal evidence, evaluate existing authorities, anticipate objections, synthesize your findings within a logically coherent structure, and communicate the results with clarity and force.
It’s a damning read. It makes me sad and more than a little frustrated, not least because the UK is breeding a similar system in which students focus only on their grades and what they might get vocationally from their (higher) education.
What you should really want to develop in college is the habit of reflection, which means the capacity for change.
The challenge now is to find ways to chip away at these systems from within; to disrupt the culture of marks-oriented experiences; to find ways to allow students permission (and the courage) to start to understand what they care about, why things matter, and how together we can keep questioning the way things are.
Deresiewicz, William. 2014. Excellent Sheep. Simon and Schuster. Note that I have not included page numbers of the quotes because I read the book in an e-reader.↩