Review: Excellent Sheep

Chris McNutt
June 1, 2018
Our children spend shockingly little time figuring out what it is that they love to do.

William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life is one of my favorite works in education. Exemplifying the issues of prestigious-college seeking youth, our obsession with “being the best”, and what education truly means are just some of the giant ideas tackled. I utilize excerpts of this book every year in my classroom to emphasize the dangers of “next step education” and why we all need to reflect on our lives.

The opening paragraph outlines everything perfectly:

“I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top — in a word, ‘success.’ As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one — how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world — all this was off the table.”

Our children spend shockingly little time figuring out what it is that they love to do. They may know what core subject areas they’re “good at” or some professions that have peaked their interests over the years. However, upon even some examination, you’ll mostly find they have done little to nothing in thinking about their futures. Simply asking students, “why do you want to do that?” is often met with, “because I like helping people!” or “because it makes a lot of money!” or “I like science.” Although there must be some starting point, it is heavily concerning that students don’t have concrete, long-reflective answers over a decision that impacts their life’s purpose.

Deresiewicz makes many claims involving why this is the case:

“The problem is that students have been taught [that’s] all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test. Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake.”

Education, especially “college-preparatory education”, spends so much time preparing students for the “next step” — that students never think about why or what the next step is for. Why does a higher education matter, or education at all matter, if one isn’t making use of it? As Yale students are described,

“…most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development…”

This point, to most educators, will ring true. It tends to be that students who are most obsessive about class rank, grades, their resume, and standardized test scores are those who are the least likely to think creatively. They’re risk-averse, they follow orders well, and they spend very little time thinking about themselves. And by “thinking about themselves”, I do not mean they’re constantly helping everyone and working cooperatively — no, instead they spend most of their time trying to bemuse the “higher-ups” — admissions teams, teachers, professors — sometimes at the expense of their peers (and themselves.)

Furthermore, these students are obsessive about extracurricular activities. They — or their parents — have scheduled so many activities during the day that they have little to no time for themselves. Instead of finding what they’re passionate about, they’re simply checking boxes off a list. Excellent Sheep, of course, means those who are great at following the flock, but Deresiewicz clarifies,

“….today’s elite students do not arrive in college as a herd of sheep or army of robots, with a few rebel intellectuals off at the edges. Most of them are somewhat in the middle: idealistic and curious, like kids before them, hungry for purpose and meaning….but beset by psychological demands that are inevitable products of the process that propelled them into college in the first place.”

Students are lacking any meaning of self in their education. They spend little to no time finding their passions and expel all of their energy on pleasing others. They’re put down assembly lines to be manufactured into STEM graduates, well-paying careers, or whatever field employers say are “in-demand.” Paradoxically, students on these tracks tend to be unsuccessful. A critical point of higher education is that passions inspire learning. Why would I commit to a major that I care little to nothing about? Money and prestige are not enough to awake the human soul.

Oftentimes, systemic education forgets the emotional needs of students. In fact, those emotional needs should be the focus — not testing or other academic measurement. Excellent Sheep describes “super people”: those who double major, play a musical instrument, speak multiple languages, play sports, have many hobbies, and are incredibly confident. However, missing is the emotional component — of these students, emotional well-being is at a record low and half of all college students reported feeling hopeless. And this isn’t limited to college:

“We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?”

These students that over-obsess on academics never reflect on the real world. They don’t want to appear weak. And in classes everywhere, many assume that our quiet, hard-working, “all A’s” students are doing fantastic — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, all students need help — but we mustn’t forget that academics don’t equate to well-being.

The lack of personal passion and reflection has taken its toll on discovery and uniqueness:

“What I saw at Yale I have continued to see at campuses around the country. Everybody looks extremely normal, and everybody looks the same. No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don’t look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Everyone dresses as if they’re ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice. You’re young…take a chance with yourselves. Never mind “diversity.” What we’re getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla.”

Children are terrified of risk. They don’t want to upset anyone. They’re afraid of failure. Our school systems — starting even at elementary school — have programmed them to be another cog in the machine — an endless stream of rule-obeying robots. Even the search for “uniqueness” has become a corporate identity: to buy a “unique look”:

“You need to avoid that kind of crap. Putting a sticker on your MacBook that says, ‘I’m an individual’ (in whatever paraphrase) does not make you an individual. Getting a piercing, growing a mustache, moving to Austin — these do not make you an individual. You can’t accessorize your way to moral courage.”

When we talk about really embracing finding yourself — embracing one’s passions, we tend to mask the dark side, which Deresiewicz addresses often. It’s not just “find your passion”, it’s also “be prepared to suffer.” It’s not only “follow your dreams”, it’s “the hell with credentials” — not certification, rather the feeling that prestige comes with a certain life track, certain choices. In fact, taking charge of your life simply means loving what you do and being comfortable in your own skin — what has become a tall order for many of today’s children:

“Do it — invent your life, in whatever form that ends up taking, which need not be very cool or glamourous or counterculture at all — for your own sake alone.”

Teachers play a pivotal role to inspire this change. A teacher isn’t there to simply deliver content, they’re to educate. Education is beyond learning — it’s a whole framework of discovering a student’s life — their passions — and embracing them, mentoring them to their full potential. As Deresiewicz mentions,

“What they want…is mentorship. I remember just how starved I was for that myself in college. I saw how starved my students were: for validation, for connection — for (let’s not be shy of saying it) parental figures other than their parents.”

It’s concerning that in an effort to personalize learning, we’ve shifted to MOOGs to deliver content. While access to more information is fantastic, we should be very careful to replacing strong educators with delivery systems. Of course, sadly this has become conflated: isn’t a strong educator a great deliverer? In fact, a strong educator should be one who relates with students and guides them on their path — which may involve the use of self-delivered content.

Although Excellent Sheep is primarily about college students, it has obvious implications for secondary and even elementary school. High schools have already transformed into college-prep environments. It’s assumed in many classrooms that to succeed in high school is to be accepted into college. That does not mean students are prepared for college. Very little is done about emotional well-being, students have little time to explore passions, at the end of the day, what matters is an “A” in the class.

Education has become about moving as quick as possible. Take AP classes in middle school, apply to hundreds of hours of community service in things you don’t care about, take out absurd loans to a program you’ve barely explored, take on a career in a well-paying field because you want to relish in the prestige. However, to truly focus on the self — to care about kids — to make them enjoy their lives — we have to slow down. We have to develop communities: spend large amounts of time on discussion, don’t worry about content or testing, build relationships, mentor students one-on-one, let them look out for each other, and stop preparing always for the next step. When do students get to figure out who they truly are? When do they find out what makes them happy?

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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