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

William Deresiewicz. Free Press, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-0271-1
The kids are all wrong—especially the superachievers at the nation’s top universities—according to this stinging indictment of American higher education. Culture critic Deresiewicz (A Jane Austen Education) expands his notorious American Scholar essay into a jeremiad against elite colleges, the Ivy League and, in particular, Yale, where he taught English. Students, he argues, are “smart and talented and driven... but also anxious, timid, and lost”; narcissistic helicopter parents—Tiger-Mom Amy Chua gets lambasted—pressure them to trade fulfillment for money and status. According to the author, colleges with indifferent teaching and incoherent curricula offer no guidance on intellectual development or character formation; the whole system reinforces a class hierarchy that “equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success.” Entwined with his j’accuse is an impassioned, idealistic plea to reclaim the undergraduate years as a journey of self-discovery guided by engaged professors who challenge students to think for themselves instead of following the flock to Wall Street. Deresiewicz’s critique of America’s most celebrated schools as temples of mercenary mediocrity is lucid, sharp-edged, and searching, and if he sometimes too easily dismisses the practical expectations surrounding ruinously expensive degrees, he poses vital questions about what college teaches—and why. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 05/05/2014
Release date: 08/19/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
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