With the publication of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to A Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz's sober assessment of contemporary higher education was both praised and lampooned by commentators across the spectrum. He recently spoke with First Things about the book's purpose, reception, and the challenges facing students in the throes of a neo-liberal educational system. 

Robert L. Kehoe III (RK): Why did you write the book?

William Deresiewicz (WD): The purpose was to challenge a very narrow definition of what it means to be an “excellent” student—where students are being trained to do all the work, figure out what a teacher wants, and give it to them. But that “excellence” conceals the fact that many of these students are sheep, which means that they lack the ability to take responsibility for their lives, not having developed into autonomous adults who can sort out their own values and make decisions independent of parents, peers, or the social norms they’ve been raised in.

Our educational system has been shaped by neo-liberalism. That is, by the idea that the purpose of human beings is to produce and consume in the marketplace, and that the measure of all things is success in the marketplace—profitability, or in the case of an individual, his or her wealth. The most obvious example of this was Scott Walker’s recent attempt to strip out the language in the charter of the University of Wisconsin about “citizenship and the pursuit of knowledge,” replacing it with “training people for the state workforce.” Now, not every example is as blatant as that, but that’s the idea that’s governing the way primary and secondary schools understand their responsibilities and the way colleges market themselves. It’s also the way most students understand what going to college is about—namely, study something practical, get a set of marketable skills, and take the first job you get.

RK: Have you learned anything from your critics?

WD: I’ve learned that there’s an enormous amount of defensiveness among elite institutions, which in many ways confirms what I’ve been saying. But one of the most revealing and depressing things has been that so much of the criticism that came from within elite institutions didn’t say, “You claim that we aren’t giving students a real education, but of course we are.” It said, “What the hell is a real education anyway, and who cares?”

There was one review by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker that I thought was valuable, where he said that I’m really just complaining about modernity. I knew he was wrong, but I had to think about why he was wrong. So he says that if we trace modernity through history and literature, it’s ultimately about ever-increasing acceleration, and what we’re seeing today in higher education is simply the result of that process—that’s why students are simply running as fast as they can, so that when they jump into adult life they’re moving fast enough. But the very concept of youth (as a time between childhood and adulthood) is a product of modern thought, and it was invented precisely to step outside, criticize and reflect on the world. You also see the idea of continuous change in modernity, and youth—often grudgingly, with much resistance from adults—who are charged with the project of imagining the next world, which is why youth and revolution are often connected.

But we aren’t in modernity anymore. We’re in neo-liberal postmodernity, and with that comes a postmodern concept of youth, where the only job of youth (echoing what Rothman said) is to become miniature adults. And the fact is that we don’t just have postmodern youth, we have postmodern childhood—where important parts about what it means to be young are under intense attack.

RK: I remember walking into the Northwestern University library about ten years ago in the middle of the summer. I was surprised to come across a handful of middle schoolers feverishly working on a bunch of math problems in one of these academic summer camps. This sort of camp was new at the time, but today they’re rather common, which seems to reflect your concern about an overly credentialist or careerist postmodern childhood. Now, is there anything good that can come from these experiences? I mean, isn’t it possible that kids are getting better at math, which is a good thing?

WD: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to sound extreme, but I would imagine that most of those kids are not from disadvantaged families in need of socialization into the world of education. This is the upper middle class reproducing itself by pouring enormous resources into their students’ education.

Now what your question suggests is this: Is this what you should be doing with your summer when you’re ten? I mean, let’s say they’re “getting smarter at math.” But couldn’t this happen later? How important is this, relative to the kinds of development that are not happening? There’s research that demonstrates how damaging it is when kids skip needed developmental steps in childhood and adolescence through play, down time, unstructured social activity and conversation.

RK: Can you elaborate on your description of our eyes and minds sliding over the world?

WD: I think it’s just a part of who we are as human beings and what we do. This is why Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” or why Shelley remembers “the hour which burst / My spirit’s sleep.” The fact is, our spirit has a tendency to slumber and we constantly need awakenings, which is what art does and what a liberal education focused on the humanities should do. So this is not a historically specific claim. What we need to see is the world around us and ourselves. Today there may be screens and commercials that are preventing us from doing that, but a century ago it was something else.

RK: When you look at the neo-liberal approach to education, do you think it has something to do with a kind of exhaustion of secular ideals, such that colleges and universities are losing the ground to justify their existence? In a way, that the claim of reason is losing ground?

WD: I don’t blame this on secularization, which for me is one of the best things that’s ever happened, and one of the best things that’s ever happened in higher education. I’m not religious myself, and I have a great deal of respect for some religious institutions and what they do, but I’m also very glad that most colleges and universities are not religious. Historically, universities had to fight a long battle in this country against the churches, precisely because knowledge is dangerous to dogma.

RK: But you do suggest that some religious institutions have done a better job fending off this mindset and emphasizing some of the virtues of liberal arts education you want to preserve.

WD: Well, this is not based on exhaustive study, but it can be the case that religious institutions have more credibility in posing questions about values, and about what a good life is, through reading the great books. Again, I’m a champion of secularization, and we used to have humanist secular ideals that had to do with citizenship, and the enlightenment, that very much valued all of these components too. So it doesn’t have to happen in a religious context, but a lot of religious institutions still see themselves as getting students to think about their lives and about their education in terms of service to others in a way that I think is more deeply felt than the kind of lip service about “changing the world” that you get at a lot of secular institutions.

Religious institutions have limitations, and some are just dogma factories. But I do think that religious colleges have a kind of built-in mindset about asking big questions and thinking beyond the self in a way that secular institutions seem to have more trouble doing.

RK: You argue that a healthy education is one that encourages students to establish some conceptual freedom from convention, or at least the ability to think clearly about it. Do you see this neo-liberal narrative creating new dogma factories, so that if Galileo were transported into the twenty-first century he might be challenging universities in the same way he challenged the church ages ago?

WD: No, I think Galileo would have a professorship at Stanford, Harvard or Cambridge, and he’d be doing research. I don’t think he set out to challenge the Church—I think he tried to investigate the truth of physical reality and he came up against the Church. Now maybe someone like Thoreau of late would be challenging the university. But either way, I think students need to question the notions of success, achievement, and excellence—as defined by elite primary, secondary, and higher education in America today.

Robert L. Kehoe III studied politics at Wheaton College, Illinois, and philosophy at Boston College. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and sons.

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