“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” is an examination of the elite education system in America, penned by William Deresiewicz in 2015.
Deresiewicz, who has spent over two decades in the Ivy League as both a student and professor, delivers a critique born from deep personal experience and observation. His insights originated in a 2008 article titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and have since evolved into this comprehensive book.
Excellent Sheep Summary
The book unfolds over four distinct sections: “Sheep,” “Self,” “Schools,” and “Society.”
In “Sheep,” Deresiewicz paints a picture of elite students as highly qualified and skilled, yet lacking in initiative and critical thought—akin to a passive flock of sheep.
This section delves into the roles and responsibilities of students, parents, and schools, critiquing the entire educational system.
He also traces the evolution of Ivy League colleges since the 19th century, showing how their purposes and demographics have shifted.
In “Self,” the second part, Deresiewicz champions the true purpose of college as a crucible for forming unique identities.
He emphasizes the importance of moral courage to defy systemic expectations and forge one’s path, drawing parallels with George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch.”
Leadership is also a critical theme here, as Deresiewicz argues that elite education molds students into system-conforming leaders rather than innovators.
The third section, “Schools,” advocates for the role of humanities in a liberal arts education.
Deresiewicz asserts that the essence of education lies not in the content but in the process of thinking critically, questioning the status quo, and connecting diverse ideas.
He underscores the necessity of dedicated professors to guide students through this intellectual journey, suggesting that smaller liberal arts colleges might be more effective in this regard than Ivy League institutions.
Finally, “Society,” the concluding section, examines the broader implications of contemporary elite education on American society. Deresiewicz argues that it perpetuates economic division and fosters a sense of elitism among the educated class.
He concludes by calling for fundamental changes to the educational system to create a more equitable and truly educated society.
1. Critical Thinking Over Credential Chasing
The book argues that elite educational institutions often encourage students to pursue credentials and accolades rather than fostering genuine intellectual curiosity and critical thinking.
A key lesson is the importance of developing independent thought and the ability to question and analyze, rather than merely striving for grades, degrees, and prestigious job offers. This involves a shift in focus from external validation to personal growth and intellectual development.
2. Broad Education for Leadership and Citizenship
Deresiewicz criticizes the narrow focus on technical and specialized knowledge at the expense of a broader liberal arts education.
The book suggests that a well-rounded education, encompassing humanities and social sciences, is essential for producing leaders and citizens who are empathetic, culturally aware, and capable of understanding complex social issues.
This lesson emphasizes the value of a diverse educational background in developing critical, ethical, and global perspectives.
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3. Personal Fulfillment Beyond Societal Expectations
The author challenges the notion that success is defined by wealth, status, and conformity to societal expectations.
The book encourages young people to seek personal fulfillment and a meaningful life, which may not always align with traditional paths of success.
This involves introspection, understanding one’s passions and values, and the courage to pursue a path that is personally fulfilling, even if it deviates from societal norms or expectations of success.
“Excellent Sheep” is a thought-provoking critique of the American education system, particularly its elite institutions. It challenges readers to reconsider the values and objectives of higher education.
While some may argue that Deresiewicz’s views are somewhat idealistic and don’t fully account for the practicalities of job markets and career preparation, his call for a more holistic, purpose-driven approach to education is compelling.
The book serves as a wake-up call to educators, students, and parents alike to redefine success and the true purpose of education.
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