It tugs at my convictions to offer a great review for a book that I just finished reading, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz. There is a tendency that all of us succumb to that prompts us to discount an entire work of writing if amid the words lies anything that runs counter to our opinions. Such is the case with this book and I am proud that I have resisted that tendency because the book is, frankly, marvelous.
The main contention of the book is that the higher education systems, in particular the elite systems represented by the likes of Harvard and Yale, have developed over time into systems that produce graduates focused on the wrong things and proliferating an out of touch elite class. I have no bones to pick with that premise. The arguments Deresiewicz lays out in the book are compelling and convincing and rings true alongside many anecdotal experiences I have had when confronted with people educated at such institutions.
And yes, there are certainly exceptions to every rule, including this one, since I do have friends educated at these universities who are anything but focused on the wrong things or out of touch. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be the norm.
But to be fair to those elite universities and their graduates, I have seen much the same misguided focus amid graduates from much less esteemed universities as well. While Deresiewicz focuses primarily on elite universities, he does also point out that the faults in the system have trickled down into university and college institutions at virtually every level.
So where do I diverge from the arguments in the book as I alluded to at the beginning of this review? I disagree with the author when he poses his argument, mostly implied throughout the book, that everyone should attend college. As anyone who has read my book, The Art of Self-Education: How to Get a Quality Education for Personal and Professional Success Without Formal Schooling, or any of my other writings on the topic knows, I believe that while college is absolutely an appropriate path for some people, it is not necessarily the appropriate path for others. I stand by my belief that we must value education attained in many ways.
And maybe the author doesn’t entirely disagree with my stance. I can’t be sure. Perhaps he does realize that a good educational option for many is a post-high school education attained in many ways, either with higher education schooling a part of it or not part of it at all. I’m going on what I perceived as I read the book and maybe if the author and I sat down over coffee we’d realize we’re more in agreement than disagreement on that. Regardless, the entirety of the book is so wonderful that I must set aside that nit pick and strongly and vehemently suggest you read the book.
The writing is among the best nonfiction writing I’ve read in a long time. Deresiewicz crafts his language so eloquently that it often approaches poetic. I found myself highlighting passage after passage because I was so taken with how the thought was adroitly expressed. I’m likely to quote Deresiewicz often in the future. Deresiewicz is a skilled writer with a mastery of language many working writers aspire to. So reading the book is a joy.
But the most important thing I feel the book does for the reader is foster a sense of why education is so important and, even more importantly, what kind of education is vital to considering oneself well educated. The author hammers home the idea that we should be encouraging liberal arts educations more than we do, a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly.
Anyway, do yourself a favor. Buy this book. Read it. Revel in its well-crafted language. And most importantly, let his passion for a liberal arts education seep into your pores and infect you with the same passionate embrace of self-improvement through education. You’ll be glad you took my advice.