On Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway’s desk rests a copy of “Excellent Sheep,” the controversial book by former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz that attacks the culture of America’s elite universities.
In recent weeks, Deresiewicz — who authored a July cover story in The New Republic titled “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League” — has been in the spotlight for his withering criticism of Ivy League students as “trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He is scheduled to speak at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Sept. 24.
Holloway, who said he was reading the book to brace for its criticisms, expressed sympathy for some of its points but criticized its larger resentment of Ivy League schools. The wider reception of Deresiewicz’s arguments on campus has been similarly mixed.
“The trick of that kind of book is, it’s anecdotal. We can all say, ‘Oh, I know someone like that,’” Holloway said. “And conceptually, there are some things I agree with. I’m deeply concerned about the professionalization of the academy, about people looking at college as return on investment. I also agree with the need to bolster a liberal arts education.”
His argument hit a nerve in the alumni community, with political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69 negatively reviewing the book in Bookforum and J.D. Chapman ’96 flatly titling his retort in The New Republic “Send Your Kids to the Ivy League.”
A string of Yale students also returned fire in the pages of The New Republic. Yishai Schwartz ’13 wrote in the publication that “an attack on the Ivy League is an attack on meritocracy itself.” Responding to Deresiewicz’s claim that the Ivy League is merely a bastion of upper-class privilege, Andrew Giambrone ’14 wrote about his experience as a Yale student receiving financial aid and criticized Deresiewicz for not acknowledging the socioeconomic diversity on many elite campuses.
Current faculty, though, responded more positively to the book’s criticisms.
English professor David Bromwich called the book useful as a “provocation,” noting that he sympathized with Deresiewicz’s argument that today’s Ivy Leaguers are more organized, preprofessional and homogenous than before.
“The students I talk to today are completely absorbed with their short, medium and long-term ends. People didn’t used to talk about direction and resumes. There’s a codeword that administrators like to use: ‘navigate.’ There it is: You’re setting the course, you know your end destination and there are some nice stops along the way called summer internships,” Bromwich said.
But Bromwich also pointed out that the focus on the Ivy League was a “red herring” in Deresiewicz’s argument. The organized and preprofessional Ivy League temperament reflects those of American culture at large, Bromwich said.
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan slammed Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece as a “horribly written essay.”
“I tried to make a list of a things he was complaining about and I stopped at about fifteen,” Kagan said. “His anger, or whatever it is, gets in the way of his making a lucid case. He’s so pissed off that he can’t bring himself to actually defend his point of view.”
Ultimately, Kagan said, he sympathizes with many of Deresiewicz’s points. He agrees that there is rampant grade inflation and that too many Ivy leaguers are heading into consulting and finance. He, too, thinks that Yale students place too much priority on extracurricular activities.
But at the end of the day, Kagan said he is dismayed by Deresiewicz’s attitude towards Yale students.
“He says undergrads at a place like this show little intellectual curiosity. I think to myself, ‘Gosh, he didn’t have my students,’” Kagan said. “Yale is full of people who are highly intellectually curious. If he didn’t see that, he was just doing something wrong during his time here.
Students largely shared professors’ viewpoints, noting that whatever merits are in Deresiewicz’s structural criticism of the Ivy League, his characterizations of students ring false.
Eli Westerman ’18 said he was disturbed that Deresiewicz referred to Yale students as “excellent sheep,” noting that students are intellectually curious and diverse — and eager to become even more so.
Mohammed Malik ’18 said it is up to students themselves to define their college experience. Those who seek a preprofessional experience construct one, whereas those who want to expand their mental horizons can pursue that mission, he said.
Deresiewicz taught in Yale’s English department from 1998 to 2008, when he left after being denied tenure.