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.

  • SamuelRossLee

    “Deresiewicz taught in Yale’s English department from 1998 to 2008, when he left after being denied tenure.”

    Wow. What a way to leave a subtle ad hominem at the end.

    • http://www.presstitutes.org/ Mike Conrad

      It’s certainly pertinent to mention why he left, especially given that his current academic specialty is ‘sour grapes’…

      • aaleli

        It’s absolutely relevant thus negating the ad hominem attack, attack.

        • aldebaran

          So you assert, emptily.

          Deresiewicz’s book is a mirror, and neither side should like the look of their reflection in it.

  • theantiyale

    Holloway expressed sympathy to some of the book’s with the [withering ?] tone and [?]structure of Deresiewicz’s argument,

  • aaleli

    He’s trying to sell books. He’s cashing in on the “plat du jour”- bashing those who are successful. Not sure when it became so in vogue to embrace mediocrity, but if that’s what you’re about then stop being such a hypocrite Deresiewicz.

  • puffthejapanesedragon

    While most of Deresiewicz’s book is unqualified drivel, his criticism of Ivy League admissions standards is well-justified. Notably, Yishai Schwartz’s assertion that Ivy League admissions are meritocratic is a patently absurd claim that has not a shred of data supporting it.

    For a better analysis, look to Ron Unz’s excellent article in the American Conservative, which debunks–with a data-driven analysis that I have not seen refuted elsewhere–that the Yale admissions process is rife with racial quotas and other forms of discrimination, especially against Asian-Americans.

  • yalie2

    What I’ve found most interesting is how defensive people have been about this. It makes sense though.Yale’s reputation as an excellent undergraduate educational institution (and the whole system of a university hierarchy with the Ivy League at the top) is very valuable for Yale students and alumni. We put in a ton of work to (among other reasons) get the benefits of that reputation, and we don’t want somebody screwing it up. Deresiewicz makes a lot of generally accurate points that ought to be taken seriously, and we should get over our gut reaction to defend Yale whenever it’s attacked by outsiders.

    I disagree with Mr. Giambrone. I think it’s pretty clear that Yale is a bastion of wealth and privilege. Yes, there are people who benefit enormously from Yale’s financial aid, but low income students make up < 15% of the student body. 48% of students are wealthy enough that they don't qualify for aid that tops out at incomes over $200k. That's more than triple the median family income, and quadruple the median household income.

    • Nancy Morris

      “Deresiewicz makes a lot of generally accurate points that ought to be taken seriously…”

      Really? How about some examples?

      Harry Lewis, a former Dean at Harvard, has had a lot of thoughtful and perceptive things to say, and collects many reviews, regarding Deresiewicz’s book and article on Lewis’ blog and in an exchange in the Chronicles of a Higher Education. Here, for example:

      http://harry-lewis.blogspot.com/2014/08/my-dialog-with-deresiewicz.html

      I wouldn’t characterize many of Deresiewicz’s points as “generally accurate.” Not everything he says is wrong, but the better reviews more or less run along the lines of the publisher’s rejection letter: “Parts or your work are good and original; unfortunately that which is good is not original, etc.”

  • Nancy Morris

    “English professor David Bromwich … sympathized with Deresiewicz’s argument that today’s Ivy Leaguers are more organized, preprofessional and homogenous than before.”

    O, and does English professor David Bromwich reward students for demonstrated disorganization and unprofessionalism in his classes? Are paragraphs lacking topic sentences cherished and given higher grades in a Bromwich class? Does he laud those who raise their hands to ramble about any old free form thoughts that popped into their heads as they briefly scanned the required reading materials just before seminars? If that’s the case, I could understand Professor Bromwich harboring a hankering for Deresiewicz’s essay in TNR, since it’s a paradigm of disorganized, unprofessional incoherence. But I haven’t heard that about Professor Bromwich at all. No, no, no.

    I’ve heard that English professor Bromwich prefers and rewards with higher grades organized, professional-grade essays, the better the writing the better for the Professor. And for some reason I’ve been told that the Professor rewards students who carefully read the materials, form relevant comments in disciplined fashion after serious professional consideration, take copious notes … and generally comport themselves professionally and produce work product that is itself highly organized and displays clear evidence of an organized process of creation. In other words, I’ve heard that what the Professor likes and rewards is very organized and very pre-professional. Who could be spreading such vile rumors about the Good Professor?

    On the other hand, I don’t know what it means to say a particular student is “homogeneous,” although it doesn’t sound like a compliment. If the point is supposed to be that Yale students are more alike in their goals now than in years past, perhaps it is worth noting that about 80% of the students in the class of 1975 declared themselves to be pre-med. Of course, that was in 1971, and the actual number of students in that class who actually went on to medical school was far smaller. After all, accommodation had to be made for all the people who went on to be lawyers.

    In addition, “homogeneity” seems to be in serious tension with “diversity.” But any walk across the Yale campus will demonstrate to anyone who took the same walk in 1975 that the racial and ethnic diversity at Yale has increased quite a bit. Yet English Professor David Bromwich thinks the students are more “homogeneous” than they were. Is he perhaps observing that meaningful diversity has nothing to do with race or ethnicity? With things and people that don’t LOOK or SEEM alike? Is an African American who attended Andover more like an African American who attended a Bronx public school or like a Caucasian who went to Andover? I don’t know. I don’t even know how one would measure.

    “Diversity” as a modern, valued group feature is a concept that comes from portfolio theory (think David Swensen). A properly diversified portfolio is a more valuable portfolio. It is no accident that Justice Powell, who introduced the concept to American constitutional law, was a securities lawyer before he took to the bench, and made his constitutional insertion right around the time those portfolio concepts got traction. In the 1960’s some fund managers sought to “diversify” their portfolios by buying bits and pieces of this and that, of things that didn’t LOOK or SEEM alike. (How about tossing some Brazilian stocks in the kitty?) It doesn’t work. It turns out that lots of investments that LOOK or SEEM very different don’t ACT very different. (Oops! That Brazilian company exports a lot to the US, so when the US got an economic cold the Brazilian equities caught pneumonia, and the portfolio did not exhibit “diversification” Drat. Nobody ever said education was cheap.)

    Meaningful portfolio diversification requires a lot more research and understanding than just acquiring things that don’t look or seem alike, even if the sense of their apparent disparities is very strong. That understanding and David Swensen’s research on the matter is at the root of Yale’s current prosperity. (Golly, North American timber land is more diversifying than Brazilian electronics equities. Who knew?) Is Professor of English David Bromwich perhaps suggesting (perhaps in spite of himself) that the Yale Admissions Office should be talking more to the Yale Endowment Manager David Swensen on a conceptual level? And then start doing some serious research?

    • mryale

      Wow, this is even more unhinged than we usually see from this source. It starts with a super-angry takedown of a single adjective (“organized”) and then shifts to a rant about diversity.

      The first part is just so Yale: pound pound pound on an unfortunately choice of words, don’t address the substance at all. Surely the professor was saying organized is good but not enough.

      The second part is something Yale and every place like it really needs to address, the conflation of “checking some demographic boxes” with “diversity.” Too bad Morris undermines her argument by making it sound nuts. Because she is right.

      Oh, and Swenson’s innovation was about liquidity (Yale does not need much, since it has a long time horizon, and less liquid investments often have a higher return), not diversification.

      • Nancy Morris

        “Swenson’s innovation was about liquidity”

        You have no idea what you are talking about. Not even a little bit. You can’t even spell his name right. Swensen’s approach is based on diversification theory, the corresponding radical reduction in accepted liquidity is a consequence of his entire approach. Wikipedia is not an ultimate authority, but the basics are there:

        “The Yale Model … consists broadly of dividing a portfolio into five or six roughly equal parts and investing each in a different asset class. Central in the Yale Model is broad diversification and an equity orientation, avoiding asset classes with low expected returns such as fixed income and commodities.”

        The key to the Yale Model is identifying asset classes that reduce diversifiable risk, leaving only systemic risk to the extent possible. To accomplish this central diversification one must deploy money in illiquid alternative investments, and Swensen’s understanding that such illiquidity is acceptable was a particularly revolutionary consequence of his diversification approach. There is a pretty long video of Swensen explaining all this on YouTube in considerable detail, which I suggest you watch. That way you might avoid writing such idiotic and embarrassing things when you flame out as you did here.

        Of course none of that should be construed as suggesting anything else you write here is of any higher quality than your nonsensical misunderstanding of Swensen’s contribution. I’ll let the readers evaluate the rest of it for themselves. I’ll just congratulate you for not even pretending to any grasp of the diversity history or concepts that saturate affirmative action programs and law. But of course that didn’t stop you from ranting all the same. Go figure. And that’s from someone you acknowledge is right.

        I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m curious.: Are you a Yale student or alum?

        • mryale

          Another “pound the hell out of ’em” comment. Amazing.

          • td2016

            I don’t get it. Are you hung over?

            Nancy takes Bromwich’s expressed sympathy for Deresiewicz’s argument that today’s Ivy Leaguers are more “organized, preprofessional and homogenous” than before as a representative case of those expressing such sympathy. That seems fair, although hardly necessary. Then she addresses each of the supposedly critical adjectives: “organized,” “preprofessional” and “homogenous” in order. She suggests “homogeneous” as essentially the opposite of “diverse.” That all seems pretty reasonable and transparent, the exact opposite of “unhinged.” You, personally, seem to have understood what she wrote. I guess you’re having some trouble grasping why she wrote it.

            And I don’t see anger, at least in Nancy…you are another issue entirely. In fact, she’s pretty informative and funny. Sarcastic. Sometimes mean. Maybe a bit more complex and subtle than she needs to be. But funny. Steve Martin famously said: “Comedy is not pretty.”

            And she does pound the hell out of your criticism. Care to address what she says about your representation of the Yale Model, diversification and illiquidity?

          • mryale

            I had never seen that video. I have seen him make other presentations, have looked at the allocation of assets in the Yale portfolio, talked a lot with some of the people who have similar jobs at other places and have a different understanding. At one time Yale (like most places with big endowment) owned almost no assets that required a long-term commitment to yield a high return (most of these are called “private equity” but not all have to be in that class). They worried a lot about diversification within a narrow class of assets, and also acted as if they had to be able to sell the entire portfolio tomorrow. I am not going to get into an argument about what is or is not the “Yale model.” I am sure I am wrong, and that whatever I say with elicit another barrage of scorn.

            But I know that in the 1980s there was a growing appreciation for the fact a diversified portfolio of US stocks is not really much diversification. Yale was not alone in that, you can see it in how Harvard allocated its assets. What Yale did that was truly and radically different was to start buying a lot of things that could not be easily sold. That adds some diversification,of course, but the real insight was that if we know we do not need some money until 10 years from now, we can benefit from the fact that most people do. And get a higher return on it. This is one reason the Yale endowment has recovered more slowly than the US stock market (it has — scorn away, but facts are facts). It is also one of the reasons that some places (like Stanford) that tried to imitate Yale got into real trouble with the financial crisis; they needed more liquidity than they had, and ended up selling some stuff at fire sale prices.

            As for who I am: what rational person would offer grounds for further abuse?

          • td2016

            You wrote, with no lack of scorn and derision yourself, “Oh, and Swenson’s innovation was about liquidity … not diversification.”

            But now you focus on diversification, with liquidity considerations an important derived and induced feature of the diversification scheme, just as Morris said. You agree with her! There’s no reason to be angry and call her names that I can see. I don’t think she’s abusing you, I think she’s trying to be informative and funny (IMO). But I agree that she plays a bit rough.

            I thought her observations that this controversy over this nasty book might point to the need to seriously rethink academic diversity and it’s consequences were interesting. And it’s also interesting that financial diversification theory needed a big re-think. And that Justice Powell was a securities lawyer. I didn’t know that. Did you?

            Peace.

          • Nancy Morris

            Bromwich is not alone in sensing an increase in homogeneity among his students selected with increasing emphasis on diversity. Peter Thiel and co-author David O. Sacks, in the 1995 book The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford, was critical of political correctness and a dilution of academic rigor. It “drew a sharp rebuttal from then-Stanford Provost (and later President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice.” According to his 2011 New Yorker profile, Thiel has backtracked somewhat:

            “All of the identity-related things are in my mind much more nuanced,” he said. “I think there is a gay experience, I think there is a black experience, I think there is a woman’s experience that is meaningfully different. I also think there was a tendency to exaggerate it and turn it into an ideological category.” But his reaction against political correctness, he said, was just as narrowly ideological.

            But how does one determine the optimal proportions of those “meaningfully different” experiences? It is my intuition, and I don’t claim it is more than that, that Thiel and Bromwich and others here mentioned may be sensing that something is wrong with our current notions of human diversity as applied to education. More work needs to be done in this area.

          • Nancy Morris

            Swensen’s Asset Allocation Strategy (1) – YouTube
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZnuXdfK3D4

            Swensen’s Asset Allocation Strategy (2) – YouTube
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5WZQtpy2yE

  • theantiyale

    “It doesn’t work. It turns out that lots of
    investments that LOOK or SEEM very different don’t ACT very different.”

    It’s rather futile, this beatification of
    diversity. We’re all being homogenized—-digitally.
    Hear the words of Alex Ross in this week’s New Yorker

    “.
    . . Pop culture was acquiring its own cultic aspect, one neatly
    configured for technological dissemination. Why, after all, would the need for
    ritual subside when the economic system remained the same? ( [Walter]Benjamin
    once wrote ‘Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme
    that ever existed’) Celebrities were rising to the status of secular gods;
    publicity stills froze their faces in the manner of religious icons. Pop
    musicians elicited Dionysian screams as they danced across the altar of the
    stage. And their aura became, in a sense, even more magical; instead of drawing
    pilgrims from afar, the pop masterpiece is broadcast outward, to a captive
    world congregation. It radiates and saturates.” (p.93)

    THE
    NAYSAYERS: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture

    by

    Alex
    Ross

    The New
    Yorker

    September
    15, 2014

    • Nancy Morris

      It certainly wasn’t futile in the field of portfolio structuring, but it took a lot more work than people thought it would . Swensen and his people had to work their tails off to come up with the proper effective diversification categories, and the job continues always. And the results are hardly without their controversial aspects. Just look at the criticisms of the Yale Model itself, regardless of whether those criticisms are valid (I, personally am not buying the criticisms).

      Whether human diversity of the kind induced by current affirmative action and admissions policies really yields benefits in academic contexts, and what those benefits might be, are far more difficult questions than those posed by financial portfolio theory. Just identifying the proper measures is treacherous, and that’s just the start. More generally, human capital is very different from other kinds of assets, and that’s one big reason why there is a whole sub-field of labor economics.

      But the topic is hardly completely intractable. Perhaps a labor economist of the type of Kevin Murphy at the Uof Chicago might have some ideas, for example. Given the significance human diversity has assumed since Justice Powell inserted it into constitutional considerations, serious analysis of the concept is obviously necessary. The current approach is simply not supported by sound research and theory, and there is good reason to suspect intuition alone is not a good guide.

  • jim

    unsure why YDN quotes freshmen on the state of affairs at Yale, a topic which they (this early in the year) know next to nothing about

  • jim sleeper

    Here is my review of Deresiewicz’s book, mentioned above:

    http://bookforum.com/inprint/021_02/13291

    In my review I, like colleagues quoted here, endorsed many of Deresiewicz’s criticisms of elite colleges but criticized how he’s staged them. And I predicted that “Deresiewicz and his publishers have crafted this book for a coronation by the gilded cage’s resident pundits and conscience keepers, who’ll use it to guide the kept through yet another empty ritual of self-flagellation on the way back to college this fall.”

    That’s precisely what the excellent sheep who drive the news media have done — and what those who turn out in droves for D’s campus-coronation tour will be doing, too. And here’s a follow-up that I posted in SALON after The New Republic fulfilled my prediction precisely by publishing a chapter of Deresiewicz’s book under the title, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League.”

    http://www.salon.com/2014/07/28/new_republicivy_league_hypocrisy_watch_we_all_went_to_elite_schools_but_you_shouldnt/

    I should note also, though, that most of the comments posted below this story, in focusing solely on the university’s investment portfolio, tend to confirm the criticisms of elite colleges that Deresiewicz and others of us mentioned in the story have made. So, Q.E.D., and a point for Deresiewicz.