According to William Deresiewicz, author of the controversial book, “Excellent Sheep,” attending college should be like going to a monastery — one should go for precisely the reason of finding out why one is going.
Over 100 “excellent sheep,” the term Deresiewicz uses to describe college students at elite institutions, herded into the Morse College Master’s House on Wednesday to hear the author speak about the meaning of a true education and give his thoughts on whether or not Yale students are “zombie” Ivy Leaguers.
Deresiewicz — who formerly taught in Yale’s English department — catalyzed a national debate this summer when he published an article entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” in The New Republic. His visit to Yale is part of a larger college tour that also stops at Harvard, Columbia, Brown and others, to promote his book, which came out in August.
“Here is what I am saying: If you got to Yale, you have been taught to care about a specific type of things, all under the rubric of success,” Deresiewicz said. “But what college should help you do … is to question — really everything — but specifically those things that have structured your choices.”
Morse College Master Amy Hungerford, who taught alongside Deresiewicz in the English department, began the discussion by directing questions away from the sections of the book that have gained the most media attention, which she said was in an effort to avoid having a simplified debate over the pros and cons of attending Ivy League schools. Rather, she started the conversation by asking Deresiewicz on the meaning and process of “building one’s self.”
Deresiewicz said it is unfair to expect colleges to produce students with a clear sense of passion. But, he said, colleges should at the very least teach students how to find their passion — a word that he admitted is often overly “fetishized.”
But what this means to each person should be different, he said. He decried the trend of Ivy League-educated students choosing jobs in popular fields such as finance, consulting or Teach for America simply because they are available and generally keep one’s life opportunities open.
Deresiewicz also spoke on the topic of leadership.
For students fresh out of high school, it is common to think of leadership as simply being popular he said — but he involved Ralph Waldo Emerson’s counter-definition of leadership, which involves being alone and following one’s own sense of right and wrong.
“Leadership has become this incredibly cliché buzzword on American campuses,” Deresiewicz said. “On the most charitable interpretation, ‘leadership’ means literally nothing at all. If you truly look at how it is used, it really means ‘becoming a big shot.’”
Still, Deresiewicz reserved some kind words for his former employer, admitting that teaching at Yale allowed for more flexibility than at some of the University’s peer institutions. He noted however, that some of the best teachers at Yale are not the tenured professors.
He added that what makes liberal arts schools — such as Reed College and Wesleyan University — more compelling in general is their greater ability to nurture students.
“Students have told me that they can get a great education at Yale,” Deresiewicz said. “But you have to fight for it.”
Despite the furor that has erupted on campus over Deresiewicz’s philosophies, student reactions to his statements at the event were relatively subdued.
A moment of heated exchange occurred when Marissa Medansky ’15, a former opinion editor for the News, asked whether Deresiewicz now saw himself as a “guru” in traveling to different colleges and promoting a “prescriptive guide for living.”
“It sounds kind of pukey, right? That’s the tone I am getting from you,” Deresiewicz answered. “It sounds like self-help and that sounds vulgar and presumptuous, but I [do] think that people need help … and in some ways this is just office hours.”
While some students were openly supportive of Deresiewicz’s statements, others remained unconvinced.
Sandeep Peddada ’16 said Deresiewicz’s article in The New Republic this summer first seemed unfair — but also made a good argument that was backed up well.
Soumya Kambhampati ’18 said he felt that Deresiewicz’s article was provocative, though in person Deresiewicz seemed more conciliatory and willing to admit the merits of the Ivy League. Deresiewicz also often relied upon stereotypes when describing Yale students, Kambhampati said.
Nitika Khaitan ’16 said her experience at Yale was entirely unlike the descriptions Deresiewicz provided in his book. She added that she was surprised, however, in the commonalities she found with some of his beliefs.
Deresiewicz studied biology and psychology at Columbia University, and also worked as a freelance dance critic while in graduate school.