Higher education in the United States is the scapegoat of first resort for the country’s lagging indicators of prosperity, individual achievement and civilizational excellence.
The American university had it coming. It has pillaged the pedagogy of the liberal-arts tradition in favor of corporatized research, trustee courtiership and legacy big-donor admissions. And contrary to the myth that a degree from an elite college is a port of entry to access the American good life, higher learning accelerates the scourge of economic inequality. For all the resources and pious rhetoric showered on the American university as an engine of opportunity and upward mobility, the numbers tell a different story. Nine out of 10 students entering college from the top quartile of income end up graduating from our institutions of higher learning. The share from the bottom quartile who graduate? Less than 25 percent.
William Deresiewicz’s new jeremiad, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, distills right down to its hyperbolic subtitle the talismanic liberal faith that America can be set back on the right path with enough wisdom cribbed from the right kinds of intellectual leaders.
Deresiewicz, a former associate professor of English at Yale, upset the Ivy League apple cart with his 2008 American Scholar essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Our college scene is deranged by one-upmanship, both between students and universities, he complained. Besotted with the bromides of managerial groupthink and the U.S. News ranking system, university leaders have lost all sense of intellectual vocation. They don’t revere learning for its own sake, Deresiewicz lamented, and the striving kids-in-a-hurry thronging Ivy League preserves too eagerly adopt the self-congratulatory mien of their social betters who run the big-ticket Ivies. As a result, students typically cocoon themselves in their privilege.
Having sealed his reputation as a defender of the examined life, Deresiewicz now acts as an Oprah Winfrey for the undergraduate set. He lavishes would-be students with unsolicited advice, from what sort of schools to enroll in — small liberal arts colleges — to how best to spend a year away from the academic grind — work at a “part-time job,” while quartered in a “lousy apartment with a bunch of friends.” If nothing else, Deresiewiecz enthuses, “you’ll probably meet the kinds of people that you’d never have had a chance to otherwise.”
As such small-bore counsel piles up across the pages of Excellent Sheep, you realize that, for all his declamations, Deresiewicz remains obsessed with the fine-tuning of elite experience. Even as he pronounces the need “not simply to reform [the meritocratic university] system root and branch, but to begin to plot our exit to another form of leadership, another kind of society altogether,” Deresiewicz is unable to wean himself from the care and feeding of our self-anointed intellectual elite, nor from the bedrock conviction that all schemes of social improvement must be about them. Hence Deresiewicz informs us that “another kind of society altogether” will be born from ultra-meritocratic measures like weighting SAT scores to the socioeconomic backgrounds of test takers and capping the number of extracurricular activities students can list on college applications. As social revolutions go, this is not Aux barricades, fonctionnaires! (Indeed, like other writers on the subject, Deresiewicz fails to note that “meritocracy” was coined in a satirical novel by the British socialist academic Michael Young, to dramatize how brutal social progress at the hands of a knowledge elite can be.)
So rather than taking a sojourn among the working class to round out a deficient elite life curriculum, why not reverse the tacit social logic here? Finish the work begun by the GI Bill — which wreaked a sea change in access to quality higher education via the direct method of driving down its cost — and nationalize American institutions of higher learning, abolishing anything more than a nominal tuition fee. Yes, amid present conditions, this is utopian. But it’s no less realistic — and infinitely more democratic — than the expectation that better-trained meritocrats somehow will rescue the rest of us.