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Rethinking Elite Higher Education

OPB | Aug. 12, 2014 12:06 p.m. | Updated: Aug. 13, 2014 11:35 a.m.

The Portland writer William Deresiewicz says we need to rethink the entire system of elite American higher education, including the admissions-focused activities that lead up to college and the careers that follow. He recently published these ideas as a cover article for The New Republic. With a picture of a burning Harvard flag and an equally incendiary title — “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” — it led to responses in The New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Now he’s releasing the full argument.

His new book is called Excellent Sheep. It’s a blistering indictment of a system that has been in place for decades now. Deresiewicz takes aim at helicopter parents and the pre-professional childhoods over which they hover. He acknowledges that many of those young people turn into smart, driven, and hardworking college students. But, he argues, they lack the imagination, passion, and courage to make their own way in the world. Instead, these students from Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford, and a few dozen other elite schools, too often see the next rung on a fancy ladder as an end in itself. They are the excellent sheep of his title.

(It’s worth noting here that Deresiewicz is both a product of this world, as a Columbia undergrad, and a longtime participant in it, as a former Yale professor. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I went to Harvard. Baaaaaa.)

The antidote, Deresiewicz argues, is a fundamental rethinking of the purpose of college. He’s calling for a return to the ideas and the ideals of a liberal arts education, in which students truly learn to think for themselves, about themselves, and about the world. What’s more, he says, college should be transformative:

The purpose of college … is to turn adolescents into adults. You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished. That is a true education: accept no substitutes. The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning—the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons—then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.

Did you go to an elite school? What did you get out of it? What do you see as the purpose of college?

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