Stocker: ‘Excellent Sheep’ overlooks complexities of college students


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

This weekend, while many of my fellow Northwestern students watched the Wildcats’ pummeling at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, I was engaged in a spirited discussion with a good friend from my hometown. We debated the merits of former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz’s arguments in “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” which are nicely summed up in a controversial article he wrote for The New Republic in July 2014. Deresiewicz argues elite institutions are problematic because they reinforce class structures, preventing a true American meritocracy. Although it is true that the American higher education system is tied to increasing economic inequality, Deresiewicz undermines his argument with a broad-based attack on students at elite institutions. He argues elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and NU are a sub-optimal place to receive an education because “kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.”

I find it surprising that Deresiewicz claims students at elite institutions are somehow less interesting and less curious than their peers at other institutions. To criticize the admissions policies of these universities is one thing, but to attack the students themselves is confounding. He argues that small liberal arts schools — Reed, Oberlin, Wesleyan, etc. — are where you can find the most interesting young people. Deresiewicz claims elite schools’ admissions policies, by “selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.” In his imagined world, schools like NU and the University of Chicago are filled with mindless drones hell-bent on receiving good grades and landing the perfect job but lacking in unique, defining characteristics.

As I come to the midway point of my final Fall Quarter here at NU, I can confidently say that Deresiewicz’s attacks on students at elite institutions are unfounded, and moreover, downright incorrect. From the moment I arrived at NU, my fellow students have never failed to amaze me with just how interesting, unique and passionate they really are. To call their devotion to academics, or their future career a “faithful drudge” is baffling and appalling. Sadly, criticisms like Deresiewicz’s are commonplace here at NU. All too often I hear NU students bemoan how careerist and boring their peers are. I see two primary flaws with this argument.

First, careerism is not something inherently negative. Although I favor a liberal arts education, not everybody wants to study the humanities and social sciences. Students who focus on their post-graduation career are no better or worse than those who experiment and explore while in college. Moreover, I have found that I can learn just as much from career- and academic-oriented students as I do from those more heavily engaged in activism, the arts or some other pursuit. Last winter I took part in consulting internship recruiting. That experience taught me just as much about myself as the best courses I have taken here, or all but my most central extracurricular activities. To speak ill of career-oriented students is judgmental and counter-productive. Elite institutions like NU produce leaders in the professions; learn from the perspectives of society’s future consultants, bankers, lawyers, doctors and academics.

Second, careerism does not preclude someone from being interesting. I understand it is difficult to pursue other interests when academics and post-graduation plans are your focus. Yet, here at NU, students do just that. It is true that many NU students do not display their passions to the rest of the student body. The most fascinating and unique people I know here have interests relatively unknown to the rest of their peers. Get to know your classmates, even your friends, a little better, and you might be surprised by what you find. Throughout my years here I have found a future doctor with a passion for history, politics and guitar, consultants with a passion for architecture and German culture, or street art and squash, or poetry and theater, a future economist who can lay down an amazing rap about Janet Yellen, and dozens of other colorful characters who have taught me about the depth of human character and the surprises within each of us.

To paraphrase many great teachers, judge not others for their pursuits and choices. Deresiewicz has no right to label one student’s interests or activities “more interesting” than another’s, and nor do any of us. Rather than judge, get to know your fellow students. I have been pleasantly surprised every time; there is a great deal of depth and complexity to every one of us.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at
[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.