In the spring of 2008, William Deresiewicz taught his last class at Yale. In the summer of 2008, he published an essay explaining how an Ivy League education had messed up his life, and the lives of his students.
Elite schools, Deresiewicz argued, give their students an inflated sense of self-worth. They reward perfectionism and punish rebelliousness. They funnel timid students into a handful of jobs, mostly in consulting and investment banking (and now Teach for America). For a real education, he went on to suggest, you might want to head to one of the wonkier liberal arts colleges, or to a state school.
For those sensitive to the advantages of Deresiewicz’s pedigree (a B.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia, followed by 10 years on Yale’s English faculty), this might sound like a rarefied form of whining. But Deresiewicz’s essay took off. Then an undergraduate at Yale, I remember reading it with a quiet mix of amazement and horror. A former professor could say this stuff? About us?
In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.