American Horror, Ivy League Edition

Alexander Nazaryan

In 1911, the fictional Dink Stover arrived at Yale, “leisurely divested himself of his trim overcoat” and coolly strolled into campus life. “He had come to conquer,” writes Owen Johnson in the 1912 novel called Stover at Yale, “and zest was in his step.” Stover’s zest has little to do with intellectual inquest, as Johnson makes perfectly clear: “Four glorious years, good times, good fellows,” this was in store for Stover. Much of the novel is indeed concerned with Stover’s jockeying for social position, even if, by the end of the affair, he tires of the “unnecessary fetish” of the secret societies that defined life in New Haven for much of its tercentenary existence.

William Deresiewicz arrived at Yale nearly 90 years after Stover did, a real person who reveled in fictional things: an English professor. He taught in Yale’s vaunted English department for the next 10 years. In the half-decade since, he has been writing about higher education, most notably in The American Scholar, where two of his essays, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership,” garnered the kind of attention that suggests that he’d hit not a raw nerve but a diseased organ. Now comes his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, whose title makes crushingly clear just what Deresiewicz thinks of Johnny Harvard and his buddies in the Ancient Eight. To say the least, Stover’s “great university dedicated to liberty of thought and action” has become, in this telling, little more than a funnel into the junior ranks of Goldman Sachs. An excerpt from Deresiewicz’s book was recently a New Republic cover story, illustrated by a burning Harvard flag. “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” that cover said.

A review of William Deresiewicz’s book: Excellent Sheep.