The eloquent educational critic and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz enjoyed a conspicuous summer. In anticipation of the August 19 release of his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, Deresiewicz published a powerful and controversial essay in New Republic, critiquing the educational standards and vision of elite American universities.
In his New Republic article, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivies,” Deresiewicz articulates what has become his clarion call to American educators: Elite universities have long embraced a logic that is constituted by narrowly understood standards of achievement, which perpetuate an intellectual and affective educational environment not at all conducive to cultivation of intellectual virtues, authentic humanitarianism, and what Deresiewicz has called in another essay “a pilgrim soul.” In short: Elite universities—Deresiewicz focuses specifically on Ivy League institutions—stifle the soul and breed, on average, students who are “excellent sheep”: “Kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it,” as he defined them in an August interview.
Speaking as a man with 24 years of firsthand Ivy League experience (first as an undergraduate and doctoral student at Columbia, then as a professor at Yale), Deresiewicz’s anecdotes of his time at the Ivies confirm the pathologies that he diagnoses. Reading his work attentively and with interest, I discovered with some discomfort but no surprise that the same symptoms exhibited by the Ivies are not so foreign to Notre Dame’s campus culture.
“There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail,” Deresiewicz wrote in a 2008 essay. “Before, after, and around the elite college classroom, a constellation of values is ceaselessly inculcated,” among which values are “self-aggrandizement” and “being in service to yourself,” as he put it this summer. Students at top universities are bombarded from the moment of their matriculation with an insistent refrain: “You are the best and the brightest. You are the future visionaries of this nation, and the world.”
Pride, of course—that most ancient and persistent of vices—is an occupational hazard of attendance at any highly ranked university. But in a particular way, Deresiewicz argues persuasively, elite universities foster a worrisome metaphysical, moral, and spiritual blindness in their students that disables them from engaging the world critically, on its—and their—own terms, independently of the highly specific and analytical nature of course assignments, applications and admissions processes, and the vastly ritualized and hierarchical nature of ascendance within professional cultures. “This is also why they’re sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction,” Deresiewicz wrote this summer of elite students. “They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do … [but] that’s not a real self-possession.”
This diagnosis, I submit, is largely true of Notre Dame and its student population, as I argued last autumn in an Irish Rover editorial titled “What is Notre Dame Really Like?” A careerist culture infests Notre Dame, and the administrative rhetoric on full display during Freshman Orientation ceremonies serenely bolsters it. New and returning students alike are bludgeoned with reminders to “make good on their investment here,” and while the phrase “return on investment” is invoked less often, the conviction that it placeholds is commonplace: “You are society’s best and brightest. You will change the world, and all you need to do is continue to achieve in the ways that paved your way here in the first place. Success will be yours—indeed, it’d better be.”
Deresiewicz laments that once duly ingested by students, such rhetoric blinds their vision and obscures their vocational horizon. “Isn’t it beneath me?” these students often think of “ordinary” callings. Thus, “A whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.” Ironically, even the perennial collegiate injunctions to “think for oneself” and “be individual” are subsumed into ritualized expectations that students robotically labor to meet, fulfill, and exceed.
Lost amid this intellectual and affective fraying is an ideal that ought to be central to Notre Dame’s intellectual apostolate: the cultivation of the cardinal ideal of personal vocation. If, as Deresiewicz says, “The true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers,” then the true purpose of a Catholic education is to underscore that mind, heart, and spirit should converge in a continual decision of the will to discern how Christ is calling one to participate in his building of the Kingdom, and then to execute that will to the best of one’s ability.
This unique task is held out to each Christian as an invitation, not a directive; as a summons, not a command. Christ the Good Shepherd calls Christian students to realize their gifts in accord with his will, not their own. His will is normative; ours is, at best, attentively responsive. His establishes what “success” will look like for us; our response to his call makes possible or thwarts our realization of that success.
Perhaps, then, being an excellent sheep isn’t such a bad thing. Our vocation as Christians consists fully in responding humbly to the call of our Good Shepherd. Exchanging the stunted excellence promoted by the logic of elite education and its attendant careerist culture for a more authentic excellence is Notre Dame’s province—its institutional vocation—as a Catholic, dare I say elite, university.
Here’s to becoming still more excellent sheep.
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Irish Rover on 9/11/14.