You could prove the laws of chemistry wrong by experimenting with dirty test tubes. Kenneth Binmore

“Restore free, high-quality, public higher education”

The current competition to get into one of America’s elite universities is designed to produce only “excellent sheep”. Ben Hill spoke with former Yale professor and best-selling author Bill Deresiewicz about what has gone wrong with America’s top schools and what can be done to save them.

The European: Dr. Deresiewicz, in your recent book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and a Way to a Meaningful Life”, you level compelling criticism against the college admissions process. Could you briefly explain what makes someone an excellent sheep?
Deresiewicz: What makes students into excellent sheep is the college admissions process itself, and the childhood and adolescence that process creates for students whose parents aspire to send them to the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges. The admissions process has such a long list of requirements and, because it’s so competitive, their whole lives are geared towards it – often from seventh or fourth grade onwards, sometimes even earlier. It becomes a long process of jumping through hoops, checking off boxes, running as fast as you can, and doing what the adults tell you to do.

The European: Why do you call these students “excellent sheep”?
Deresiewicz: Kids, even from a very young age, are under tremendous pressure to be perfect, to do everything perfectly, and they are never given the opportunity to think about why they’re doing it, to decide whether they want to do it, to develop a real sense of purpose, a real understanding of what they care about, because they’re so busy trying to do everything the right way. They end up being very good at doing the things the adults want them to do, be it parents, teachers, or coaches. That’s why they’re "excellent.“ But they’re very bad at directing their own lives, because they are never given any autonomy to do so, so they’re “sheep.” And this has a lot of consequences for them later in life, and for all of us too.

“The problem is that students are risk-averse.”

The European: Were you surprised by the amount of attention your book received last summer, and were you pleased with the conversations it has spurred on college campuses?
Deresiewicz: I was a little surprised, and I would say the conversation has been very diverse. I did a lot of events at campuses on my book tour and I continue to do more events this year, and I’ve been very happy with almost all of those conversations, because I actually got a chance to talk to students, who are able to hear the whole thing that I’m saying and not just the sound bites that get into the media like “don’t send your kids to the Ivy League” or "entitled little shit.” Students have a lot of concerns, they have been looking for a place to talk about them, and even a vocabulary with which to do so. Other aspects of the conversation have been less edifying, generally the ones I haven’t been involved in directly. But I think what’s most valuable is that the book helped put these issues out there and is forcing people to confront them.

The European: As one reviewer put it, all the vehement and negative reviews seem to confirm your point, and that through “savaging a risk-averse and narrow-minded professorship, you hit the bulls-eye.”
Deresiewicz: The only thing I don’t like about that statement is that my criticism is not aimed primarily at professors. They may be risk-averse too, for they are products of the same system after all, but that is not the problem. The problem is that students are risk-averse, parents are risk-averse, and the so-called leaders the system has been giving us for the last thirty years or so are intentionally risk-averse: and not just risk-averse, but very self-serving. But I agree that almost all the negative reviews have tended to uniformly confirm what I’m saying.

The European: Who is to blame for perpetuating the way the elite colleges operate?
Deresiewicz: It’s important to recognize that neither the colleges, nor the students, nor their parents, nor the professors, nor just about anybody else involved in the system is acting exclusively out of some misguided sense of purpose, and is therefore the root of the problem. This is partly why the system is so hard to change: Everybody is responding in a more or less understandable way to the incentives that the system has placed on them. Not necessarily the best way, not necessarily the only way they have to.

“Free until Ronald Reagan got his hands on it.”

The European: Why are colleges and universities investing less to reward and keep good professors (like granting tenured positions), and spending more on things like constructing luxurious campus facilities?
Deresiewicz: This is a very important issue. Higher education has been turned into a consumer business and this is partly the result of specific policy changes over the past 40 years on the part of a government aligned with a neoliberal model, where they said, “Let’s make colleges compete for student dollars. Let’s give the money to the students rather than the colleges and let’s make them compete with students as if they were customers.” People talk about the “customer service mentality.” Colleges are now trying to appeal to seventeen and eighteen year-olds who don’t always make the best choices or don’t understand what the best reasons are for going to a certain college. And the colleges must also scramble now more for alumni money. They’re borrowing a lot on the debt market, they’re spending money on the dorms and the sports teams and everything except instruction, because unfortunately that’s the last thing anybody cares about. A big part of this is the students’ problem, not the schools. The schools are responding to the perceived desires of their potential customers. It is true that some schools have done better than others, and have continued to maintain the educational vision essential to what they do. So it’s not like it has to be this way, but they are all chasing the same tuition dollars.

The European: You write a lot about the system of meritocracy. College rankings depend largely on the exclusivity of their admissions processes and are geared towards taking only your excellent sheep. At what stage do you think this cycle can best be broken?
Deresiewicz: This to me is the heart of the issue. It’s linked to what we’ve done to public higher education. We’ve withdrawn public support from public higher education. Go back forty years; We had some of the best public university systems in the world, most obviously the University of California. The University of California was free, free until Ronald Reagan got his hands on it. And then they started charging some fees, but it was actually tuition free until the early 1980s. Imagine that. But then you start charging ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five-thousand dollars a year for public university tuition, and at the same time you’ve been withdrawing public support so the schools are getting worse. They’re getting worse in the sense that they’re fewer classes being offered, students are often shut out of classes and have to take five to six years to graduate. Students and families are going to feel increasingly like their only chance is to go to the shiniest, name-brand, private university they can. That’s also partly why the private universities have been able to raise tuition by so much. It’s supply and demand.

“That’s money the taxpayers should have been paying.”

The European: And how has that affected the admissions process?
Deresiewicz: If everybody is chasing the same few schools, their admissions rates are going to plummet and they will be able to choose whomever they can. There’s been this arms race among students and families, what they call the “credential arms race” or the “resume arms race,” where, if the kid sitting next to you has ten extracurriculars, you need to have eleven. If they have six APs you need to have eight. But there’s really no advantage—in fact there are many disadvantages—to having so many extracurriculars and so many APs. But universities have collaborated in this because their admissions process is driven by a lot of metrics. They have large and dedicated admissions staff, who read the folders individually, but still, there are a lot of numbers there. So they are paying attention to these numbers, even though the numbers are not necessarily meaningful. So to me, the answer is: Make the commitment, on the part of tax-payers, to restore free, high-quality, public higher education.

The European: What exactly would that change?
Deresiewicz: If we had students competing for not just 20,000 spots at selective schools, but 400,000 spots, then you wouldn’t have this madness. And you wouldn’t have families going into debt. Listen, the reason we have 1.2 trillion dollars in student debt is because that is money that we as taxpayers should have been paying. We shifted the cost of paying for university from the taxpayers to students, and this was the result of deliberate government policies, mainly by Republicans, that has continued to this day. Reagan said, “The public shouldn’t subsidize intellectual curiosity.” And as you may know—especially since you’re in Germany—many other advanced countries provide free education for as long as you want.

The European: What do you think about the institutions of higher education in Europe and elsewhere? Could they possibly serve as models for reform?
Deresiewicz: I’m not an expert in international higher education, and I do think the American system does some things really well. We have a large diversity of students. We are the only country pretty much that offers a liberal arts education, in the sense of taking a lot of different things. We used to see college as a preparation for life and not just a career. But now we need to follow in the footsteps of some of these other countries and fund the system properly. Of course, this isn’t just about higher education. It’s our whole philosophy of social welfare.

“We’re really just talking about rearranging the chairs in the upper middle class.”

The European: Nathan Heller at “The New Yorker” said that you were “right that today’s students are more risk adverse, but that is partly because there is more risk to be adverse to.” Is there any merit to the fear that most students feel about the grim realities of the job market waiting for them after college?
Deresiewicz: No. And like many things that Nathan Heller said with his enormous New Yorker condescension, he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And if he had actually read my book with any attention he would have realized that. This is not a problem that started in 2008: The meritocracy has been going on for 50 years. It was true through the Reagan boom in the 1980s, it was true during the Clinton boom in the 1990s. This is the logic of the system. Yes, the middle class is getting squeezed and there’s much more risk, or at least there was (we’re coming out of it now). People will cite unemployment statistics without recognizing that different class levels are experiencing very different economies. Looking at youth unemployment is one thing, but if you look at youth unemployment with college degrees it’s much, much lower. Even young people with college degrees have unemployment rates on the order of 3 to 4%. Even when the overall unemployment rate was 8 or 10%, it was still 3 or 4%.

The European: Why is there such a big misconception about undergraduate unemployment?
Deresiewicz: When we’re talking about people who went to selective colleges, there isn’t actually a lot of risk in their lives, and they only think there is because they’ve been terrified by their crazy helicopter parents since the moment they were born. For example: two things. One is that most students who apply to selective colleges… get in. They don’t necessarily get into the college they want to go to, but they get into a selective college. We’re really just talking about rearranging the chairs in the upper-middle class. We’re not talking about falling out of the upper-middle class. The other thing is, for most kids, for your typical white middle class or upper-middle class kid, future earnings are independent of where they went to school. There is a great study about it. What matters is you the individual and not the school you went to, and if you had gone to Penn State instead of Princeton you would end up, on average, with the same future earnings. So there’s an enormous amount of misinformation and propaganda and fear mongering, and Nathan Heller is one of the people who contributes to it.

The European: And this fear mongering is playing right into the hands of these elite universities and college counselors, who are implicitly saying, “it’s here or bust.”
Deresiewicz: That is exactly right.

The European: There are those who argue that there is a stroke of elitism in your critique, that any number of years devoted to self-discovery is only possible for students who enter with an upper-middle class financial cushion.
Deresiewicz: This is another giant pile of bullshit. First of all, this idea that a liberal arts education that includes self-reflection and self-discovery is something that has always been the preserve of the elite is simply not true. It’s been a part of the idea of American higher education from the beginning, when we began the long, remarkable climb towards mass public higher education, which we did really starting during the Civil War, if not before: the Morrill Land-Grant Acts and then the continued expansion of public universities, the GI bill, the University of California system, the whole thing. This is why we have English departments. We needed a liberal arts curriculum for people who hadn’t studied the classical languages in prep school. It’s the reason why we have general education and core curricula. And, in fact, the heyday of public higher education in the 1960s was also the heyday of the humanities and the English major. So the notion that these middle class and working class kids either can’t or don’t want to do the self-reflection thing is simply wrong.

“Acquiring liberal arts skills is very valuable on the job market.”

The European: When did we start thinking that the liberal arts were for the rich?
Deresiewicz: It coincides with this push against the liberal arts in general. And, listen, the truth is that if only the elite can supposedly afford self-discovery and self-reflection, well they aren’t doing it either. We know that the number of English majors at Harvard and Yale has fallen sharply. We know that people are studying Economics, Engineering, Computer Science, because they’ve been told they have to study something practical. So this is not about the elite continuing with the liberal arts education, this is about a general ideological shift away from it. It’s also true that as college gets more expensive, it’s harder for students to think about giving themselves a complete education, but actually—and this is the other part of the bullshit—the notion that the two things are antithetical is pricelessly mistaken.

The European: How so?
Deresiewicz: This notion that a liberal arts education is somehow a luxury that won’t lead to success on the job market is wrong. I have several pages about this in the book about how acquiring liberal arts skills is very valuable on the job market, and I would even say it’s one of the ways that the elite perpetuates its own economic success. People know that for some highly skilled jobs and leadership positions it’s very valuable to have this kind of education. And if you’re just being trained to be an engineer or whatever, you may have a good middle income, but you’re not going to be able to rise to the top.

The European: Looking from our point in 2015 towards the future, how optimistic are you that these depressing trends may one day swing in favor of the soulful education you support?
Deresiewicz: I think the one thing I’ve learned about the future is that you can’t predict it. Things that seem impossible now may become inevitable in a few years. Things that seem inevitable now turn out not to have been. It does seem like the trends are still going in the wrong direction, but there is a lot of resistance. There are already municipalities in the States that have begun to issue reforms. I’ve really learned that since the book was published, because a lot of people have been writing to me about it, that there’s also a lot of resistance to the system among parents. They see what’s happening to their kids, and they want to do something about it, and a lot of them are in fact doing things about it. I’m not optimistic in the sense that it’s likely, but I think in general there’s a growing push against all the things that have caused this ridiculous inequality.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Michael Bloomberg: “People care about services, not ideologies”

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