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Excellent Sheep: Free-Thinking and Moral Living at College

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little.” – “Middlemarch” by George Eliot

Attending college immediately after high school is the expected course for students today. In his book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life,” William Deresiewicz demands that students challenge the system of higher education by asking, “Why?”  In 2008, Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, published an essay in The American Scholar entitled, “The Disadvantage of an Elite Education,” in which he asserted that colleges have forgotten that they exist to educate and develop the mind of the student, not train them for a career. This issue is most prevalent at what the author calls elite colleges (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.).

Deresiewicz encourages students to seek identity rather than vocational training while pursuing a college education. He writes about the walls put up by the admissions process and how they create barriers of entry for many students. He also discusses the lack of mentorship by professors due to class size and the pressure to publish.

One of the more interesting topics the author discusses is that of moral courage. He reflects on George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and the decisions the characters made throughout the novel. Deresiewicz praises Dorothea, the main character of the story, for her rash and horrible marriage to a crusty old scholar several decades her senior because she deviated from social expectations and pursued her intellectual curiosity. Deresiewicz sees Dorothea as a great example of pursuing your passions, but fails to see how tedious Dorothea’s life became when she did. Eliot wrote, “Men outlive their love, but they don’t outlive the consequences of their recklessness.”

[pq]Higher education needs a change in ideology, not an increase in funding.[/pq]

In my opinion, the only examples of moral courage in the novel were Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Mary worked diligently as a nurse to support herself and help her parents while Fred, a reckless youth, prepared for a position in the church. It was not until Fred found his calling as a land agent that he found value in a vocation. Turning down an expected position for a position he was interested in was morally courageous not because he went against the grain, but because he found value in an occupation that would allow for him to buy a home and start a family. Mary’s encouragement for him to find work with value makes her the true heroine of Middlemarch, not Dorothea Brooks.

Deresiewicz praises Eliot herself for being a solid example of moral courage, but this seems far from the truth. Her insistence on being accepted on her own terms may sound heroic, but in reality her lifestyle was largely a rejection of God and His created order—Eliot left the church, became an atheist, and entered into a relationship with a married man. Deresiewicz credits Eliot with being a hero of social progress, and uses the final line of the novel as a weapon for this assertion, “That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” This line does not appropriately describe Eliot’s brazen attitude and immoral actions. If Deresiewicz suggests that students should follow Eliot’s lead when shaping themselves, he is grossly misleading the sheep.

However, despite “Middlemarch” and the life of George Eliot being poor examples of moral courage, the concept is still important. While in college, it is critical for a student to define themselves as an individual. In that vein, Deresiewicz launches into a detailed analysis of the importance of a liberal arts education. He argues that what a student majors in should fulfill their soul, not necessarily their wallet. I found it disconcerting, however, that he seems to celebrate the corruption of truth. He asserts that truth is personal and relative as opposed to absolute. As education has evolved, he recognizes that “The minister in the college chapel, preaching doctrine, gave way to the professor in the classroom, leading a discussion” (p. 157). This has moved discussion from, “Is it true?” to “Is it true for me?” This acceptance of relativity isn’t a step in the right direction.

To fix our higher education system, Deresiewicz suggests that we must reform the way college is funded.  He argues that post-secondary education should be funded the same way K-12 education is funded, by the government. Why? Because every person deserves a post-secondary education. He even goes as far as to claim that higher education is a human right. He wants to create a fair society by paying for “free, first-rate public higher education.” Claiming that education should be free is misleading—it will still be paid for by the tax payer. And throwing money at education won’t fix the system, it will only grow the bureaucracy.

But is there another way? Deresiewicz never addresses the possibility of repealing student loans and allowing post-secondary education to stay in the hands of the private sector. Colleges use federal aid dollars to make up their budgets. Imagine what the academic scene would look like if those federal aid dollars were not available? People would be forced to compete for private dollars, and the prospective student would become a more informed consumer, causing the price of college to decrease dramatically. This isn’t a fix-all, but it could put the system on the path to a healthier structure.

He concludes rather bitterly that, “We don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we need to love our neighbor’s children as our own” (p. 242). I think we can do better. A love of learning and appreciation for the liberal arts cannot be legislated or funded into existence, it must be cultivated from a young age both at home and at school. This will require a change in ideology, not an increase in funding. A lack of competition in the system Deresiewicz proposes will not liberate the sheep currently residing in America’s institutions of higher learning, it will simply herd them in another direction.