I am worried about preaching to the choir,” Bill Deresiewicz says, smiling. Garnering a few laughs, this remark set the tone for the following lecture and Q & A session. Deresiewicz began his lecture with a genesis story: how his new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life came to be. Beginning with praise for his critical essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” Deresiewicz described the letters of agreement he received from both students and faculty at schools all across America. His basic premise is this: the “Elite” academies, such as the much-bemoaned Ivy League Institutions, produce not good citizens, but anxious, unfulfilled, business professionals.
He began slowly: “I’m going to read for about a half an hour so, um, I hope you had some coffee.” During his lecture, in which he read from his new book, Deresiewicz seemed defensive. Many college faculty, journalists, and critics alike have criticized his book, its implications, wording, and possible applications for American academies. Each time during his reading, upon approaching a controversial line, he preempted the conversation by giving a defense of what he wrote, using information in other parts of the book or information he didn’t include in the book at all. The controversial sections, discussing the nature of art, the humanities, and the meaning of education, can be found discussed at length in Nathan Heller’s review of Excellent Sheep in the September 1 issue of the New Yorker and in other reviews.
For one, Deresiewicz is completely unconcerned with the departments of natural or social sciences. Nor is he concerned with the performing arts or with high schools. Although he acknowledges that the problems endemic to the Ivies are problems many high schools face, he neglected to provide any advice on those points during his lecture. “Know your audience,” is a phrase Deresiewicz returned to time and time again, and appears to wholeheartedly believe. He stressed that his advice was meant for those already enrolled in higher education. One got the sense that he was speaking to a decidedly narrow audience; white, upper middle-class, American-educated humanities majors, already attending elite colleges and universities.
Deresiewicz was mostly concerned with the state of the humanities. He described the divide between the humanities and the “natural and social sciences” in stark terms. To him, when humanities and the sciences meet, its “usually on science’s terms”. The downfall of the humanities, he says, stems from a larger cultural focus on the stem fields, but pointed out that the number of pure math and physics majors have declined as well as the humanities majors. When he asked if anyone majored in pure math anymore, a number of Reedies held up their hands. Applied math, physics, and engineering programs are all part of a growing trend favoring the technology industry in places like the Silicon Valley. It seemed Deresiewicz’s disdain for a Harvard education was only matched by his disdain for the technology industry. With it, he indexed pop music and most of popular culture as giving less of an opportunity for self-reflection and self-discovery than what a liberal arts college humanities course can provide. When met with questions about the usefulness of non-tradition art forms such as narrative-heavy video-games, Deresiewicz ceded that he doesn’t have enough knowledge of that realm of media to meaningfully state its usefulness as “art.”
During the question session immediately following his reading, many students voiced their grievances concerning Reed’s policies, its trouble with incorporating the arts and sciences, and the uncertain future many students face upon entering the job market. The college’s academic structure, which, in the eyes of many, produces graduates without the practical knowledge and experience necessary to compete in the job market, is common fodder for students who, only semi-seriously, joke about their career possibilities given a damaged economy and a degree in the humanities. Although Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools for producing students whose sole concern was to work in finance or for the Clinton Global Initiative, he had much less to say about Reed. He repeated the prayer that many Reedies live by: decades down the line, “things will be fine”.
He agreed that Reed’s focus on “the life of the mind” prepares few Reedies for high-profile career opportunities if they decide not to attend grad-school. Given a side by side choice between a Reed and a Yale graduate, a high-paying business-sector employer will choose the latter. A professor went so far as to say; “Reedies, when I think about Yalies, it’s like sending lambs to the slaughter.” Met with nervous laughter, the description felt all too appropriate.
In response to this dilemma, Deresiewicz offered a personal account with a recent Reed alumna that he only reluctantly recounted since it supported what the professor had said. Earlier in the week, Deresiewicz described a Pok Pok dinner with friend and Reed Theater professor Kate Bredeson. Bredeson recognized a former student and, according to Deresiewicz, had a long conversation on theater and senior theses. The student couldn’t chat for too long, though — she was busy waiting the tables.
During his lecture, Deresiewicz occasionally alluded to an earlier encounter with the most famous of all Ivies, Harvard. He jokingly referred to his story as “traumatic,” but once an audience member asked prodding questions on his interactions with the beast, the speaker reluctantly started. Early on in the development of his book, Deresiewicz was invited to Harvard to speak on his ideas. This was the first college to invite him to speak. He had hoped to find a welcoming arena for discussion, but what he found was the opposite. Instead of a lecture hall full of students and alumni, he was greeted with a panel of Harvard faculty, deans, and students. A “public bear-baiting,” he called it.
The atmosphere inside Vollum Lecture Hall was noticeably less hostile. Students seemed receptive to his answers, tacitly agreeing with chuckles and nods. As is the norm at Reed’s visiting lectures, some students and alumni asked long-winded questions, to which Deresiewicz most often replied that he didn’t have all the answers.
At the personal request of John Kroger, Deresiewicz will be meeting with the Board of Trustees today. A student asked him what he was going to talk to them about, and he replied: “I don’t know.” Much of Reed’s unique character comes from the unending conversation between students and the administration. Student autonomy, diversity, life beyond Reed, are all contentious issues, with student and administrative organizations alike searching for ways to live up to Foster’s “Ideal College.” While Deresiewicz’s book may offer a solution to problems at Ivies, it offers little to Reedies. If students are looking to improve their way of life, and escape a cycle of self-congratulation, they should avoid Excellent Sheep.