I won’t pretend that I don’t think William Deresiewicz’s evidence for his book, Excellent Sheep, is thin and overstated. Nonetheless, I don’t disagree with the problems of neoliberalization of higher education he highlights. I’m just not sure what to do about it.
College, in Deresiewicz’s view, is supposed to be the place where one discovers an allegiance to something larger than oneself: service to a community or a cause, the practice of art or science or scholarship. The problem is not merely pedagogic but political: unless American elites are dedicated to something larger than themselves, an American commonwealth is impossible.
Deresiewicz notes the mass migration of elite college graduates to careers in finance and consulting: at many Ivy League universities, at least a quarter of all students go into those fields after graduation. Deresiewicz believes that these shifts have occurred not because students find economics, finance, and business intellectually or morally fulfilling but because they fear that holding out for more interesting work would be too risky, or because they must pay off student loans, or simply because, in a winner-take-all society, who wouldn’t want to be one of the winners?
Many readers will have murmured to themselves by now: “Yes, I’ve heard all this talk about souls and individuality and self-creation before: very inspiring. And I’m well aware that severe economic inequality is a feature of contemporary American life. But what does Deresiewicz propose? If he had the authority and the resources to change American universities, how would he go about it?”
I guess I don’t think that it’s impossible to both nurture the spirit and help a young person get ready for a career. I think it’s possible to learn Excel and Aristotle. Why not?