Op-ED: The Truth in Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale College, was deeply troubled when he began to spot the lack of purpose and curiosity among the nation’s brightest minds. His students were adept at quickly synthesizing and spitting back material, but when asked important questions about their own existence, they froze. With the increasing tensions of the college admissions process, and the recent trend of making college more “practical,” Deresiewicz looks to expose what most of our nation is blinded to; our invention of Excellent Sheep.

Contemporary students are instructed from a young age how to gain acceptance to the nation’s top tier universities, and, although it’s a painful process, the path is well-defined. Students must maintain a near (or above) 4.0 GPA, receive near-perfect SAT/ACT scores, carry a slew of extracurricular activities, including those of leadership, write impressive essays of introspection, and, why not, participate in hundreds of community service hours.

It’s common amongst student to claim, “I’m doing this for my college application,” because we reassure them that the only way to succeed is by piling on a laundry-list of activities. Even the very notion of intellectualism has changed. Students are much more concerned with attaining a high grade than actually learning the desired material. In essence, they want to know how, not why.

In one example, Deresiewicz describes a student who, “is carrying four APs her junior year, plans to do seven her senior year, and copes with the workload, among other ways, by studying in class (that is, for other classes)- has this to say: “I sometimes have two or three days where I only get two hours of sleep per night… I really really fear failure … I am just a machine with no life at this place … I am a robot just going page by page, doing the work.” Sound familiar?

And this “fear of failure,” is for good reason. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all boast having sub-7% acceptance rates. And our faulty job market and economy have lead many to seek acceptance to increase their chances of job security post-graduation.

Not only has the societal pressure forced students to excel, but the increased pressure has also lead equal numbers to falter. A number of high-achieving students have been diagnosed with numerous psychological disorders: from increased anxiety to serious clinical depressions.

In one tear-wrenching case, Deresiewicz explains the problems associated with helicopter/tiger parenting in contributing to stress. He explains, “One teacher at a prep school in Westchester told me of a student breaking down in tears during a discussion of Catcher in the Rye. He didn’t want to have to be a stockbroker, like his parents said. That very night, she got a call from the boy’s mother: ‘Don’t put any ideas into his head.’”

If our purpose was to build a nation of excellent sheep, a nation of utilitarian-minded students who will succumb to any directions to succeed, then congratulations, we’ve done it!

The truth in Excellent Sheep, and the reason why I sympathize with this book, is that for an unbeknownst time, I was one. I watched myself and my peers descend into a form of structured chaos, running to activities and clubs we didn’t care about.

By the time you read this I will have applied to college, now anxiously awaiting my fate in a fat envelope somewhere. However, while I anticipate the arrival of the inevitable I wanted to genuinely assess my priorities and determine what college is truly for. In my opinion, higher education is deeply rooted in the liberal arts, and requires thinking, reading, writing, and empirical-based sciences and mathematics. When else will we have the opportunity to solely think critically about the world and our lives?

Don’t feel pressured to have to take a practical major like computer science, economics, or engineering. Study instead what you find interesting, granted that’s a tall order with the growing cost of an undergraduate education. But seriously, there’s a disproportionate amount of CEO’s who studied the liberal arts instead of their own technical fields.

It also would be foolish of me not to admit that where you go to school does matter, and that people will always value prestige over promise. However, keep in mind what you’re looking for in your education when choosing a college. Also, for underclassmen who have yet to apply, focus on becoming interesting rather than becoming busy.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. At first it reads like a Shakespearian tragedy outlining the deep history in college admissions, but offers a beacon of hope towards the end.

While reading take the time to understand why you are pursuing an education in the first place. Begin to understand your purpose, and you’ll begin to understand your own happiness.

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