This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”
Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.
This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.
Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.
Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”
Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.
The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.
Steven Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.”
Pinker suggests the university’s job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.
The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants’ souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.’s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, “many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight.”
What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).
Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control.
But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.
The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission. But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about, everyone is on their own. An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.
I’d say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.
An earlier version of this column misspelled the given name of a psychologist and cognitive scientist. He is Steven Pinker, not Stephen.