Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

2. The History

  • Prior to World War I, colleges were playgrounds for the privileged with more emphasis on parties and sports than academics. Public school students couldn’t get in as their schools didn’t offer Latin and Greek, which were required. Admissions practices were also anti-Semitic. It wasn’t until the mid 60s that the old criteria that gave preferences to athletes, legacies, and big donors started to include academic ability. This meant that students had to have the qualities of old aristocrats and modern technocrats. This resulted in students who are busy and frantic.
  • In 1983, U.S. News & World Report came out with its first college rankings. This resulted in selective schools seeking more applications so they could reject more students and look even more selective. To keep up, students had to do more in the way of AP courses and extracurricular activities.You have to be great at one or two things and really good at everything else.Think of it as the resume arms race. Just about everyone is expected to be well rounded unless they are truly exceptional at something. While William’s focus here on the Ivy League and other elite schools, the number of schools that fall into this category is plausibly 100 or so.

3. The Training

  • Most the 10-15% of students who participate in the selective admissions process are from the upper 10-15% of the income distribution. These students tend to face two parallel styles of parenting that feature high pressure and coddling. The stroking and surveillance are both forms of overprotection. The same parent that pressures a child to get an A in calculus might have been tying their shoes at the age of eight. Students can develop a sense that they can’t do anything for themselves. Parents want their children to have everything except what they want. Even praise becomes a drug increasing the pressure to excel.
  • A result is an increase in the rates of depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness. When problems do occur, affluent parents are less likely to acknowledge them. Even teachers who understand what’s happening are trapped in a system where supervisors pressure them to give pussy parents what they ask for even if it’s not good for the kids.

4. The Institutions

  • Follow the money. Professors are rewarded for research that brings money from the government and cooperations. They generally want to spend as little time in classes and to focus teaching narrowly on their research areas. To the extent that teaching matters, assessments are almost entirely based on student evaluations. This promotes giving higher grades for shoddier work and not giving honest feedback. The average GPA at the elites is about 3.5. Due to the ceiling effect, it is harder to make distinctions and students have less incentive to do their best. Students also need to take a long series of unrelated courses to satisfy distribution requirements. This results in four years of asking the little questions in specialized courses.
  • Since graduation rate is part of the college ranking system, it’s increasingly more difficult to flunk out as long as you show up. The goal is to produce more alumni to take high paying jobs and become future donors. Higher education resembles any other business. What pays is in; what doesn’t is under the gun. In order to attract students with higher SAT scores, schools have shifted financial aid from needs-based to merit. Since SAT scores are highly correlated with family wealth, it means more money to kids who need it the least. Since students are seen as customers, schools build ever swanker dorms, gyms, and student centers, which drives tuition up. In essence, instead of getting humanities they get amenities. The opportunities to really learn are available, but you have to fight for it.
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