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

5. What Is College For?

  • Increasingly, we hear more and more about return on investment (ROI) when it comes to college. The implication is that money from a high paying job brings with it happiness and a feeling of success. This has resulted in the narrowing of majors. There are now seven business majors for every English major. William’s opinion is that you should go to college to learn how to think. A professor’s most important role is to make students think with rigor and to let students know when they are, or may be, wrong.
  • Thoughtful discussions that start in the classroom should echo late into the night in the dorm. At the end you should enter the world bearing questions along with your resume. Through reasoned debate, principled dissent, respectful mutual engagement you can build a self. This is often missing in many colleges that focus on career preparation alone. If you find yourself to be the same person at the end of four years, you have missed the boat. As Harvard president James B. Conant once said, “Education’s what’s left over after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned.”

6. Inventing Your Life 1: Direction

  • The main point here is that students are made to feel self-indulgent if they pursue anything that doesn’t seem practical. For example, it’s ok to work for a hedge fund but not major in English. William uses the metaphor of the net to describe the things that prevent students from finding the kind of work that they would do anyway if they weren’t pressured into majors leading to high paying jobs. Sometimes the nets are woven by society and parents. Nets can also be created by students themselves. Students should try to focus on what they are good at, what they care about, and what they like to do before heading down a path that just seems practical or one chosen by others. The number one regret of dying people is that they wish they had the courage to live a life true to themselves and not the life others expected. Ask yourself what are your ideals are as they can give you the strength to resist the seductions of status, wealth, and success. This section ends with the stories of two students and the author that exemplify these concepts.

6. Inventing Your Life 2: Risk

  • As you work to invent your life, it is important that you overcome the fear of failure. Like many other writers are discovering, if you don’t experience failure and learn from it, you probably aren’t taking any risks. You want your life to be your choice and your mistakes. Doing something new, at least new for you, is part of the process of inventing yourself, it does not come without potential costs. Status and recognition are out of your control, but you can control how high you aim and know if you are doing something you love. Don’t try to be too cool as you are being too concerned with approval of peers.
  • While taking the right risks is important, don’t ignore reality, and the heaviest reality is money. One reason people are talking more about return on investment for college is that it costs a lot more. Elite schools might make it easier to get a good job, but you have to weigh that against the amount of debt you will incur. Another big piece of reality is talent. You need to be realistic about what you are good at, and learning about what you are good at as is an important part of learning who you are. It’s easier to be happy exercising your particular capacities.
  • As for parental advice and control, college is the time where you need to make the decisions that you impact your life. You owe your parents love and care in their old age, but you need to negotiate the perilous passage from obedience to independence. At the end of this chapter, William discusses the topics of the gap year after high school and taking time off during college. Both do allow you to find who you are outside of the framework of school and can be positive for some.
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