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Excellent Sheep: A Review

Ever since William Deresiewicz appeared on The Colbert Report, I've wanted to read his book "Excellent Sheep: The miseducation of America's elite and the path to a meaningful life". I finally managed to get my hands on the book (thanks to Cornell's excellent library system, which includes BorrowDirect). Having got my hands on the book, I had to read it, and found myself agreeing with everything Deresiewicz said in the first 10 pages or so. After that, my reaction was rather of the WTF type.

Deresiewicz does a good job explaining how the Ivy leagues got to this current level of snobbery that they stand at right now. He explains how the admissions procedure was constantly tweaked to make them an old boys' club. How the SATs were implemented as a method to bring some sanity to the admissions procedure. How admissions committees mercilessly demand higher and higher (and frankly unrealistic) levels of excellence from students, and how the rich boys' club has been reinstated just because of the expensive process to get in. The book did a great job helping me understand the students I was teaching during the semester, on how students have been conditioned to always be the best in everything they do. In fact, before reading the book, before teaching, I had assumed that Ivy league students would be like us back at IIT-B. I was wrong. Back in IIT-B, I don't think we every whined for every mark on a homework worth 0.5% of the final grade. I don't think we even cared about grades. (Well, I did, but as any of my batch mates would point out, I was the exception to the rule.) The folks with five and six point averages never let on that they were depressed or sad with their grades, they were rather content. Not so in the Ivys.

Beyond this premise, however, Deresiewicz goes off the rails in an all-out attack on the Ivy leagues. Everything is based on the premise that the Ivy league is broken; that students should stay away from the Ivy leagues and all top colleges, and stick with second-tier colleges. Everything in the book is based on you accepting Deresiewicz' premise that the Ivy leagues are indeed broken. No proof is given, except anecdotal evidence and testimony from a handful of folks.

Let me first attack the premise that anecdotal evidence and testimony from 200 folks does not tell a story. Let's assume that an Ivy league school accepts around 5,000 undergraduate students every year. There are eight Ivy league schools. This means that around 40,000 students pass through the Ivy league system every year. Over 50 years, that's 2,000,000 students. At this number, testimony from 200 people literally amounts to a sample that can be measured in parts per million, hardly sufficient to establish a premise. Further, this sample is from people who agree with Deresiewicz' essay "Disadvantages of an Elite Education", and will necessarily suffer from confirmation bias.

At the same time, Deresiewicz himself is a product of an Ivy league education. He has been educated at Yale and then Columbia, taught at Columbia for ten years before he was denied tenure in 2008. And that's when "Disadvantages of an Elite Education" was published. That date represents the exact time when Deresiewicz decided to burn the earth and boil the seas for the Ivy leagues. This hatred seeps through his book, which gets increasingly ridiculous towards the end. For instance, he wants every student to pursue an education in the liberal arts, not engineering or science, cause, you know, science and engineering have given the world absolutely nothing in the past century, whereas a liberal arts education opens the mind et cetera. Specifically, Deresiewicz wants everyone to study English (guess what he taught at Columbia?), because he asserts that English is the best of the liberal arts. Now, I don't have any objections to the liberal arts, in fact, some of my favourite courses back at IIT-B have been from the humanities and social sciences department, specifically English literature. However, I have strong objections to them being the only stuff I should learn.

Next, Deresiewicz asserts that the Ivy leagues aren't interested in teaching, only in research, and that means they hire lecturers instead of professors, that the deny tenure aggressively, and (this is where his assertions go so wild that they make him almost certifiable) that a professor who gets a "best teacher" award almost always ends up being denied tenure, because colleges view good teachers with a sharp suspicion and utter hatred. "How dare you spend time teaching when we pay you to do research?"

Overall, Deresiewicz' book is nothing but his assertions, with no facts or figures to back them up. Of course, Deresiewicz will blame my engineering education for detecting and pointing out that his book is utter BS, after all, if I had majored in English, I would appreciate his book for the genius it contains. So, if you're a person who is grounded in logic, please do yourself a favour, and don't read the book. You'll be glad to have saved a few hours of your life. If you're the type who studies English for a living, go ahead and read the book. What are you going to do with the extra time anyway?

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