Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Students or Sheep?

What is the point of going to college? This has become a key question for many young people and their parents as costs increase, jobs grow scarce, and the old ideal of a liberal education seems, to many, outdated. This is one of the central questions raised in a new book by a former Yale professor.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaninful Life by William Deresiewicz comes, amid some controversy, as a welcome addition to the ongoing debate about higher education.

Like the author, I, too, began college (not an elite one) because it was the thing to do for someone who had attend a college prep school, with only vague goals in mind as to what I might do with a degree. Today's students tend to be more practical: finding majors that will land them jobs--and being pushed on all sides to do so, while hoping along the way to pick up some knowledge and have a bit of fun, too.

Higher education, even in the Ivy League, has become commercialized with students, according to Deresiewicz, too busy jumping through hurdles to analyze what they want, too busy developing a resume to enjoy the life of the mind. Too stressed to meet the wide variety of people and ideas that will help them develop their true selves. Instead of four idyllic years of cultivating the mind, they live with a fear of doing things that might put their future careers at risk.

The author talks about problems found at state universities, too, the kind of school where I taught for many years: students with little time to make real friends, professors geared to research rather than teaching, and a pressure to succeed that often lands students in the over-crowded mental health center on campus.

The students the author encountered at Yale were, he says, smart, driven to succeed but timid, anxious and lost: great at what they are doing but with no idea why they are doing it. What seems missing is an over-arching vision of educational goals, the kind of humanizing education we once spoke of in academe--and tried to inculcate in our curricula until recent decades when careerism took hold.

Deresiewicz found students on their high-pressure treadmill to be cheerfully confident but lacking in the moral purpose he sees as basic to education: the combination of introspection, observation, critical thinking and reading that leads one to build an individual self.  Of course, a four-year program of study is only the beginning of such a life-long quest, and perhaps the author overemphasizes the moral purpose of a college education. 

If so, the emphasis is welcome since the other two reasons for college education--commercial and cognitive (acquiring information and learning about critical thinking)--have become dominant in the competitive collegiate world.  In these two areas, the author says, elite universities have excelled, while ignoring the moral-philosophical (or liberal arts) ideal that is sadly missing from what many schools provide and what most students want today.

Are today's students "excellent sheep"? Perhaps. And perhaps it's impossible for any quality institution of higher education to be all things to all people, providing the freedom of a humanistic, moral education as well as satisfying the practical demands of parents and students.

But perhaps our universities are doing a better job, overall, than this welcome and provocative and very readable book suggests.

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