Book Review: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep

In a Nutshell

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is the best education book I’ve read in years.

Who Should Read It

  • Parents who want their kids to go to a selective college
  • Young adults who want to get into a selective college (or think they do now, at least!)
  • Anyone who is/was a “top performer” in their school or college
  • Anyone who has gone through the process of competitive college admissions
  • Anyone asking themselves how education plays a part in building a meaningful life

My Big Takeaways

This book makes the best case for a 4-year, liberal arts, unspecialized college education that I’ve ever read. Deresiewicz wants young adults to build self-knowledge and self-directedness, find meaningful work, forget about the pursuit of easy money, and truly squeeze the nectar from the college experience. If more college students (and parents, and professors, and administrators) took his advice, the American system of higher education would be much more functional than it is today.

Deresiewicz argues for attending college—specifically, colleges with lots of small-group seminars and face-time with professors—but he also speaks highly of doing a gap year (whether formal or informal), taking time off during college, and taking time off after college (i.e. maximizing the period of maximum freedom directly after graduating to continue building self-knowledge).

This book contains the best motivational speech I’ve ever encountered for taking a nontraditional, self-directed life path (find it below, in the quote section, in red), and it tears apart the “tiger mom” philosophy and the MOOC craze in very satisfying ways.

I took away a deeper feeling of gratitude for attending UC Berkeley, which surrounded me with sharp, questioning peers (very few of whom struck me as ultra-privileged or “elite”) for four years at a very affordable tuition rate (affordable in 2001-2004, at least). Living in the Berkeley Student Co-ops for all four years played a major role in this experience, too.

My favorite chapters were “The Training” (on parenting), “What is College For?”, and “Inventing Your Life.”

One Gripe

Deresiewicz paints a picture of autodidacts as rare, lone geniuses; I think self-directed learning is more widespread and accessible than he suggests.

If You Don’t Want to Read the Whole Book…

Deresiewicz has two excellent, free articles that offer similar arguments:

My Favorite Quotes

[All bolding is mine, and all typos are mine.]

From Chapter 3: The Training

[Helicopter parenting and overindulgent parenting] are not, however, antithetical. They spring from a common impulse. Coddling and pushing, stroking and surveillance, are both forms of overprotection. Each bespeaks a misguided belief that you can make the world safe for your children: that if you only do everything right, nothing will ever impede or harm them—that you can shield them, in the words of Peggy Orenstein, “from pain or failure or sadness.” Helicopter parenting . . . originates in the illusion of control. One might add that it is a particularly middle-class form of that illusion: the idea that life can be rendered predictable, reduced to an orderly succession of achievements that will guarantee security and comfort. Pressuring your kids to get an A in calculus when they are seventeen is essentially the same as tying their shoelaces for them when they are eight. Both are ways of treating them as if they can’t do anything for themselves. (pp. 42-43)

That may be the most damning thing about these schools, so full of smart teachers teaching the smart children of smart parents: that they finally don’t care about learning at all. “Don’t put any ideas into his head”: a request that is honored all too well. Everybody wants their child to get an education, but nobody wants them to get an education education. (p. 49)

The whole of childhood and adolescence, across a large swath of society, is now constructed with a single goal in mind [competitive college admissions]. All the values that once informed the way we raise our children—the cultivation of curiosity, the inculcation of character, the instillment of a sense of membership in one’s community, the development of the capacity for democratic citizenship, let alone any emphasis on the pleasure and freedom of play, the part of childhood where you actually get to be a child—all these are gone. (pp. 49-50)

From Chapter 4: The Institutions

I have certainly known students who feel they got a great education in college. But they always say some version of “the opportunities are there if you want to pursue them.” In other words, you have to ask—or really, you have to insist. (p. 70) [This speaks to my experience in creating my self-designed major at UC Berkeley. I really had to dig, push, and insist. -B]

From Chapter 5: What is College For?

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment in college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human. (p. 79)

College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance,” as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.” You can start to learn to think in high school . . . but your parents are still breathing down your neck, and your teachers are still teaching to the test, in one respect or another. College should be different: an interval of freedom at the start of adulthood, a pause before it all begins. Is this a privilege that most young people in the world can only dream of? Absolutely. But you won’t absolve yourself by throwing it away. Better, at least, to get some good from it. (p. 81)

A real education sends you into the world bearing questions, not résumés. (p. 82)

So what does college have do with [developing a self]? College helps furnish the tools with which to undertake that work of self-discovery. It’s very hard, again, to do it on your own. The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds are you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways: all these are incitements, disruptions, violations. They make you questions everything you thought you knew about yourself. (p. 84) [This feels true of my own college experience. -B]

It’s been said that people go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same. (p. 86)

The purpose of college, to put all this another way, is to turn adolescents into adults. You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished. (p. 87)

From Chapter 6: Inventing Your Life

Self-knowledge is the most practical thing in the world, because it helps you find your way to a career that’s right for you. “What is the meaning of life?” may be the stereotypical philosophical question, supposedly abstract and pointless, but it bares its teeth when you phrase it like this: “What is the meaning of my life?” That is not a question that you want to wake up asking when you’re forty. (pp. 89-90)

True self-esteem means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. It means recognizing, despite all you’ve been trained to believe, that the grades you get do not define your value as a human being. It means deciding for yourself what constitutes success. (p. 90)

For every person who takes the risk of going their own way and ends up accomplishing remarkable things—for every George Eliot or Steve Jobs—there are very many who fall short. The reason to try, the reason to invent your life—whether you aim at remarkable things or only at your own thing—is so that it will be your life, your choice, your mistakes. (p. 109)

Parents tend to forget what it’s like to be young, what youth can endure and achieve. How often have I heard of people telling their children not to take exactly the same kinds of risks—whether personal or professional, about work or sex or whatever—that they not only survived just fine themselves, but that made them who they are. (p. 110)

The world is not fair, even though it should be. The genetic lottery is not fair and never will be. Having the freedom to invent your life is a privilege. Being able to follow your passion might be the ultimate form of entitlement. But decrying these facts does not eliminate them. I recognize that what I’m saying does not apply to every student or prospective student at an elite school, still less to those at other schools. The questions is, does it apply to you? If so, the fact that others are less fortunate does not let you off the hook. Quite the contrary. (p. 119)

What do you owe your parents? Love, and when they need it later, care, but not submission. Not your life. What do you owe your parents? Nothing. The family is not a business deal. You don’t “owe” your parents; you have a relationship with them. (p. 123)

Have I mentioned that it isn’t easy? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all. And it’s going to be bad for a while. You will wander; you will blunder; you will lose heart. You’ll have to endure the pity or scorn of your peers, your parents’ friends, maybe total strangers. People will wonder what happened to you—you seemed so promising in high school. You’ll probably go through periods of depression, as I did more than once. You will agonize, as you have to. It’s going to suck, though it will suck a good deal less if you can find a supportive community, in college or afterward, or even just a few sympathetic friends. But you can get through it. You can get past it. You can find a way to invent your life. (p. 129)

From Chapter 7: Leadership

It takes a willingness to be unpopular, however: independent thinking does, and leadership certainly does. Yet kids today are raised not only in an atmosphere of constant affirmation, but also amid the relentless inculcation of prosocial behavior. We urge them to be team players. We teach them to be cheerful, flexible, and conciliatory, to always seek consensus and compromise. So intent have we become on avoiding painful feelings, both within ourselves and among ourselves, so committed to group harmony, so vigilant against offense, exclusion, confrontation, and other aspects of being human, that we’ve ended up with kids whose edges have been sanded off. This is what you have to fight within yourself. It’s not enough to resist accepted ideas; you also have to resist the people who purvey them, which is pretty much everyone: your parents, your teachers, your peers, your friends. Your group, whatever that may mean to you—an identity group, a party, a church. If you’re an environmentalist, it means the other environmentalists. If you’re a libertarian, it means the other libertarians. Acting with a group does not mean thinking with a group. In every context, there are questions that you aren’t supposed to ask. The job of a leader, the job of a thinker, is to identify and ask them. (p. 137)

From Chapter 8: Great Books

“After college,” says a young woman who dropped out after all of a semester—she is quoted in one of those books that advise young people to forget about higher education altogether—”no one cares how well you can talk about Hume or Kant.” Maybe not, but they care how well you can talk. They care how well you can think. And studying the most challenging works of art, literature, and philosophy—”being forced every day to think about the hardest things people have ever thought about,” as a recent humanities graduate put it to me—is the best training you can give yourself in how to talk and think. (p. 155) [The aforementioned quote is from my book Better Than College. I take his point, but I think Deresiewicz grossly mischaracterizes my book’s message; I argue that there are many trails up the mountain we call “education.”] (p. 155)

From Chapter 12: The Self-Overcoming of the Hereditary Meritocracy

The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, as it did in the middle decades of the twentieth century, not reproduce it. We can certainly begin with the admissions process, just as they did in the 1930s. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been calling for for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors—a plan that was developed (and needless to say, rejected) in 1990. Colleges should put an end to resume-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school (and that high achievers almost never do). They should refuse to be impressed by any experience or opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News. . . . Once admissions criteria change, the whole educational system will change. We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes. (pp. 235-6)

Colleges should remember that selecting students by GPA more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind. The same goes for quantity as opposed to quality—of APs, extracurriculars, and so forth. Excellence requires single-mindedness as well as the freedom to follow one’s intuition, not a willingness to fill in every box. (p. 236)


Disclosures: I’m an acquaintance of William Deresiewicz, but he didn’t ask me to write this review. My Amazon affiliate code is in the links to Amazon, which means I earn a tiny bit of money if you buy this book by clicking my link.



💬 Want to leave a comment?

Please get in touch directly--I'd love to hear from you.