Books lamenting the state of American higher education have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. In the New Yorker, Nathan Heller reviews the latest of these, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz’s book has inspired a lot of responses, but Heller’s is among the best. Heller notes a number of flaws in Deresiewicz’s approach, particularly his rather sentimental understanding of what the humanities are for, and his implicit belief that the college experience is so powerful in determining one’s future career and life path. In one particularly choice bit, Heller points out that Deresiewicz’s fixation on how elite schools are failing to “feeding your soul” seems steeped in nostalgia and misses the real pressures students face today:
Deresiewicz suggests that someone who grew up poor should be at least as eager to turn down the lucrative consulting job and take a risky road as anybody else. “If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less,” he counsels. “That is itself a kind of freedom.” The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of “moral imagination” may be at play. (Imagine being able to pay off your loans and never again having to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s heads.) William S. Burroughs, a corporate scion of élite genealogy, began reinventing himself at Harvard as a louche explorer of the underworld. Why shouldn’t someone who grew up in a crack-blighted neighborhood be equally free to reimagine himself as a suit? […]The awkward balance between mind and matter, academics and ambition, doesn’t pervert college’s native mission. From the earliest days of the institution, it has been the fragile nature of the thing itself.
Read the whole thing, and pair it with WRM’s classic back to school essay. It’s important that students be given a chance to read and learn from “the best that has been thought and said”, both to feed their souls and to prepare them for life in an increasingly dynamic, unpredictable economy and society. But Heller is right that it isn’t entirely fair to scoff at those who attend college to secure very practical skills or connections that will improve their economic prospects. When it comes to higher education, we need more pluralism of methods and programs, not a single model based on an idealized version of the past.