William Deresiewicz Says High Schoolers are Excellent Sheep

By Sophie Peters

CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)

Author William Deresiewicz is coming to Catlin Gabel to discuss his book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. Recently, CatlinSpeak spoke with Deresiewicz in an eastside coffee shop about the culture of stress surrounding college, the lack of meaning that accompany the endless extracurriculars that students pursue, and the obsession with GPA and test scores.

“Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions,” writes Deresiewicz in an article about why parents should not send their children to the Ivies. Deresiewicz received his B.A., master’s, and Ph.D. from Columbia University and then became a professor at Yale until he left in 2008. He has written several essays regarding higher education. The most notable appear in The Nation and Harper’s Magazine.

Deresiewicz advocates for high schools to provide real learning for their students and not just a way to raise their students’ test scores. He stated that students “who went to a variety of private high schools or fancy public high schools said to me that it wasn’t about learning. In fact, you’re forced to choose between learning and success.”

“As much as possible, I know this sounds crazy, I would like students to think of high school as not being the way to get to college,” commented Deresiewicz.

He also critiqued the college admissions process, saying, “My main problem with colleges are the kinds of students they are forcing people to become by the time they get there.” By this, he means that students are forced to jump through so many hoops, so by the time they enter university, they may no longer know what they are even working towards and no longer have a passion to learn.

The title of Deresiewicz’s book is “Excellent Sheep” because many students fall into the category of being driven and talented, yet with no real purpose. CatlinSpeak asked him what the opposite of these excellent sheep would be, and he stated, “It really means someone who can think about what they want to do for themselves.”

“Someone who doesn’t worry about what other people think of their choices,” he said, before acknowledging, “I think it’s really hard however old you are. I think it’s especially hard when you’re a teenager.”

The pressures stemming from parents, teachers, and fellow classmates can outweigh the real drive toward learning for many students. Rather than allowing high school to stay a place of learning, it is often turned into a machine for getting students ready for higher education and into their dream schools. Deresiewicz says, “For so many parents, whether they are conscious of it or not or whether they admit it or not, but where their kid gets into college is the final exam. So, people have asked what the final exam should be, and I say first of all, probably you shouldn’t think in terms of a final exam. But if you’re gonna think that way, it should be raising someone who’s autonomous and specifically, someone who is strong enough to do what they want even if it defies what you want.”

He states that, “The most common factor that I’ve seen among the students who are able to handle the system the best and make the wisest choices, and be the least crazy and then do the most interesting things is that their parents are actually supportive.”

While acknowledging that everyone feels some forms of peer pressure, he commented, “Teenagers seem much more receptive of the pressure that comes from adults. To me, being a teenager, becoming a young adult, is all about learning to separate yourself from that. That’s really what it’s about.”

However, many students are only barely holding themselves together. Deresiewicz said, “Part of what makes the mental distress even worse is that you feel like you can’t talk about it because you have to be a high achiever and a winner.” He suggested that “even if nothing changes, just saying out loud, ‘I am freaked out. I am stressed out’” can help.

Deresiewicz touched on the mental health problems that many students face when they encounter the high levels of stress surrounding college admissions. He said that he heard of a prestigious public high school that had already received 30 calls to the suicide hotline by the end of September.

Many high school students are seemingly forced to trade their emotional wellbeing and advancement of social skills for a higher GPA, better extracurriculars, and a great SAT score. When discussing how the rules that colleges put into place 50 years ago have merely been internalized by the families who then force their children to work harder and harder, Deresiewicz compared it to football, commenting, “It’s like the rules of football haven’t changed, but players train harder, they start earlier, they are getting more concussions, they’re bigger, they’re faster. It’s the same kind of thing.”

“You guys are like the ultimate academic athletes,” he continued. However he then stated, “The problem is that football players don’t really need to have emotional skills, but actual human beings and students do, so it’s not as simple as it is in athletics because there’s a tradeoff.”

Image Credit: Huffington Post

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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