Sophia Nguyen in The Point:
In the dog days of August, two books about the Ivy League landed comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list. One was William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. The other was Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. Despite their disparate genres, the nonfiction tract ends up in fantasy, while the escapist entertainment roots itself in reality—and both are invested in the drama of gifted children.
Heavily quoting emails and essays from his former students at Yale, Deresiewicz’s higher-ed polemic takes down elite colleges and the adults they produce—zombies with status anxiety where their curiosity and humanity used to be. Rather than challenge students with a rigorous education, Deresiewicz argues, the Ivy League and other elite colleges now promote a narrow notion of success. It begins with admissions offices, which have become inhumanly ruthless sorting machines further stratifying the upper class. Having selected for a certain breed of strivers, the schools then encourage their students to become a conformist herd, seeking meaning in credentials. Failing to find that meaning, the hunger only intensifies.
By contrast, the Magicians trilogy is a fantasy series about young wizards. Its protagonist, Quentin Clearwater, attends a magical college and later discovers a land he’d thought was only imaginary: Fillory, a magic kingdom from his favorite childhood book. Over three books, Quentin gains and abdicates a throne, meets a dragon, learns how to wield a sword and brings his first love back from a fate worse than death. But he is also the ur-sheep: a standard-issue, passably polymathic high schooler who does nothing more or less extraordinary than gain admission to an exclusive college. Amidst all the defensive noise made by Ivy Leaguers rebutting Deresiewicz with their personal stories, the Magicians trilogy furnishes him with a kind of confirming anecdote. It may be pure coincidence that the two were published within a week of each other, but they are symbiotically linked—and so are their fates.