White People Problems: A Critical Response to William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep”

Douglas Greenberg in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Excellent-SheepWilliam Deresiewicz is angry about the miseducation of young people at the nation’s most prestigious universities. He has written a book on the subject, and he thinks we all should be worried. Really worried. It’s a case of what Louis CK famously called “white people problems,” which he said were “when your life is so amazing that you have to make shit up to be upset about.”

Deresiewicz is definitely upset, and he is also making shit up. He is upset with Columbia and Yale, from which he holds degrees, but he is also upset with Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and an ill-defined group of other private universities. His widely reviewed Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite has something unpleasant to say not only about these institutions but about everyone associated with them: the students, their parents, the faculty, the administrators, the donors, the alumni. Many of these criticisms of elite private higher education have some merit. Yet the tone of the book is so egocentric and intemperate and the framing of the issues is so narrow and sensationalistic that it might not merit a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books if it had not already received so much attention in the national press. Somehow this book has captured the entire national conversation about higher education, although it is mainly concerned with a subset of a small and atypical group of private research universities whose importance can be easily exaggerated, particularly by people who work for, graduated from, or pay tuition to them — or hope someday to do any of the three…

Like it or not, if you don’t go to a college on Deresiewicz’s murky and shifting list of elite institutions, you are a loser. Of course, you are also pathetic if you go to one of the elites since you will be condemned to a soulless life making nothing but money at Bain or Goldman Sachs. It actually seems that for Deresiewicz, if you go to college anywhere at all, you will wind up either a heartless winner or a pathetic loser. In fact, if you have the audacity even to suggest that “you can get an equally good education at Fresno State as at Stanford […] or at Linfield College as at Swarthmore,” you are indulging in a “species of willful anti-elitism.” This is Deresiewicz’s gloss on Sophie Tucker (“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”): “I’ve been to Fresno State and I’ve been to Stanford. Stanford is better.”

Read the full article here.