This past summer, the explosive New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” hit social media, garnering many strong responses and discussion. I remember my immediate negative response, induced first by instinctual dislike of alarmist, yellow journalism and then by the attack on the institution that had basically paid for me to get an education. Therefore, when I noticed that the author of said article, William Deresiewicz, was coming to Stanford I made no plans to attend his talk.
A few months later, I found out that Deresiewicz was coming to talk directly to my class one evening. Even though it was an optional lecture, I braced myself for the controversy and sat in the second row. A few students decided to wear outlandish clothes to prove that they were no “excellent sheep”. Deresiewicz was already there, talking with the director of our residential program, SLE. He stood up on the podium and the chatter from the a hundred or so students subsided. Was he going to tell us how we were all spoiled, privileged sheep? Would he denounce this same school that brought him into its classrooms?
For the next half hour, William Deresiewicz spoke about the importance of having a well-rounded liberal arts education that exposed students to the humanities. I found myself agreeing with his arguments. Yes, even engineers should learn about history and literature because in the end that molds engineers who have a wider range of analytical skills. A doctor is ineffective if they cannot interact and understand patients, and that is what the humanities gives us. Then Deresiewicz proceed to explore the concept of “usefulness”, how students are pressured by society and economy to pursue a “practical” career. He counters that college shouldn’t just be pre-professional training, it is a time in which students should explore and grow without feeling guilty for doing something “useless”. He also talked about the impact Jane Austen had on him and his book about her. Pride and Prejudice just happens to be one of my favorite novels, here I was sharing an interest in literature with a man I had reviled only a few months ago.
Deresiewicz finished, we applauded and I kept searching for the traces of the man who had written that vitriolic New Republic article that he hadn’t referenced in the whole talk. During the Q&A session, it was inevitable that students would ask. And when someone did ask he explained that the New Republic staff had taken the most inflammatory excerpts from his book Excellent Sheep out of context and created the article. That makes sense I thought, but still why allow this website to butcher your work and spread it throughout the Internet? And even though Deresiewicz seemed reluctant to speak about the article, I raised my hand, waited, and asked something along the lines of:
“Have you considered the negative repercussions that your work framed in such an alarmist platform could have on low income students?”
To be honest this was what had bugged me the most about the New Republic article. As a senior in high school I found myself advising students who didn’t have the resources and were completely lost in how to go about the application process. They thought it wasn’t worth applying to top tier schools because they couldn’t afford to go or they weren’t good enough, but didn’t realize that they could potential receive not only a free education but housing and food and even health care. With so much misinformation out there, I feel that these students are very vulnerable to discouragement.
I didn’t find Deresiewicz’s response completely satisfactory. First, he defended the decision to let the New Republic publish the article because according to him, that’s the shock value required to get the message out there. Second, he countered that he was referring to the “majority” of college students and not the minorities. In general, I f felt his answers to our questions were defensive, but I feel like that’s just product of the negative reaction he has received. Deresiewicz was more interested in discussing his book, not that article, and less than a handful of people had read it.
Looking back on this event, I still find that people in general being more acquainted with the article instead of the book is just a result of compromising the work by letting it be stretched and contorted for t the purposes of yellow journalism. It’s the price paid for the shock value. At the same time, William Deresiewicz has very valid criticisms of the college admissions and college education in general. It just requires for one to look beyond the angry Facebook comments and burning Harvard flag. Now to go borrow and read that signed copy of Excellent Sheep.