Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 and William Deresiewicz, on Excellent Sheep

Serge Bloch

William Deresiewicz has been visiting Ivy League campuses, including Princeton, to discuss his book Excellent Sheep, which argues that students at top colleges are too focused on their careers and are stuck “in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they are doing but no idea why they are doing it.” Deresiewicz and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 met in October via Skype to discuss the issues he raised.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11, a Pyne Prize winner, is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Previously, she was a writing fellow at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.
Peter James Field

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux (A.T.-D.): I think you got two things very right in the book: that simultaneously there is very much a sense of limitlessness when you enter a place like Princeton, but this is coupled by this very deep, intense fear of failure. That’s something I struggled with as a student and continue to struggle with now. I was wondering if you could talk about how places like Princeton might help students resolve that tension and learn — I think you used these words in the book — to “fail better.”

William Deresiewicz (W.D.): This is a whole culture that goes well beyond the colleges. To me, the linchpin of the whole thing is the admissions process, and as we all know, the admissions process doesn’t start six months or a year before you graduate from high school, it’s really something that shapes the whole of adolescence, if not childhood. It shapes it in the direction of this insane perfectionism because of the way colleges like Princeton choose their incoming class with a very heavy emphasis on grades and a very heavy emphasis on covering all the bases and doing everything as a leader. By the time you get to Princeton, you’ve been shaped in profound ways. 

William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, and contributing writer or editor for The Nation,The New Republic, and The American Scholar. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.
Peter James Field
There are a number of elements of this, but one of the most important is the one that you emphasized: this perfectionistic fear of failure, which is really limiting in so many ways. It’s limiting in terms of what you might do with your life; it’s limiting in terms of courses you might take because you’re afraid you might take a course that you won’t get an A in. Everyone knows that getting into Princeton isn’t the last step, because then you have to start worrying about graduate school or post-employment opportunities, so this is a tough nut to crack as long as students are being selected this way and people have come to feel that if you don’t get into one of eight or 10 schools, you will fall into an abyss of disgrace. We can talk about things we need to do to change that — certainly, reforms in admissions. But to me — and this was my main thrust in the book — it can start with the individual, by cultivating a space of strength and resistance in yourself that allows you to say, “I don’t care what other people think, but I’m not going to be afraid to fail.” 

A.T.-D.: That’s such an interesting point. You talk a lot about this issue of status and how people are trapped by it and feel that they have to go into a particular professional track, like finance. To what extent can you continue to be ambitious without falling into the trap you describe — the feeling that you have to obtain a certain status in your life? We are a status-driven culture. 

W.D.: There is a difference between wanting to achieve to satisfy external demands that originate from parents and from your environment, which you may have internalized, and the thing I want to cultivate before, during, and after college: a driven desire for excellence, when you care about something — whether it’s journalism or whatever class you’re taking — for its own sake. When you’re in that situation, I think you learn that failure is actually often useful. You learn by making mistakes, you learn by being criticized, by being corrected, and there’s no ego at stake — it’s just: “This is going to help me be better the next time.”

A.T.-D.: You talked about this a lot — how students at elite schools often feel trapped in finance and law. Is there something particular about these professions that you find problematic? 

W.D.: I want to be very clear about this. I’m not criticizing any single profession or choice. I’m talking about how choices are made. I don’t honestly think that a lot of people are passionate about finance and consulting. I don’t think that there’s been a sudden surge of passion for economics in the last 20 years that can explain why it’s become the most popular major at most of the top-40 schools. Now people are talking about Silicon Valley. Is there a sudden passion for computers? This is the new lucrative, high-status career. Maybe you met a lot of people who were passionate about the law. I know that a lot of people are going to law school; it’s sort of a last resort when they can’t think of anything else to do. 

So many people have said to me, “I went to Wall Street because it was lucrative, and I thought, there’s nothing that I really care about that much, so I might as well do this.” To me, the problem is not “I went to Wall Street,” but “there’s nothing that I cared about particularly.” What kind of system is it that produces really smart, ambitious 22-year-olds who’ve had a lot of resources poured into them, but who aren’t really sure what they want — not in the good “exploration” kind of way, but in the way that they don’t know how to begin to sort out the things that they care about. 

A.T.-D.: But I wonder how much of that is the experience of being 22 and being interested in different things. I remember being jealous of the people I knew who were going into finance and consulting; they knew in October what they were going to be doing. There’s a kind of security there. But I also knew people who decided to become paralegals or went into consulting and discovered that they didn’t like it, and they’re now doing something else. Do you feel like there’s really a large-scale lack of curiosity among people who are graduating from elite schools, or is it perhaps a sense of being interested in different things and choosing something relatively easy that you can leave behind pretty quickly?

Serge Bloch

W.D.: Obviously there are a lot of different people with a lot of different stories. I’m saying that there’s a lack of sense of purpose or direction. More often, it’s “I am interested in a lot of things but I’m scared, and most of the things I’m interested in are risky, they don’t have a big salary, a lot of status, or a path that’s going to look good to the world.” People are afraid, and then they see the stampede start in October of senior year: “My friends are interviewing at McKinsey and Goldman, or they’re putting in their law-school applications — what am I going to do now?” 

A.T.-D.: In what way could Princeton present more options to students so that going into nonprofit work or politics — or any number of fields that may seem riskier — feels less scary? Now I’m 25 — I’m just starting graduate school, I’m not sure if I’ll want to do academia or journalism or something else completely, so you could say I lack purpose. But I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that. Academically, how can Princeton be doing any better? 

W.D.: Ultimately it’s about beginning — not ending — to build that kind of self that I’m talking about, so you can push back against the world when the world pushes against you. No, you don’t find it by the time you graduate; the 20s are a decade for this. It sounds like you’re doing this. I did it; I stumbled around, and I tried different things. The point is, first of all, you need to be willing to stumble around, and you need to be willing to say, “I don’t care if I don’t look as good as some of my peers do.” How does a college help to do that? It seems to me there’s a disconnect between the academics and the other part of it, where you build a sense of self that is strong, independent, and creative. I haven’t encountered a single college that I think is doing a good enough job. But here’s the thing: Princeton has a business model that requires producing a lot of rich alumni, and they are not going to want to produce a class in which half the graduates go on to be grade-school teachers. 

A.T.-D.: I did know a lot of people who were going into nonprofit work, and I knew a lot of people who were interested in politics. There was a very robust program for people who do nonprofit work right after graduation. But how can an institution tell students that one profession is better than another, or that one profession is more moral than another? 

W.D.: I am not advocating for that by any means. Not only do I not think it would work, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. The whole point is helping people to try to take a creative, open-ended, risk-embracing approach to what they might do. You say that you had a lot of friends who did that, and I believe you. Part of the problem is the very fact that you’re talking to me, and you’re the kind of person you are, means you probably have a higher-than-average percentage of those friends. That’s been true of other people who are graduates of Harvard or Princeton and so forth who’ve responded to what I wrote. I’m glad that you feel like your education helped you get out into the world and do something interesting. My ultimate goal is to rebuild public higher education so people aren’t making these kinds of choices for the wrong reasons. I propose things, and I think people just roll their eyes.

A.T.-D.: Like what? 

W.D.: I like the fact that there are schools that have first-year seminars where people really talk about what education is about and why they’re in college, and not in a drippy way. You do it in the context of a liberal-arts curriculum that doesn’t take the question of what college is for granted. I think that the prestigious schools might make the mistake of thinking, well, our kids already know what this is all about: They have high-achieving parents, they’re 12th-generation college students, and obviously they know the ropes — but maybe for that very reason, I think opening up the question is good. 

A.T.-D.: Both of my parents are professors. So I assume that I am one of the kids you’re talking about, who was privileged and seemed to know the ropes. When I came to Princeton I was shocked at the entrenched culture, in particular at a social scene that I felt was pretty sexist. But I figured out my intellectual and personal motivations through trial and error, and reacting to Princeton was a big part of that process. I took a freshman seminar, and I’m not sure that a differently oriented version of that seminar would help steer people away from a path toward consulting and finance.

The other thing is that I was able to graduate without debt, because Princeton gave me grants to go there. These institutions are extremely wealthy and are invested in staying wealthy, but they are also consciously trying to make their education as accessible as possible to people who would not be able to afford it. Do you think there’s a way that gap could be bridged better? 

W.D.: Understood. When you’re looking at it from an individual perspective, from someone like you, it looks great and it is great, and good for Princeton for doing it. When you look at it from a larger perspective, what you see is that very few people from the bottom half or even the bottom two-thirds of the income distributions ever get to a school like Princeton. Most kids don’t have this opportunity. But it’s also true that how much you can do it depends on what else you are spending money on, on what your priorities are. 

I don’t want to eliminate the private universities and colleges. They have done wonderful things. But ultimately we need to revive public higher education. We did this once. In the book, I mentioned Nelson Rockefeller, who went to Dartmouth and expanded the State University of New York. The thinking was, you shouldn’t have to go to Princeton; you shouldn’t have go to Dartmouth. Unfortunately, we don’t support that anymore. 

A.T.-D.: I think you are right that the more educational opportunities that are out there, the better. When I was at Princeton, there were administrators — and I am thinking especially of the president who left a year ago, Shirley Tilghman — who used their institutional power to help students create a strong sense of self. Shirley Tilghman in particular prioritized LBGT issues, and in the course of her 10 years made the campus a much friendlier place, where LGBT students felt like they were welcome and able to start the process that you describe — trying to figure out who you are. You can’t do that when you feel you are in a hostile place. So I think credit is due to administrators who prioritize these issues. 

W.D.: I agree with you. Higher ed has become a competitive market system. This has a lot to do with the withdrawal of public funding and policy changes where schools were forced to turn students into customers. In the past, Ivy League institutions have taken real leadership roles in higher education — whether it was Princeton many years ago under Woodrow Wilson, or Harvard in the ’30s, or Yale in the ’60s, they led change that was fundamental. Probably none of this will happen now in a lasting way until schools feel that they are doing something that is going to give them a competitive advantage, or at least not give them a competitive disadvantage. 

When it comes to feminist and to LBGT issues, this has a lot to do with student pressure. Students can sometimes get schools to change their policies, especially since the schools see them as future alumni. For good or for ill, they’re seen as customers. Customers in the marketplace have power. What do students want their schools to do? How do they want them to change? 

A.T.-D.: Dare I say it — this is an alumni magazine — Princeton’s alumni have tremendous power.

W.D.: They do. 

A.T.-D.: Historically, have people approached careers in a better way? You go into one of the professions because those are the options that are available to you. 

W.D.: Vocation and profession have always been a very big part of what college is for. I think in some ways, my biggest argument is we’re losing sight of that other part of what college is for, the deeper sense of building your self. One of the most dismaying things about the public responses to my book has been that when I said, “College can also give you a real education in this other sense,” a lot of people have said, “Well, who wants a real education? We’re all too busy pursuing our careers; this other stuff is for hippies.” 

We talk about how we want creative, innovative thinkers and risk-takers and entrepreneurs, but we’re stuck with a system that was really designed in the days of the Cold War, in the days of a relatively static world system and economy that were designed for people who could be trained in one profession and go and do it. We should be creating people who can pursue their careers in a creative way that’s not hemmed in by social expectations, that’s not hemmed in by fears, that’s not hemmed in by the needs of a university to produce wealthy alumni. I believe that for you and for other people, the system is working. But I see a lot of evidence that it’s not doing it well enough, and there are way, way, way too many people whom it is not serving well.

A.T.-D.: People can be creative and entrepreneurial within different tracks; it just takes them time to figure out how to do it. I would give students a little more credit. I’d leave more room for creativity not being something that you have to choose immediately after college, but something you could build as your career moves on. At least I hope so. 

This conversation was facilitated by PAW senior writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83 and condensed.