My Thoughts on “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz

These are my thoughts and opinions regarding one of the most important and relevant books written in the past 10 years that very few teenagers will read, especially many of my peers whose hopes and dreams depend purely on which logo will be on their hoodies for the next 4 years. This will be highly biased, so buckle up:

“Excellent Sheep” is essentially the ramblings of a Yale professor about the system of prestigious universities and how these places have totally destroyed what the purpose of learning is. Ever since the first pages it is clear that there is a significant amount of bias in this book, and that’s fine. Bias is important in this world because it makes things interesting and gives a clear inside into the mind and thoughts of someone regarding a particular subject matter, and that’s one of the main qualities of this book. This is a professor who graduated from an Ivy League school and that’s been teaching on one for most of his life.

The Ivy League, in all its glory.
“Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top of the world, “success”. As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in.”

The first thing that I noticed is the direction it was going. I’ve heard and seen most of this stuff simply from my minimal student experience in my IB courses and from my peers: nobody cares about what they’re doing, they just do it for the grade. Learning was almost never in the minds of most people, all they really wanted is to score a 7 and show off to their parents so they could go on a trip to Europe or get the new iPhone or whatever they like, as well as to show off to their friends so they can feel better about themselves, knowing that they’re smarter and intellectually superior, whatever that means. Interesting enough, a Telegraph article mentions how the IB is all about being prepared for Ivy-League level universities, them recognizing that all IB students are proven independent thinkers.

This is who they all want to be.
You cannot say to a Yaile ‘find your passion,’ a former student wrote me. ‘Most of us do not know how and that is precisely how we arrived at Yale, by having a passion only for success.’

I never actually cared about the relevance school would have in my life, but somehow I had some remark of motivation to do so. Such thing lasted for most of 9th grade as well as parts of 10th grade. On the other hand, most people had already found out that their grades weren’t going to mean anything once they’re in the IB, and that those famous words “try harder, because now it counts” meant nothing until they were out of the MYP.

I remember how one day my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Bossung, gave us all a pop test where we had to analyse a song in an essay or something like that (he said it was a summative, meaning it had a lot of weight on the final grade). Once we finished he told us all that it was actually a formative (something like a homework) but that all of us actually put effort into it because of the knowledge of the grade. After that day, everyone in the class gave their best towards learning and giving it all; doing it for themselves rather than for the number. We don’t see that today anymore. Students only care about how their grades will influence their lives as well as what that grade represents in terms of the class. That’s why they take classes like ESS which they hate but that it’s easy to get a 7. Same goes for most people who take 4 HL’s, they don’t need the 4th one, they just want to impress universities, and that’s not learning.

“It is indeed reasonable to say, as many students have, that you might as well go to Wall Street and make a lot of money if you can’t think of anything better to do.”

In today’s world, everything is either a lie or nothing is true. What this means is that whatever you see there is not because of random chance, it’s been carefully placed behind a statistic, a number, a chance that you will see it and that you will consume.

When businessmen shake hands before a meeting, the first thing they assume is that the other one is a liar and a con-men. They have no trust between each other. And who’s running the party? The top college kids, the overachievers, the students which the schools structurally engineered through rigorous content and selectively bred through their GPA and their SAT scores, the ones who define but don’t understand, these are the ones running the show.

It all comes back to education.

As mentioned in this book, most Ivy League graduates have spent so much of their time studying things they dislike in school (going back to the 4 HL example) so that they can go to a university simply because of its brand and reputation rather than for what it offers. It is unbelievable how so many of these students, who are passionate about a large array of subjects, that the school offers, decide to go for the route of business and economics. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re passionate for those subjects then go ahead.

Here’s the thing, studying business and economics is like ordering a salad at a restaurant: you should do it not because it’s healthy but because YOU WANT a salad. It’s been statistically proven that many restaurant salads have more calories and fats than a Whopper or a Big Mac, meaning that they’re not exactly good for you even though they might still be slightly better than other options out there.

They do weigh more so technically it can be slightly justified

It’s totally fine that you’re a salad junkie, you just gotta understand that there’s not a huge difference in calories between other plates. The same goes for economics and business. Yes, it might seem healthy and it will look like you’re doing well for yourself, and it will to some regard. The thing is if you don’t like it then you won’t stand it for long, and it won’t help you have a happy lifestyle (in the salad example this would be losing weight).

The “guaranteed job” argument at its finest.

“If love of money tends to win out, that is largely because so many kids leave college without a sense of inner purpose- in other words, of what else might be worth their time.”

An Ivy League education is one that, for the most part, creates a highly capitalistic mindset along with the opportunities to exploit it, something which these kids will lay upon for the rest of their lives. Who wouldn’t have a Harvard Graduate doing your accounting?

The cycle continues as you begin to make serious cash, but you’re no longer satisfied with it. What you then do is move up the ladder by taking down whoever is on top of you to fill your ego, and then you do it again, and again and again until you’re the boss or the CEO. And once you get there you’ve lost the personality you once had, you’re now a feared symbol of authority in the office that nobody likes but pretend to like simply for the chance to take you down and become that person themselves. You know that because you got there by doing that yourself.

“It’s all depends on how much ass you’re willing to kiss and how much back you’re willing to stab”
-TJ Kirk “The Amazing Atheist”

People have a huge incentive to make money under any cost, that’s what their life centres around because that’s what their inspirations do. Yet, very few will eventually get there, and considering that a lot of them come from wealthy families they also run the risk of losing it all (keeping in mind the amount of fear they have for failure).

Society frowns upon ideals: the beliefs of people who want to make a change for the world or even for themselves, and that’s exactly what these universities go against in an insanely subtly and clever way. People want to do what they love, but first they want to make money out of it, and that’s not always the case. See, your reward shouldn’t be the money you get from it, it should be the satisfaction you get from doing so. Yes, you do need money, but you don’t need that much.

“Ideals have enormous power. They give you the strength to resist the seductions of status and wealth and success. An ideal is something that is more important to you than anything the world can give you.”

People with ideals, with incentives for change, with actual curiosity for learning, is not something that will benefit the university in the long run. These universities are focused on satisfying their clients with a way of providing them with a form of cash-flow so that they can live sustainable lives and in the near future be active donators to the university and even send their children to it. Notice how the word “clients” is used instead of the word “students”, and that’s because that’s what they are.

My problem with these universities is not what they do, it’s what they say they do. It’s fine if you are there to create money hungry young little capitalistic jedi, just advertise yourself that way. “Hey, my name is Columbia and if you come here you will replace your personality for a lot of money.”

I remember when I saw the presentation for Columbia, Princeton and Yale and how attractive Columbia looked to me. That was until I saw how much emphasis the presenter put on the readings they had to do and how “beautiful” it was to discuss the wonder of The Odyssey, Don Quixote, and many other books which I consider myself to be highly overpraised and dated (keep in mind this had far more emphasis than on most other parts of the presentation). I just sat there, wondering (from what I know about my peers) how many students actually like these books? Relevance, people are missing relevance and meaning, and that’s something they learn to understand once they leave university.

If you are like most people in my school, then you most likely don’t care about a lot of things that you are “learning” but you’re doing so because you have the “resume motivation”, you want to tell universities that you did 4 HL’s and that you’re the president of a club that you don’t even know the mission statement of. You’re only pretending that you care, and that’s how you succeeded. If you want to continue doing so in university then you have to take some risk. Fail a class or two, take a couple on subjects you’re unfamiliar with, ask questions, question the system, swim against the stream; make your life exiting, that’s the point of college. If not then you’re already an old maid in a business suit.

Excellent Sheep so far is disturbing but excellent, and I am highly looking forward to finish reading it. The most disturbing part of it is that most students will not be reading it because their English or Spanish homework involves reading something boring or meaningless to their own lives so that they can write about events they memorized to get a good grade. Most of these kids will ace the test, and not even open the book.

Welcome to today’s learning.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Sebastian Mendo’s story.