The Liberal Arts Are Not a Luxury: An ‘Excellent Sheep’ Responds to Deresiewicz

by Leah Falk

William Deresiewicz wants you to find your bliss. Yes, you, with the straight A’s and the 35 on your ACTs and the entourage of extracurricular activities, whose parents give your SAT tutor the good snacks instead of you. They might know that $350 an hour is too much to pay to raise your scores a few points, but college admissions are the mighty St. Lawrence, after all, and you’re a salmon.

Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, out this month, is an expansion of his viral 2008 essay in The American Scholar. It argues that the culture of achievement among those rich enough to pursue it single-mindedly precludes real learning and discovery, beginning as early as homework-laden kindergarten and continuing past Harvard graduation. These kids’ dogged pursuit of … something, writes Deresiewicz, isn’t totally their fault; the so-called American “meritocracy,” intended to make college a place for more than just gentlemen in straw boaters, has become an ultra-competitive admissions process that, instead of promoting true diversity, merely shifts the advantage toward those who can afford to start padding their applications at birth.

Deresiewicz would have the admissions offices, the parents, the students, hold it right there. He’d like to bring back awe and curiosity to the university, not to mention some sense of reading both broadly and deeply in order to become not only prepared for work, but also “good citizens.”

This prescription and its corollaries aren’t new: the educator and critic E. D. Hirsch, in his 1987 book Cultural Literacy, argued that all Americans should know certain things in order to participate in democracy. The philosopher Allan Bloom echoed the sentiment, somewhat more bitterly, in The Closing of the American Mind, published the same year. (Bloom makes frequent appearances in Excellent Sheep.)

My gut votes a straight-party ticket for the liberal arts, but I hear Deresiewicz’s critics when they ask what exactly it means that a college education should prepare citizens. Certainly, reading broadly in many subjects and deeply in a few, becoming literate and numerate, and learning to analyze a variety of arguments puts you in a good position to do many jobs well, vote, make more informed decisions at the doctor’s office and the grocery store, and maybe even have more interesting conversations with strangers or your friends. Deresiewicz doesn’t claim that the absence of those qualities make you less human, just that their presence helps connect you to other humans. And connecting meaningfully to other humans, or even to oneself, is what he suggests elite college students are not doing. (His 2008 essay opens with his embarrassment that the substance of his own Ivy League education, at Columbia, left him mute before a plumber.)

But if choosing the liberal arts would make affluent students better participants in democracy, how do those Americans without the luxury to “choose” their educations fare? How do the poor, new immigrants, and anyone else who can’t afford a life of playing the admissions game become citizens in that most participatory sense — through argument and questioning?

First, a story. I have a younger friend — I’ll call him M — who in 2012 graduated from one of the institutions Deresiewicz criticizes. M’s peers, he reports, were about as career-minded as Deresiewicz supposes. He had close friends who majored in computer science, economics, pre-med, and went on to work in finance. For his part, he took his time choosing a major since in high school, he had been good at everything. Somewhere along the way, almost by accident, he took a series of classes — history, international politics — that blew him away. He majored in one of these fields and was advised, closely and collegially, by one of the rock-star scholars Deresiewicz suggests look down their noses at teaching. But the professor’s mentorship focused on academia as a next step in the field, which M wasn’t interested in.

M became an editor of his school’s daily newspaper, and journalism began to seem like a logical fit. After a promising journalism internship which turned into a promising contract job, though, M was not hired as a full-time reporter. So he was once again forced to evaluate what he wanted out of a job, out of his education, and most importantly, out of all the years of his life he had left to learn things. He crossed the country and moved in with his parents, bemoaning his course of study; his CS and banker friends had not been forced into such a reckoning so soon after graduation. With big salaries and nods from society — even at companies that hadn’t yet turned profits or funds still reeling from the 2008 crash — there was nothing to disturb the notion that they had made the right choices in, and about, college.

He went through the following months in a funk. A field that had excited him turned out not to need him just at that moment. Moreover, journalism, like every industry everywhere in the 21st century, was changing rapidly. Now was not the time to get the New York Times “T” emblazoned on one’s back. Instead of getting a job at a coffee shop, so he’d have somewhere to go every day, he waffled; he didn’t want to be doing a job just to do it. He wanted to wait until the right one came along.

This approach sounds audacious to some, but the waiting paid off. After nearly a year, he found a job, one that is way better for him than Starbucks. Of course, waiting (or working) for that “right” job is afforded by incredible privilege. M ate his parents’ food and slept in their spare room while he looked for work all over the country. (And, because he is not an asshole, mowed their lawn and shopped for groceries and drove his mother to her doctor’s appointments.) His stay did not crowd them or vex them or deprive them in any way.

Stories like M’s are common these days and are often used as evidence that the choice of a course of study based on curiosity and passion is a perk only the “haves” can afford. Our economy can’t be rebuilt, or social mobility re-won, on the backs of classics majors trying to find themselves, say the haters. Can only the affluent afford to “explore,” as Deresiewicz urges all students to do, or to have such a watershed moment as M had? Does this mean that the liberal arts, especially in a liberal-arts-hating climate (see: declining English major rates, Florida governor Rick Scott) are only for the wealthy?

God I hope not. Filling our history and literature classes with only affluent students means that we will rarely again turn out a Junot Diaz, an Alice Walker, an Irving Howe or a Sherman Alexie. But there’s something even more essential at stake: making sure that the liberal arts are also an available tool for low-income students to make sense of their communities, or the “hardest things anyone has ever thought about,” as one of Deresiewicz’s students says about her Ivy-League education. The first texts are not Wittgenstein, but their schools and neighborhoods. The fostering of real leadership — not baby CEO leadership, but leadership wherein kids become models for each other and think hard about what that means — is an essential cornerstone of the liberal arts in communities where going to college is not a given.

In a recent PBS Independent Lens documentary, “The Graduates/ Los Graduados,” which follows a group of six Latino/a teenagers toward high school graduation, one girl talks about wanting to drop out of her high school, “the worst” in the city. But at the urging of a teacher, she joins a group called Peer Jurors, where students are trained to mediate their peers’ problems. In a mediation scene, the girl and her fellow jurors ask hard questions of another girl who has been threatened with suspension because she talks back to her teacher. Have you tried telling him how you feel? they ask. You keep saying he’s doing this, or he’s doing that, one student says. Are you sure you’re not doing anything?

At the end of the session, the student has not been broken, as in an interrogation, nor does she offer a pat apology, as she might to a disciplining adult. What are your conclusions? the peer jurors ask her. I know that I have to not be afraid to tell people what’s bothering me, she says, her brow knitting, her speech intentional. I have to open up to people more.

These students, no older than sixteen or seventeen, help to move their classmate from rage to reflection, through little more than thoughtful, engaged rhetoric. Working in schools classified as “troubled,” I have seen students as young as nine take this same care with their peers. Show me a group of students that has more right to explore the different ways there are to think and write and argue and lead. Unlike their affluent peers, they may not have nine months to spend after their youthful conception of a first job doesn’t pan out, but I think Deresiewicz would stand with me in cautioning school and government leaders to be careful: a young person’s genuine questioning of himself, of his peers, and of the world is not a luxury.

Leah Falk worked in public schools for three years before getting her MFA at the University of Michigan. She writes poems and runs the blog MFA Day Job.