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Perry L. Glanzer

Achievement Slaves

The pathologies of élite education.

So, what's the point of it all? Why am I trying to get great grades? Why am I trying to win all these competitions? Why am I doing all these clubs and leadership positions? I don't know."

A colleague recorded this lament by a female Ivy League student during our research project examining how college students think about purpose. As one would expect from an Ivy League student, she relentlessly pursued personal accomplishments. Yet, on her way to climbing the ladder of success, she suddenly realized she had no idea where it was taking her.

William Deresiewicz relishes exposing us to many of these students in Excellent Sheep. Indeed, Deresiewicz boasts that his book listens to students and tries to speak to them. Yet, while Deresiewicz does give us juicy quotes and stories, his critique of how élite education stupefies students largely reads like a series of sermons. Furthermore, like too many sermons, the book contains an entertaining but dangerous mix of sensible advice, ideological diatribe, insightful wisdom, and perilous generalities.

The generalities begin with Deresiewicz's definition of the élite: "The whole cohort of people who went to selective colleges and are running society for their own exclusive benefit." This sort of agitprop may ensure his street cred, but it does not prove helpful in building sophisticated forms of empathy and understanding.

Still, Deresiewicz does undertake one difficult task regarding empathy. He wants us to feel sorry for élite college students, and he almost succeeds. These poor students, he relates, are stressed out, overworked, aimless, lacking purpose and fearful of the future. Eve, a girl taking four advanced placement courses in her junior year (and planning to do seven her senior year!) tells him, "I sometimes have two or three days where I only get two hours of sleep per night… . I really fear failure… . I am just a machine with no life at this place." ...

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