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Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  5,656 ratings  ·  806 reviews
As a professor at Yale, Bill Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively, and how to find a sense of purpose.

Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand
Hardcover, 245 pages
Published August 19th 2014 by Free Press (first published August 5th 2014)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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 ·  5,656 ratings  ·  806 reviews

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Roy Lotz
Mar 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
I still remember my first exposure to Deresiewicz. I had recently dropped out of graduate school—full of disgust and indignation—and as a form of self-therapy I was busy reading everything I could find about the flaws of higher education. Naturally, I jumped on Deresiewicz’s essay in The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It seemed to put into words so many things I’d been thinking.

A few days later, I was in the car with my mom and my brother (we were dropping my broth
Kressel Housman
Dec 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
As I’ve said in other reviews, every time I read a book about higher education, it stirs my emotions up to such an extent that I cannot help but write an intensely personal review. You’ve been warned. Here goes.

If you were raised in a middle class American family, then quite likely, the main goal not just of your education but of your entire childhood was “to get into a good college.” As the book so brilliantly puts it, “We’re not teaching to the test; we’re living to it.” A kid who gets into Ha
John G.
Sep 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely one of the best books I've ever read about higher education, but so much more than just that. This is a dangerous little book, it really exposes some dirty secrets of the hidden American class/caste system. This is something you almost never see talked or written about, an expose of how the game is and always has been rigged to perpetuate wealth, American dream be damned. There's an element of dark humor and satire here which I loved, he's been hurt and is willing to air a lot of dirt ...more
John Stein
Aug 27, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: policy-politics
Worth a read, but is really a good magazine article stretched into a meandering book (that's ok, "idea" books these days are. My suggestion is read the Part 1 (Why our colleges are filled with overstressed, well trained, bland, rich kids) and Part 4 (Why these same people are doing such a crappy job of running the world). You can skip the middle :Why we need to read, why humanities matter, and why having a soul matters, and no our college system doesn't help you do that very much. (I assumed tha ...more
Jul 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
4.5 stars

In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz shows what the elite schools of the United States lack: the ability to produce free-thinking students and independent minds. He provides insight from his own experience as a student and graduate instructor at Columbia, as well as from his years teaching English at Yale. His critique blends how the current system of education reinforces class structure, how the lack of rigor at top schools prevents real learning, and how the race to get in
Glenn Berger
Dennis slogs into my therapy office at about 5:30 in the afternoon, looking worse for the wear and tear. He’s a good looking 33-year-old guy, nattily dressed in his bespoke suit, but his face and body sags.

He sits down and says, “I’ve done nothing to improve my lot this week. I’ve had to work till two in the morning every day. I haven’t even been able to think about anything else.”

Dennis makes a lot of money working for a venture capital firm, but he hates his job. He’s got a boss who seems to k
Jul 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Having just graduated from one of the elite universities that Deresiewicz mentions in this book, I am punching myself over and over again for not reading this book four years ago, when I was about to start my freshman year. Full disclosure: I am one of Deresiewicz's excellent sheep. I might come at this with a lot of bias, and I do disagree with many of his points, but I absolutely love this book nonetheless.

I was scrambling to highlight every other page as I read this on my Kindle. So many of
Oct 24, 2014 rated it did not like it
The vengeful scream of a former instructor at Yale denied tenure, he suddenly discovers that the entire education system to which he has devoted his professional life is not worth the paper on which his Ivy League degrees are printed. A ridiculously overbroad attack on "elite" education, this book ranges from parenting advice you don't want to opinions on politics, economics, religion, life philosophy, the right books to read, and of course, education. In fact, there really isn't any subject tha ...more
Oct 26, 2014 rated it liked it
Full disclosure: I am going to like any book that claims that the way to a better society is for more people to become English majors. I did in fact find myself agreeing with most of Deresiewicz's critiques of elitism in higher education. The admissions process at selective universities drives a meritocracy that has already-privileged kids competing with each other from a very early age to secure an artificially scarce spot at the most presitious schools (where "prestiige" is dubiosly defined by ...more
Apr 26, 2019 rated it liked it
A while ago I was doing some research into the Teach for movement and that meant I had to read lots and lots (mostly journal articles and books) on how it got set up, what it was aiming to do, what it thought ‘good teaching’ meant, those sorts of things. And, in terms of the last one, what it believed good teaching meant was quite simply being a leader. In fact, as this book points out, a large part of the point of the Teach for movement is to put high achieving young people into the classrooms ...more
Athan Tolis
Jan 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
First things first, I must declare a massive bias here because I come from a most distinguished flock of “excellent sheep.” Eat your heart out Amy Chua, my mom and dad (George and Effie Tolis of Athens, Greece) clocked 15.5 years of Harvard tuition between their three offspring. My brother additionally spent 6 years at a lesser institution in New Haven, but has meantime somewhat redeemed himself: he teaches at Harvard these days.

You have been warned, I am writing with considerable bias. On the
Sep 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The first part of the book was thoroughly depressing.

Part 2 leads you to believe there is hope - particularly if your child is someone that actually likes and desires and education.

Part 3 is unrealistic - but probably the only possible solution.

I see much of what is going on in college also happening in high school - particularly the grade inflation, excessive extra curricular activities with no real purpose (other than to build a resume) and lack of coherence in the curriculum.

No one seems
Jul 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
6 Stars. Massive game changing book alert - Neo’s equivalent of the red pill he takes from Morpheus. In a nutshell the book is a scathing and at time beautifully worded vitriolic attack against some of the causes of the shite that’s going on in the world at the moment. William insinuates that a lot of the world’s problems are due to the drumbeat that we have created in the west of brainless and unanalytical study in schools designed and built to ensure that the best minds (often the most privile ...more
Jun 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
I revised this review because I watched a video of Deresiewicz outlining the principles behind his book, and I was reminded of how much I agree with his central contentions. Among them, he said that being a leader often means being willing to be unpopular; that colleges breed and demand conformity—which does not a leader make— and that (paraphrasing another), on college campuses, being a leader means being a very good follower. I want to emphasize that I don't believe it is his assertion (as I o ...more
Craig Werner
Jun 03, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: education
The rating reflects my distaste for the subjects of the book, not its execution. Deresiewicz defends liberal arts education in a cogent manner. The final section of the book could be ready profitably on its own. The content's not surprising to anyone who's been following the discussion of the value of a liberal arts education in a STEM obsessed world: critical thinking is more important than specialization, the great books are great books for a reason (and Deresiewicz doesn't confuse that with t ...more
Douglas Wilson
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
As diagnosis, this book is outstanding. Elite education for America's elite has become a vast exercise in getting our high-achieving students all dressed up for the ball, and then never actually hiring a band for the event. Superbly equipped for just about anything, except knowledge of what an education is for, these incarnate high SAT scores on stilts wander aimlessly around the Ivy League campuses, not quite sure what they are there for. This book really is a stunning indictment of the status ...more
Aug 15, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
First, I will preface this review by saying, I'm not the target audience for this book.

Here's my problem with this book. The author has some strong opinions, and that is what this book is....pages of opinions. Which is fine, as long as you're not passing it off as factual or as long as you are not slamming other people. (This book did both of those things...many times.)

It was hard to get into this, with all the ax grinding going on. The author is so anti ivy league, it was becoming quite comica
Jul 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz makes a claim that "If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less. That is itself a kind of freedom." He is speaking about choosing a "lesser" college to attend or a shunning a major centered around wealth, but the implication is clear. "Yale snubbed me, and I am still doing fine, so I know what it is like to do without what you want! Students do not need to attend a good university or pursue a money-making major! Ignore my family of ...more
This is a classic magazine-article-as-book; you could read just the first and fourth sections, or his original essay and get better than the gist of it, but I still didn't mind reading the longer version since it's short and he's a lively writer.

The main idea is that admission to the Ivy League and a handful of other schools (e.g. Stanford, Williams) has become so competitive that their students have become overachieving, risk-averse, purposeless automatons who go from elite high schools throug
Oct 05, 2014 rated it liked it
This is a meandering book. There are parts where Deresiewicz has good points and he makes them with great and forceful writing. These are the parts where he shows how self-serving the country's elite have become. And then there are parts where he sounds just like the elite that he's berating, many times showing the same tunneled vision that he accuses them of. He seems to have contempt for giving consideration to earning a living while choosing one's education field. Sorry, but not everyone has ...more
Jun 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
In some ways, William Deresiewicz seems like a throwback: He wants to restore the virtues and resources of liberal arts teaching in colleges throughout the country, and he spends the first part of his book castigating the system America has developed for pressuring top students to pass test after test to get themselves into one of the elite schools and then their lack of real exploration and learning once they are there.

He is in some ways a child of Alan Bloom, but he does not advocate for a gre
Beth Kakuma-Depew
Apr 01, 2016 rated it did not like it
He's very worried about Millennial young people. Are they more stressed than other young collage-aged kids? Are the Upper class and Upper middle class young adults at risk...some how? I don't know these people, being a lower middle class Midwesterner. I feel like this is a scare book for the 1%, or maybe East Coasters who aspire to the 1%. I had hoped for more social insight, but this is not a compilation of hard research and data. Basically he got a lot of letters from worried students, and com ...more
Dec 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is not just a criticism of elite education, but a stinging indictment of elitism in general, and everything stemming from it. By “elite” the author doesn’t mean pointy-headed academics or liberals, but the upper echelons of our society and all cohort of people who went to selective colleges and are now running society for their own exclusive benefit. He begins by taking aim at people who slander a liberal arts education and who believe that college is a place for professional occupation tra ...more
Jun 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
“Once, we dreamed of eradicating poverty, winning the Cold War, reaching the moon, ensuring racial justice, creating a more equitable society. Now—what? [...] So much freedom. So much wealth and power. Such technological sophistication. But in the end, to what end?”

I don't know, boy. You tell me.
Sep 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I loved Deresiewicz's book on Jane Austen. It felt like drinking tea with a friend, talking about what really matters in life. This book is different. It is angry and occasionally strident.

In many ways, there is nothing new in this book. As long as there has been an educational system, there have been people more interested in credentialism than in learning. It even comes up in "Pride and Prejudice," when they discuss what it means to be "accomplished." Deresiewicz described this aspect of the h
Will Ejzak
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It's not an exaggeration to say this book could function as a bible for graduating high school seniors, particularly those from wealthy communities. It's not a perfect book--it's occasionally a little preachy or elitist, as much as it tries not to be--but its core arguments feel like gospel truth. Among them:

1) The primary function of elite universities (we'll say top 20) is to reproduce social hierarchies--in other words, to keep the rich rich--while disguising this process as meritocracy (you
Mar 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Of the handful of books I've read about college prep and the state of education at today's elite American colleges and universities I'd say this is the best of the bunch. It's certainly the most honest.

Deresiewicz is a cauldron of strong opinions, tight and compelling arguments, arrogance, funny ideas and conscientious mentorship. There's absolutely nothing mushy about his approach to any subject. He's a skeptic, a thinker, a critic and he encourages college students to think, doubt, question, c
I didn't love every moment of this--moments, for example, that veer into platitudes or seem to romanticize the past--but these are small critiques of a book that all teachers and, really, anyone who knows a teenager (or is a teenager) should read. That last chapter is scathing in the best possible way. I want to include a quote, but it's hard to choose just one. Hm. How about this one, appearing in one of the last chapters:

"Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to a
Son Tung
Nov 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
I browsed through others' thoughtful reviews and i do see the counterpoints worth considering. However, there are few key points brought beautifully by the author which resonates powerfully with me:

- The necessity of liberal arts education, the real education, not just education to get a high paying job and social status, but to be a responsible citizen of the world. The importance of critical thinking, passionate weirdos, reflection, changing beliefs...

- The meaning of the time spent during uni
Hannah Spector
Feb 03, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
I started to read this but got to this paragraph and my eyes rolled so far back in my head I could not finish:

"My examples tend to come from Yale, since that is mainly where I taught, but I do not mean to single out that institution. If anything, I think it probably deserves its reputation as the best among elite universities (as distinct from liberal arts colleges) at nurturing creativity and intellectual independence. Notoriously pre-professional places like Penn, Duke, or Washington Universit
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William Deresiewicz was an associate professor of English at Yale University until 2008 and is a widely published book critic. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Bookforum, and The American Scholar. He was nominated for National Magazine awards in 2008 and 2009 and the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Rev ...more

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“Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this? What they hear is a constant drumbeat, in the public discourse, that seeks to march them in the opposite direction. When policy makers talk about higher education, from the president all the way down, they talk exclusively in terms of math and science. Journalists and pundits—some of whom were humanities majors and none of whom are nurses or engineers—never tire of lecturing the young about the necessity of thinking prudently when choosing a course of study, the naïveté of wanting to learn things just because you’re curious about them.” 24 likes
“But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult.” 21 likes
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