Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December's Book: Excellent Sheep

It feels good to have 2014's reading requirement done so early, in contrast to ice-storm-riddled 2013 or even jam-packed 2012. Happy Christmas Eve!


Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
Education (2014 - 242 pp.)

In Excellent Sheep, ex-Yale English professor William Deresiewicz attacks the elite university system in the United States. At the heart of the attack are the focus on revenue rather than educational integrity, lack of humanities instruction, and insufficient professor face time for undergraduate students. Although my experience with American education is solely at the graduate level, giving me a different perspective from what Deresiewicz or many of his former students may have, I sympathize with Deresiewicz's arguments overall. I am a huge proponent of humanities education, as should hopefully be evident in my willingness to blog about even the most arcane literary sources. I also spent a significant amount of time during my BA in professors' offices discussing my papers.

Many of Deresiewicz's arguments come up in a few places in similarly stated ways, so I will go light on quoting the book directly. I start by agreeing to the utmost with his clearest one: that education in the liberal arts (broadly speaking, arts and sciences), and the humanities more specifically, is absolutely crucial. Higher education should exist for its own sake, not simply as a vocational school (although those are fine too), and its benefits toward employment should come through transferable skills. The time-honoured tradition of Wall Street investment banks and brokerage houses hiring humanities graduates^ speaks to this. As someone who studied the humanities with a pinch of the social sciences in undergrad, I remember being asked what I would do with my education. Well, there is plenty I can do. I would feel horrible for anyone graduating from an undergraduate or postgraduate degree only able to do one thing, which is one of the reasons why I applaud good professional programs in areas like nursing or engineering setting their students up for any number of careers. (For example, engineering graduates are prized by software consulting firms.) This all comes down to the individual school or program, though, which Deresiewicz stresses in his support of liberal arts colleges. As someone who went to a school that can roughly be called the Canadian equivalent of a liberal arts college, I sympathize with his argument there.

The discussion of admissions processes reminds me of something a professor once told me about law school admissions: that they are, in his words, "like sausage being made". The notion of collecting accolades for the sole purpose of affixing them to a résumé rather than for their inherent worth is unsettling. While I have occasionally used the phrase accomplishment derby to describe my life, I like to think I do the things I do because they matter to me in some way. The accumulation of numbers of advanced placement (AP) courses in high school seems asinine. The book mentions that some students have as many as nine or ten. At the standard five courses per semester, that requires a Grade 12 student to be taking nothing but AP courses, presuming his or her school even offers that many. I believe my high school, which was well regarded, offered about 2-4 total.

Deresiewicz's discussion of grade inflation is very apt. The use of GPA presumes a certain equality in course offerings and school grading systems that simply does not exist. Whether elite universities bother to differentiate between difficulty of schools and courses would be interesting to see. I part company a little with his seeming praise* of the Cleveland State student's abundance of marks taken off for handing a paper in late due to her part-time waitressing job, as I tend more toward the side of allowing extensions if it results in better work, but I certainly understand the contrast between that story and the considerable leeway given to students in the Ivy League.

I do not feel that Deresiewicz gives the study of economics enough credit. When I studied economics, at an elite university no less, I felt like I was learning an exciting discipline that could inform my overall arts and business knowledge. How do people arrive at the decisions they make? How should "rationality" be defined, and to what extent are which people rational in different situations? How can I use incentives to bring about the outcomes I want? Thousands of questions just like these emerge in that field. At its beginning, as in a book like The Wealth of Nations, economics looked more like philosophy than a social science. A book like After the Welfare State shows it still can. The way I always typify economics is to say that, if the humanities are white and the sciences are black, true social sciences like psychology are grey, whereas economics is a black and white chessboard. The unique confluence of what is essentially history/philosophy and algebra makes economics a very interesting subject. Properly taught, economics should ask as many questions as any field. Even the more quantitative areas of economics, such as econometrics, ask their own questions, although I am less familiar with this side of it.

My two issues with Excellent Sheep are so wildly different it almost seems strange discussing them at once. One is Deresiewicz's flat refusal to cite the vast majority of his sources. While I greatly respect his research skills and am sure he has quoted everything accurately, some of the sources look like interesting reads and I may have difficulty finding them. The other is that Excellent Sheep is overly long at the end - the book could have easily been 142 pages - and becomes increasingly preachy as it starts discussing American class issues. Precisely how to counteract economic inequality generally, while related to the book's core subject matter of lack of inventiveness at top-tier American universities, is departed from the main thrust of the book. (Ironically, use of a Gini coefficient may help Deresiewicz's case there, which does not mix well with his bemoaning of the popularity of economics one bit.) I think a book like this is at its best when is at its most focused. After about chapter ten or so, I felt its focus was not as sharp.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 7

^While I laud the practice of hiring humanities graduates generally, I understand I picked a controversial example, so I remain tongue-in-cheek in doing so.

*If this was simply a statement of fact, i.e. that this does happen, I stand corrected and remain informed by the event.

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