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Deresiewicz in conversation: ‘Learning is something you pursue regardless of where it’s leading you’

Controversial author sits down with The Herald to discuss ‘Excellent Sheep’

William Deresiewicz, a writer and former Yale professor, visited Brown Monday to promote his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” He sat down with The Herald to discuss his book and the surrounding controversy.


So you went to school at Columbia. You taught at Yale. How did you come to be disillusioned with the Ivy League? 

It was a gradual accumulation of observation based on what I saw in my students. And there are a lot of things I loved about my students and that I’m sure I’d love about students at Brown, and it’s great to teach smart students who are, for the most part, willing to engage the material, although not necessarily at the level I was hoping. But I saw that there were problems. There wasn’t like an “aha moment.” It was really only in retrospect that I realized to what extent I had been part of the same system at an earlier stage in its development towards insanity.


Why did you decide to leave the Ivy League and then write about it?

I didn’t decide to leave the Ivy League. I didn’t get tenure at Yale, which I actually didn’t expect to get because they rarely tenure there. So it wasn’t like I decided, the hell with the Ivy League, and now I’m going to leave and, like, throw a bomb. I had actually given that essay as a talk almost a year earlier at Yale to a student group. And honestly, I thought that would be the end of it. In many ways, this book came to me and not the other way around. And it came to me from you guys — from students reading this article. A lot of you guys have a sense that maybe there’s something missing. If nothing else, what’s missing is an opportunity to talk about what this whole college thing is supposed to be for.


You wrote in your book that the system forces students to “choose between learning and success.” Can you elaborate on exactly what you mean by that?

That came directly out of things I’ve heard students say to me. You have to get an A in everything, so you don’t have time to immerse yourself in any one thing. You have to do a million extracurriculars. Or once you get to college, you feel like you want to or you should or you’re competing. That’s not conducive to learning. Student after student has said to me, “Coming to school isn’t about learning. Learning at my high school, fancy prep school, was like a game, like a video game where you need to get to the next level. It was a code to crack.” I think you guys are extremely good at being students, which today means getting the grade. You’re extremely good at knowing what you need to do to get the grade, which often means the minimum you need to do, and that’s not learning. Learning is something you pursue regardless of where it’s leading you, and it’s about immersion, not about skating over the surface.


What was your own experience like as a student? And how does that inform what you’ve written? 

It was not great. I never thought about what I was doing in college or why I wanted to go. I went because you go. I did think that I was studying what I loved. I was a biopsychology major because I loved biology in high school, and I was always interested in psychology. It was one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever made. I never gave myself a chance to explore what college might have offered, which really meant what might have been inside me. And the truth is that I already knew that I loved literature. The fire had been lit by my 12th-grade English teacher. It never occurred to me to be an English major.


Brown has an open curriculum with no distribution requirements. You can take any class satisfactory/no credit. So do you think Brown belongs in the same category with the other Ivies in terms of your critique?

Without trying to sound like I’m trying to mollify the audience, it does seem that Brown is at the good end of the spectrum, and it’s almost a liberal arts college masquerading as a university. For one thing, you have very few professional programs. And it also seems that there is a culture — maybe encouraged by the curricular lack of structure — a culture of exploration. So maybe things are a little better here. Although after that session a couple of people came up to me and said, “Listen. Most of the people here are going to be the exceptions. And there are a lot of the kinds of kids you described here too.” So much of it has to do with the admissions process and what it forces you to become in high school and college. But I’m certainly happy to entertain the possibility or even acknowledge the reality that things are a little better at Brown.


You talk about the meritocracy in your book, and how the Ivy League started as a training ground for the future elites. How would you incorporate more low-income students into the Ivy League? 

All of this stuff, all of these admissions criteria, they’re all enabled by parental wealth. That’s the problem. It takes a lot of money to help your kid do all this stuff. So it’s the admissions criteria themselves that are part of the problem. People have talked about weighting SAT scores by socioeconomic status, or just affirmative action for low-income kids could be a direct way of doing this. But ultimately I think that these schools are only going to go so far because they need to tend to their donor base. And that’s ultimately the problem with this system is that we have an elite, the training of which is in the hands of a set of private institutions that are always going to need to worry about their budgets.


What is your view on public education? Is that your ideal type of college? I understand that you’re not arguing students shouldn’t go to college. 

I’m kind of operating under the assumption that people are going anyway. And there’s certainly big practical advantages to going. It’s not that big public universities are my ideal. I think they’re not necessarily great places to go to school now, but I think some of them might be. But mainly if they’re not as good as they could be, it’s because we’ve been systematically defunding them. We’ve been killing them for like 30, 40 years.

You know how China talks about 100 Harvards? They have this slogan: 100 Harvards. They want to build 100 Harvards. My slogan is 100 Berkeleys, and not Berkeley as it exists now, but Berkeley as it existed before the early 1980s, when it started to charge tuition. It doesn’t have to be a small liberal arts college, certainly not a small private institution. What matters is that it doesn’t cost a lot of money, that class sizes are small, that professors are well-compensated. That’s what I want to see. A real education that’s really accessible to everybody. And I think a diversity of institutional models is always going to be a good thing because different people are going to want different things, for good reasons.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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