Thoughts on Excellent Sheep

Published: 2019-09-28
Tagged: thoughts education readings

A few years back I read William Deresiewicz's "Solitude and Leadership" and liked it so much that I subscribed to the magazine that published it. A part of that essay criticizes higher education for becoming a system of hoops and, at the same time, a marketing force that drives students to jump through said hoops. As a result, students become great at playing finite games but lack the skill of navigating life and society (infinite games). This made me realize that the unease I always feel when dealing with people fresh out of college or with a deep academic background is like a situational comedy, where characters use the same words to mean very different things. My curiosity led me to Deresiewicz's book "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life." It turned out that both "American" and "elite" can be generalized to "global" and "all higher education."

Deresiewicz writes that higher education used to be an environment where a young person was able to sharpen their mind to better understand their life and the world around them. In that system, the teacher served the role of guide and coach by providing challenges and advice at the right moments. The student's exploration was driven from within them by genuine human need to know things. The result was a person who was able to ask "why?" Why should something be done? Why is X better than Y? Why are we doing things this way? Why are we focused on solving this problem? Why are we framing this problem this way? These are the kinds of questions we want to hear from citizens of a democracy; from our politicians, doctors, technicians, and journalists; from neighbors, friends, and enemies.

This model was slowly transformed by the German idea of the university into what we have today: a system for the vocational training of a high volume of students. With it's focus on applicable skills, the emphasis shifted from asking "why?" to "how?" The latter ensures professional success, but it lacks the humanistic angle of the former. Additionally, Deresiewicz asserts that this leads to personal suffering because it alienates the student, the product of this system, from the meaning of their work. Instead of developing the student's internal way of figuring what is good and what not, the school reinforces the juvenile trait of relying on external systems of validation, basically keeping them from maturing.

I've invested the last few years of my life on learning how to build and improve software with an emphasis on reliability (think "SRE"). Through tens of projects, dozens of books, and hundreds of discussions on this topic, I've picked up a thing or two. But none of it is helpful in answering why something should be built or how it should be used. It took considerable effort to make an inch of progress towards answering these and it forced me to go over some economics, photography, writing, logistics, management, literature, martial arts, and much more. A non-linear, almost random walk through many different schools of thinking and seeing. It is through these that I can empathize and ask: how does it feel to have never strayed off the beaten path?

I was surprised to learn that the American higher ed system still has old elements in the form of general electives. I remember greatly enjoying learning about the meaning of The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the work of anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, or the style of Tintoretto while attending community college to major in computer science. Other countries' systems lack this approach, which means hyper-specialization. This can't possible be good for any society in the long term.

According to Deresiewicz, "autodidacts tend to be cranks, obtuse, and self-enclosed." I see some truth to that. It's to easy to get lost in the web of knowledge, too easy to gorge on information thinking it is wisdom. I can appreciate how useful it would be to have a guide during this process. Someone to help you refine your findings, someone to gently lead you back on the right path from a dead-end. Someone to provide friction and enforce at least a little bit of discipline. Not everyone is lucky to meet such a person, in which case online forums, curiosity, and the will to make mistakes have to take the role of the teacher.

Toward the end, Deresiewicz says that "that the central intellectual ability that you're supposed to develop in college is that of analyzing other people's arguments and formulating your own." The pessimist in me, seeing what's going on in the US, Europe, and Asia, concludes that higher education is failing at its mission. Social discourse has turned into a shouting match between the those that are the loudest. Has it ever been different? I can't say. But the optimist in me sees hope in the Internet. College, in its pure form, is about the relationship between teacher and student and the Internet is able to provide that. Yes, it's not as official and focused, but I'm glad that while the brick and mortar institution is being devoured by bureaucracy, individuals are jumping in to keep the idea alive in any form they can.


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