Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

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 know how to invest in the right company, but doesn’t know a thing about human beings. He treats Dennis like crap.

Dennis has been too afraid to quit, and has no idea what he’d want to do if he did get out of his current position. “I’ve never had a passion,” he tells me, with sadness in his voice.

Educated in expensive private schools, this was the track Dennis thought he was supposed to follow. He’s watched his peers travel down this same road, and though he longs for something of greater meaning, he would feel ashamed if he didn’t make as much money as his friends.

He tells himself that he will focus on what he wants to do with the rest of his life on the weekends, but instead, he binge drinks. Sundays are spent recovering from a hangover. He has random hook ups with women he quickly grows bored of. He thought he’d be on his way to have a family by now, and is perplexed about why that isn’t happening.

I get home late that night, myself, at 9:30 pm, to find my daughter, who is in sixth grade at an elite school in Westchester, New York, still doing her homework. She has an incredibly good attitude about this, considering she has been working for three hours. I tell her she’s done enough, and it is time to get some rest. Her eyes brim with tears. She says, “If I don’t finish my homework, my teacher will get mad at me!”

She finishes up in the next fifteen minutes, and begs to be able to watch some TV on her computer before she has to go to sleep, in order to get up at 6:30 in the morning, to get ready to go to school and take a math test. For the first time, she is saying that she hates school. She complains of backaches and headaches.

I’m all about standards of excellence. I hold a deep ethic about discipline and the value of hard work. Compared to the limitations of public schools, with inconsistent quality of instruction, unpredictable budgets, and teaching to the test, I know my daughter is very lucky to be in the school that she currently attends. But I feel afraid.

I’ve got lots of people in my New York psychotherapy practice like Dennis. I’m certain that the people who run my children’s school, and educators in general, want the best outcomes for the kids, and think hard how to achieve these aims. However, is there something we are all missing? Are we thinking hard enough about the kinds of people we are creating by the way we are educating our children?

I’ve railed about this issue to the many clients in my practice who suffer from Dennis’s syndrome, but I have felt like a voice crying alone in the wilderness until I read Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz. This the most important book I have read in many years.

Deresiewicz’s book is a passionate indictment of our culture-at-large, and most pointedly at the pinnacle of our educational system, the Ivy League schools, which are supposed to represent the ideal of achievement in our culture.

When he describes the kinds of people our top educational system creates, he is talking precisely about guys like Dennis.

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose; trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea of why they are doing it.”

And . . .

“Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

Mr. Deresiewicz believes that the system is actually working in the way it is meant to: it is creating a class of people who are more than willing to sacrifice their lives and individuality for their corporate overlords, who are excellent at doing the soul-numbing tasks required to make their bosses obscene amounts of money, and whose form of American servitude includes a very nice bonus at the end of the year.

“What Wall Street has figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”

Mr. Deresiewicz asserts that though this system produces an endless stream of chattel to fatten the pockets of their Wall Street bosses, it is not only bad for the health of the individual victim, but ultimately, as the history of the last six years has borne out, bad for the economy as well. That is, at least as far as the bottom 99% is concerned.

Then, there is a good chance that the highest achievers become the masters of the universe. It is no mystery that the financial crisis was caused in no small measure by the amoral machinations of the financiers at the top. In an educational system that rewards the cleverest manipulator but does little to forge goodness and character, is it any wonder that the results would be, in the end, for the greatest number, ruinous?

Mr. Deresiewicz’s solution is a good one, but it does seem quaint in our technocratic age: humanism. He believes that the best college education is a liberal arts one. The humanistic purpose and method of education is the realization of what is best in the individual, through a deep penetration of the greatest works that culture has wrought.

This educational approach has a thread that extends from Confucius in ancient China, where studying the ancient texts of the wise was the source of the greatest pleasure; to the German idea of bildung, which asserts that the purpose of education is a self-cultivation that leads to the optimal development of the whole person leading to the greatest contribution to society as a whole; to the American ideal of the educated citizen, which is the foundation upon which true democracy is built.

The fact that Mr. Deresiewicz’s solution would seem so radically passé is a measure of how far we have fallen away from the humanistic ideals that gave birth to our American civilization.

Mr. Deresiewicz is a passionate writer and his strong point of view makes his book especially engaging. Of course, it is always fun to read a good argument made for a point one agrees with. I don’t want to quibble on the grounds of political correctness, but if I had any argument with his polemic it is that he does not spend enough time pointing to the long history of humanism, and how it popped up in lots of cultures other than European ones.

The rest of Mr. Deresiewicz’s book is a wonderful, encouraging, inspiring rant directed at the young seeker who is about to embark on a higher education. This is a book that I will give to my children to read at the right moment. Young folks of a certain age live for ideals. What our society needs more of is that group of young idealists to let us know how we have mucked the whole thing up and who demand a better answer. And the best we oldsters can do is give them the means and encouragement to do that. This part of the book does just that.

The ideal that Deresiewicz offers is to use college, not to get the best entry level position, but to figure out who you are, what you believe in, what matters to you, and how to live your very own unique, extraordinary life.

Sure, one could make the argument that there are bigger problems than the ennui of the privileged classes, and the solution of taking four years to read the great works to figure out who you are is a solution that only the affluent can afford.

As far as the former is concerned, all too often, though the material needs of well-off children are met, their emotional suffering knows no class distinction. Witness the young woman I worked with who was forced her whole life to sacrifice her desires, was relentlessly pressured into becoming a lawyer working eighty hours a week, and hated her life so much that she jumped out of a window.

Also, this is a problem that ultimately impacts everyone. The folks who go to fancy schools tend to end up running everything, and when you’ve got a bunch of unfeeling robots with stunted souls at the top who only care about the benjamins, and little understanding and concern for the greater whole, things tend to go a bit awry. Witness income inequality, for example, or the machinations of folks like the Koch brothers who want to make sure that climate change plunges the planet into destruction.

As far as the question of the solution being as elite as the problem is concerned, Deresiewicz points out that the availability of college to the few is something wrong with our culture, not with the dream. Everyone should be given a chance to go to college and learn how to be a meaningful contributor to society by being their best selves.

Given the state of our politics, realizing this ideal of a universal liberal arts higher education may all seem a little too way out of reach. Maybe the forces that want to maintain the status quo are too powerful to be changed. But my guiding principle as a psychotherapist, naive though it may be, is to do what I can as an individual to buck the tide. For me, I do my little bit to change the world by helping one person at a time become true to themselves.

As far as changing things is concerned, I’ll start with my own kids. I’ll do everything I can, though it may make life in my house a little noisier, to teach my kids how to think for themselves, and to do so effectively. I’ll support them in developing their power to articulate their viewpoints. I’ll give them permission to use that power. And I’ll encourage them to feel, so they can be passionate in pursuing the good and the true, as they have come to understand it. My goal is to give them the means to figure out well how they want to live their own lives, and give them my blessing in pursuing it.

Along with that, I’ll take on the responsibility of questioning the system that is charged with shaping who our children become, to make sure that our schools are prioritizing the cultivation of good, happy, people, and not simply creating competent money earners.

And I’ll recommend this book to any kid who is about to enter the arena of life, and wants some guidance for this great journey.

And for all you parents out there? Wanna know what you can do? Start by reading this book, too.

One day, I hope that my client Dennis will quit his job, and find his voice, and take on meaningful work that he loves, and forge a relationship with a partner he respects, and discover happiness in who he is. As long as I have compatriots out there like Deresiewicz, I’ll never stop fighting to make this possible for him, and for us all.





  1. Thanks for this review. I enjoyed reading it, and I think a lot of it is right on, but it’s not nearly enough. From where I stand today, in fact, it seems like barely a start to true humanity. I’m a person who immersed herself in books in high school and college– the great books, the old books, the history, the philosophy, the humanism. I stared with confusion at the strange Wharton students who ran briskly in their suits on Sunday mornings to God-knows-what important appointment while I rolled around on the grass happily cradling my Hume. I laughed at them; I had disdain for them. They were foolish people, driven by money, and at such a young age. Thankfully, my parents, successful as they were, did not instill in me the desire for money but for gathering knowledge, for following my passion. It’s probably because it’s what my mother wanted to do but felt she couldn’t. And it’s because my father was the youngest of his big, poorly schooled family and had the opportunity to pursue a masters in literature. They both told me endearing stories about college, about the black turtle-necked professors and about studying the mysteries of black holes, and that’s what I wanted, too. The only thing I was missing was a pair of glasses–alas, my eyesight is excellent–but otherwise, I was the perfect liberal arts student. I loved it and was really good at it.

    But all this education taught me very little about life, about my life, about my place in the world, or even my talents outside of reading books and writing about them. I won’t go into the next 15 years because you know them better than I do. But I’ve had a chance to see and meet people outside of the strange bubble of driven NYC now and I realize that this path is very limited. Over Thanksgiving, I met a young woman who is 18. At 15, she felt out of touch and in despair about her surroundings, about school and her family and peers. She went to take a permaculture course at a special place, an off the grid community that I’ve visited a couple of times now, and she decided this was her path instead. She quit high school. She built her own house on the land with cob (clay, sand and straw from the land she lived on), with help of course from the community there, but directed by her own vision. It’s incredibly beautiful. She lives in that house now, and she is a productive member of a thriving and self-sufficient community. She knows very little of books, perhaps. I’m not sure because the conversation didn’t come up. But she knows how to build a house. She has made her own bow and arrow and can hunt. She makes shoes and carved a beautiful turtle out of juniper for her love. She knows the names of plants and is a friend to the animals. I’m not idealizing her, I know she’s got her problems like the rest of us, but shit, the self possession she has for an 18 year old would blow your mind. I’ve never seen anything like it, certainly not in Philly or in NYC or anywhere on my path. And she’s not the only one. The talent I was surrounded by in this community made me feel like my little book learning was very sad indeed. To the standards of most modern folks, living off the land in an unheated hut without plumbing is third world style suffering. But everyone looked pretty damned happy to me, and grateful. On Thanksgiving, at our 60-person gratitude circle, many expressed gratitude simply for “a beautiful life” and I could feel the truth of it, not just one day of the year, but most days. I could feel the truth of it because, through my own deep sadness this year, the closer I’ve gotten to the earth and its rhythms, and the more I’ve opened to spirituality, the more I feel the daily, simple gratitude of living on this earth, even through the pain.

    At the very least, a humanistic education needs to be supplemented by practical education–making things, building things, growing things, cooking for yourself, understanding money or at least the meaning of exchange. It sounds so primitive, but it’s just a basic ability to take care of your own body in space and to live in community, and very few people do it well or at all.

    But that’s not enough—what about the journey? What about finding the lost heart? I know how important this is for you. I know you know everyone’s heart is lost as long as they never look for it and I know you know the heart is not found in books (though they have their place). So, then, why is humanism enough in formal education? Why isn’t spiritual education or whatever we might call it—rites of passage, all the shit that I’m going through now, pathetically, at 36—as important, or more important? Am I crazy to think that some of what I’m going through might have been avoided had my environment and education been different? Yes, what I’m going through seems to me as basic and human as breathing, but isn’t it also culturally created? Maybe you don’t choose your time for crisis, it comes when it comes and nothing can prepare you and when it’s on you, then you go ass-backwards into finding the tools and the strength to help you on this journey. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s something really big we are missing as a culture, and if it’s that big and universal, then aren’t we extremely foolish not to incorporate it, as our ancestors did, into formal education for young people? I think the answer is pretty obvious from our sad state of affairs.

    Can you imagine “schooling” that combines book learning with practical skills for living as well as a rites of passage or spiritual dimension? Even the best humanistic, liberal arts education money can buy (which my parents provided for me and I took full advantage of!) does a very poor job of preparing us for this world. It’s much too simplistic, much too focused on the development of our brains, rather than on the development of the complex beings we are, these mysterious brain-body-heart-spirit animals that live in a world of other strange beings, human and otherwise.

    My Saturday thoughts!


  2. Admittedly, I did not read the entire blog nor the reply; I am very busy, I apologize. Thoughts: Yes there is much to be done in this culture about this topic. We should shift from money first to meaning first. We should be seen for who we are and what we want to become, rather than a heavy perception on our figure; character is very important-and looking good, too, but not one without the other. Education is not preparing the youth not going to college. Solution: apprenticeships for grades 7-12 with the 10th grade working in the field to be part of a two year project and getting some pay. See Germany and how they handle apprenticeships. Remember 95% of the wealth is in the hands of 5 percent of the people. Population woes are an issue that needs a good way to handle. Like, after two children a woman is given $10,000 to get an Associates degree or other options with her volunteer sterilization. Does not have to do this, but a lot of people are raising children they can not afford and not doing a good job at providing for them. Money, the number one reason why married couples break up. Family is the building blocks of society-the concept of family has to work. Money is gotten by having marketable skills and the character to succeed in a descent society. So many other issues would fade out if someone has a skills to get gainful employment with: poverty, homelessness, healthcare, successful family relationships. Talk about success to your family. Start building on the positive, ignore the negative unless you can give neutral feedback and can really move someone forward in some way. Seek God Almighty and be forgiving for your own mistakes and the mistakes of others.

  3. I read a NYT article recently by this author, and then bought the book. I, too, think it addresses an important issue about the apparent design function of our schooling systems. I also think it is worthwhile to begin to address what we and our children learn and deduce about adult roles and about learning from birth until schooling begins. As a former preschool educator in alternative programs for over 30 years, I have seen how early our beliefs and patterns develop, and how they play out over lifetimes, and how little opportunity we have to exploration and practice social and personal responsibility skills until we are out of school. Given that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” our focus on “doing the right thing, getting the right answer,” and backing off from challenges for fear of appearing being wrong or bad or a failure for so many of our formative years, it is no wonder that so many of us lack a sense of personal fulfillment and joy in work. There is much a parent can do to provide many learning opportunities safely and without fear of relational cost, but that is not the focus of most parenting courses, nor is it the conscious issue for parents in general. I do address these issues for parents and teachers in my recent book.