Excellent Sheep by WIlliam Deresiewicz

“Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what do next.”

I come from standard middle class upbringing. My dad started his own business and my mom was a stay at home mom. No one in my family had a college degree, but it always expected of me and my two brothers to go to college. Education was definitely a priority in the household.

When it came to applying for colleges, I simply consider any elite colleges, Ivy League schools, or big research universities. At one time I thought about Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a pretty well-known school, but I never seriously considered it.

I only looked at smaller private Christian colleges in the Southern California area. I loved my private high school experience; the teachers cared about me and I was a better student because of it. I love Southern California for multiple reasons.

Did I sacrifice anything by not attending an elite university?

No. One, I never would have been accepted. I was a good student, not a great student in high school. I was driven but not overly obsessed or motivated. Two, I always knew the experience at college and the things I learned would always be more important than the name on my college diploma.

When it comes to higher education, Americans are very inconsistent. As a society, we are very anti-intellectual and very anti-elitist however we push and push our children to work hard so they can be accepted at an elite school where they will be forever branded as smart and successful. I think we know deep down that Ivy League University is not producing students significantly smarter or better than Random State University but when we elect presidents and hire company executives, we over and over again choose the ivy leaguers.

Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz walks us through this love-hate relationship we have with elite schools. A few decades ago, students said that finding “meaning/philosophy of life” was their significant reason for attending college. Today, students say being “very well-off financially” is most important. Obviously, our values have changed.

The first half of Excellent Sheep is about the problems of higher education. Nothing here that I have not heard before: students who cannot accept failure or C’s, helicopter parents, administrators treating students like consumers, etc. But what makes this book great is the second half, where the Deresiewicz focuses on the heart of higher education.

“Education isn’t something you consume; it’s an experience that you have to give yourself over to.” Often we hear about the return on investment. Is college worth the ever rising tuition cost? The numbers have always pointed to yes and they will for decades. However, Deresiewicz changes the question: “What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake.”

I doubt you will ever see that quote on a college brochure given the political landscape, but it would be awesome to see.

So if you know someone going off to college, don’t ask them what job or career they want. Finding a calling or vocation is much different. “It isn’t something that you choose, in other words; it chooses you. It is the thing you can’t not do.”

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