Christopher Benfey, who has written about 25 reviews over the past nearly 30 years at the New York Review of Books, has blown it in his review
of William Deresiewicz's "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life."
I say this not because I am a big fan of Deresiewicz, having castigated
him for his wrongful smacking around of Kurt Vonnegut at The Nation a couple of years ago.
And it's not to say Benfey is wrong to have spotlighted and then castigated some of Deresiewicz's prose and arguments in the book.
But Benfey does a disservice to readers and the public in not discussing the opening of Deresiewicz's book, which focuses on the deep sadness and even depression that pervades many of the high achieving students who have no time at college to think about anything other than the difficult courses they are taking, particularly in the sciences and engineering
. And on top of that, many worry about the college loans they are accumulating and the limited job market--even those taking the easier courses in business or communications who pray for enough As in order to end up at a venture capital house, though most will not. And perhaps most ironic of all, from an academic standpoint, even those who end up at a venture capital house, there is hardly anyone who has read any book other than a business self-success book in years.
The opening to the book about this sadness and depression and why it is happening is important. Yet Benfey obscures it when he is not ignoring it altogether. I personally know about the emotional difficulties of college students, have been dealing with this as a parent of a high achiever who insisted on double majoring in two science disciplines, one major that is a combination of mathematics, engineering and biology, and the other in evolutionary biology. My high achiever is at a STEM school of renown, at least among doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists--a school where most of his classmates fall within the demographic of high achievers from the upper middle and low-upper class of professionals who each made waiting list at most of the Ivies and Stanford, and the tony liberal arts schools. Our high achiever is often overwhelmed, sad and afraid that after all his success, he has bitten off more than he can chew--after having entered college thinking how wonderful it would be to take every single course offered in both the humanities and sciences. He entered college wanting the type of challenge Deresiewicz wants to see more of. Of course we parents warned him otherwise, but what children listen to parents' advice? He is not an example of excellent sheep to that extent...
This high achiever of ours loves the humanities nearly as much as the sciences but due to the double major has firmly placed himself in a position where he has little time to rest, eat or do anything other than meet the next deadline for a project or a test or quiz. He remains quite the Renaissance guy somehow, and we are proud parents, but we feel helpless when these bouts of sadness and doubt occur. And they occur because he knows he is competing with a host of others outside and inside the college for graduate school (or increasingly a thought, medical school), and therefore he has to make sure he gets more As than Bs at a university which prides itself on not succumbing to grade inflation in any significant way (unlike the Ivies, according to what some say
, even as I wonder whether it is really inflation if most of the students are top students from around the world...).
Benfey may be right that Deresiewicz is too vague and too airy. As I say, he was not a favorite of mine for the way he criticized Vonnegut. Still, as I read the opening 20 pages of the book over at Amazon.com's Search Inside mechanism, I saw something important being said that dovetails into the K-12 school critique that we are giving our children far, far too much homework. See this documentary "Race to Nowhere"
for a friendly but cogent analysis of the topic. Benfey obscures and ultimately misses the issue, wanting instead to show off his sly cynicism such as quoting someone who went to college in the 1970s talking about extra-curricular reading at college and being able to sit and think about just about anything else besides homework and tests.
What perhaps both Deresiewicz and Benfey miss is the socio-economic analysis that causes Benfey to at least mention, but not explain to his readers, Paul Goodman. Benfey may be thinking of "Growing Up Absurd"
or "Compulsory Miseducation,"
but because Benfey would rather be clever than informative, we will never know. For those readers unfamiliar with Goodman, he understood that the New Deal had created a middle class stronger than any in previous societies, but Goodman recognized too where it had glorified Babbitry and conformity, particularly in the 1950s. Goodman also explained, in "Growing Up Absurd," how the values of what were known as juvenile delinquents were similar to junior executives, in that both disdained rules for themselves, but insisted on others following rules they established, or at least hypocritically demanded others follow the rules in such a way that would hold others down while they zoomed ahead.
The hard part, as Goodman recognized eventually, is what we really do about this situation. Michael Harrington, I think in "Decade of Decision"
(1980), called the push for more and more credentialing in education the "tippy-toe" theory, where he likens people watching a parade along a sidewalk, and people in the second row of onlookers stand on their tippy-toes to see over the first row. That causes the third row of folks to do the same, and so on, until we are all (except the first row) back in the same place, except we are now hurting from standing on our tippy-toes.
The millennials are standing on their tippy-toes, and to add insult to injury, are faced with increasingly burdensome loans and then a job market that is a faint echo of the 1960s and even 1970s. And frankly, we've done the same to those of our children who excel in sports--with their traveling leagues, the endless practices and surgeries for their continued broken and sprained bones and ligaments, etc.
I wish someone other than a 60 year old English professor from a leafy liberal arts college had reviewed Deresiewicz's book at the NYRB. I know, I know. I'm 57, went to Rutgers, majored in History and became a lawyer. Perhaps I am not that different. But the difference is that I have, as a lawyer, been forced to deal with all sorts of folks from different areas of life, and I've learned the utility of salespeople, engineers, realtors, insurance agents, doctors, labor union officials, scientist researchers, business leaders in various industries and services, clergy, and even professors and teachers, including pre-school teachers. And all the while I've read people from Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Lewis Thomas, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and E.O Wilson to Paul Goodman, Edmund Wilson, George Schulyer, Thomas Hardy and Cyril Kornbluth, and beyond, and any number of history and biography books on subjects and of people up and down the centuries. And maybe, just maybe someone with more perspective than Benfey might have seen more in "Excellent Sheep," beyond making Deresiewicz sound like a carping flake filling up buckets of water from a sinking humanities ship a mile off a pier of scientific and mathematical government and business grants--and further away from the hotels built for business and communications majors just up from the pier.
I guess I'll find "Excellent Sheep" at my local library and take a deeper look at it because I think Deresiewicz is onto something from a public policy standpoint that may be related to the New Deal we need to rebuild our nation from the inside out, and not keep undermining our children's futures at so many different levels.