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Talk compares students to sheep

Author and former Yale professor Bill Deresiewicz spoke at Annenberg Auditorium, comparing elite students to 'hoop-jumping' sheep. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/Stanford Daily)

Yesterday, writer and former Yale professor Bill Deresiewicz declaimed to a packed audience in Annenberg Auditorium that Stanford students are really just excellent “hoop-jumping, teacher-pleasing sheep.” The event was the first annual lecture hosted by seniors in the Ethics in Society program.

Associate Professor of Political Science Rob Reich opened the discussion by quoting from Deresiewicz’s June 2008 article, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” In that article, Deresiewicz states that he has taught very intelligent students at Yale and Columbia who were content to stay within the confines of their own education.

Having spent 10 years at Yale as an English professor, Deresiewicz is now a full-time writer. He works as a contributing editor at both The Nation and The New Republic. His next book “A Jane Austen Education” is coming out this year, and he is currently focusing on his new book project “Excellent Sheep: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.”

Deresiewicz believes that elite university education fails to prepare students for the larger world. He pointed to the Wall Street collapse, the military failure in Iraq and Barack Obama as examples.

“Obama thought he was going to get an A on his midterms from the American people just because he had all the right answers,” Deresiewicz said.

According to Deresiewicz, elite university education is deficient because admission criteria are more than 100 years old; what admission offices look for in an applicant today is the same as what they looked for in 1905.

“I think that the multicultural meritocracy today is no different from the monocultural aristocracy 100 years ago,” Deresiewicz said. “We’re becoming ossified and complacent and self-congratulatory. We need to transcend ourselves.”

Deresiewicz said the need to have 12 different extracurricular activities has grown over the years to such an extent that people have become pathologically busy—doing a million things because they think they should.

Deresiewicz pointed to celebrity James Franco as a reductio ad absurdum of this phenomenon. Franco is currently a doctoral student at Yale, but is also involved in programs at UCLA, Columbia, NYU and Brooklyn College.

In a Q&A session after the talk, students asked Deresiewicz for his solution to the problem of higher education. He encouraged students to ask “the big questions,” to be independent thinkers and to find their passions.

Regarding admission offices, Deresiewicz said they should not require a myriad of extracurricular activities and should instead focus on finding students with more depth than breadth. He even suggested students consider taking time off before, during or after college.

“Step outside of the system of higher education,” Deresiewicz said. “Do something that they can’t put on their resume. There is enormous power in letting yourself breathe and see that there are other worlds.”

Deresiewicz’s words resonated strongly with students.

“We usually get speakers who encourage us to follow the incentive system,” said Aysha Bagchi ’11. “But he addressed issues that really woke us up.”

“It sometimes surprises me how quickly some speakers come up with answers to students’ questions,” said Karen Shen ’13. “But he was so honest and obviously thought about his answers.”

Lilian Rogers ’13 said Deresiewicz spoke to some of the discontent she already felt, but admitted that despite the talk she still feels “trapped in the system.”

Deresiewicz noted that though students may be hoop-jumping sheep because of the university system, it’s up to them to ask more profound questions and think outside the box.