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.