Q&A: William Deresiewicz

After teaching in the Ivy League at Yale and Columbia, William Deresiewicz made a name for himself as a best-selling author, essayist, speaker, and critic. Deresiewicz’s critically acclaimed Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life began as an essay published in The American Scholar titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The essay went on to garner 40,000 shares on Facebook. It heightened discussion surrounding the college system, leading to a book delving deeply into what has become the basis for parenting and schooling. The book provides a necessary critique of a system that begins in secondary education—with students focused solely on activities tailored for a college education and parents fostering an addiction to the best grades—all for the sake of college. The Trojan Tribune talked with Deresiewicz on everything from the new age of activism to generational stereotypes—providing an intelligent argument on the future of education, technology, and societal thought.

Author and essayist William Deresiewicz.

How has the “machine” of higher education affected young people’s mentalities, work ethic, and mental health?

In my view, the situation with competitive college admissions is a disaster. Kids are under enormous pressure—much more pressure than they need to be. There’s a huge amount of pressure that comes from parents, that comes from peers, that comes from the society, that comes from the air. It not only sends you into a panic, but you also don’t have time to do anything other than the checklist you’re supposed to go through to get into the “best” college.

Is there any merit to the push towards the “best” education?

I don’t think it’s even a legitimate concern. Not only do you have the pressure but you also don’t have any of the components of healthy adolescence. In her book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims writes about when she was the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford. She dealt with a lot of students who arrive on campus with more academic skills but fewer and fewer social and emotional skills; they don’t have the kind of skills to be mentally healthy, to be happy, to live an adult life.

Why exactly is the decrease in social and emotional skills the result of academic pressure?

The reason you have fewer and fewer social and emotional skills is because you don’t have time. Those skills are built in the context of real relationships—with peers, with siblings, with grownups. They’re also built in the context of having downtime, alone time, and unstructured creative time. All for the sake of college, which eventually becomes all for the sake of career, we’re losing these skills.

You’ve mentioned that the academic push works with students when it comes to elite colleges, but what about success for the rest of their lives?

I don’t think the system is actually preparing people well for meaningful careers. If you jump through the hoops and get to be a really good hoop-jumper, you can have a good job jumping through more hoops. My observation is that the main careers that elite college graduates go into—law, medicine, finance, consulting, and technology—basically all look like homework. You’re definitely really good at that, but it’s also true that people in banking, law, and medicine have very high rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

It sounds like it’s a double-edged sword when it comes to the hoop-jumping concept. Why is this lifestyle becoming so common in both colleges and the workforce?

More broadly, and this is really very sad, the hoop-jumping thing is setting you up perfectly for the kind of lives that adults must lead. Adults lead these lives too—no sleep, no time for reflection while going from one thing to another; they probably were hoop-jumpers in high school too. So tragically, if the goal is to set you up for a life of exhaustion and anxiety, it’s very successful. Employers have demanded more productivity from people. In that respect, this is setting you up perfectly; you’re learning how to deal with being miserable and coping. Maybe you take a stimulant in the morning to do your work and maybe you have a couple of drinks in the evening so you calm down or take an Ambien to go to sleep. The problem is, aside from the fact that you’re miserable, you’ll have a breakdown at a certain point because nobody can live like that.

As pivotal as career preparation is, what are other trends you’re seeing with how the new generation is growing up?

There’s also the issue of preparation for life—so much of which involves relationships. Do you want to find a partner? Do you want to have a stable relationship? Do you want to have kids? The essential characteristic of intimate relationships, other than love, affection, and kindness, is conflict. The ability to manage conflict is essential for marriage, being a parent, or being an adult. One of the things I see is that there’s a great aversion to conflict so you don’t really learn how to manage it. Now, growing up, the moms and the teachers are all watching and there is an immediate intervention. You don’t learn how to manage conflict or even negative feelings because you’re just taught to avoid them.

His best-selling book on the elite college system.

What are the pros and cons of the increasing dependence on technology for the newer generations?

Things could always get worse, but we’re also in the early stages of social media. When technologies are introduced, they overwhelm everyone at first and then we adapt. I’m guessing when cars were first invented, we didn’t have stop signs and speed limits, but we figured out that we need to put those things in. I’m hoping we all learn to manage social media in our own lives. We’re also starting to see societal efforts, like working against social media hate speech.

Has technology caused many to not be able to think for themselves?

This is a big concern of mine, particularly thought policing that happens on both campuses and social media. What I’m observing, sadly, is that we are in the middle of a very large-scale shift in consciousness.

What is this change in thinking shifting from exactly?

It used to be that we lived in traditional societies that were essentially monolithic religiously. There was one way to think. So that formed a certain kind of person. You didn’t have to think about what you were going to do with your life, because you just did what your parents did. Then, this thing called modernity happened during the beginning of the American and the French Revolution. This gave us the whole idea of “revolution” where everything was open to question. Changes collectively began to form a new kind of person that we think of as the modern person. The modern person defines themselves by being very insistent on discovering and constructing their own individuality–a resistant individual who prides themselves on not thinking like everybody else.

You’ve said that the loss of thinking for yourself, which your definition of the “modern person” exemplifies, is a concern of yours. How exactly has it changed?

I definitely see all of that going away. I see a world in which people subordinate and where identities are formed by affiliation with a group. You’re also not supposed to question the orthodoxies of your group. With the rise of technology, I see the idea of thinking for yourself to be less and less valued and more and more suspect. People say that they think for themselves, because that’s still what we’re supposed to believe about ourselves. I don’t really see that happening very much.

In your essay “Solitude and Leadership,” you talk about the importance of solitude when it comes to true leadership and thinking for yourself. What does being a leader mean in relation to young generations?

I don’t think very much of that word as it’s usually used. It really seems like a code word for what our president would call a “winner.” Basically when a student is expected to present themselves as a leader to a college or a college says that they enroll leaders, I think what they’re really saying is that they enroll people who are going to do well for themselves. I’ve observed that the word “leader” in many contexts has replaced the word “citizen.” We used to talk about school preparing people for citizenship, but now we talk about preparing people for leadership—which is a huge difference. I will say that there is a new model of leadership that seems to be emerging in the social movements of younger people that was very conspicuous with both Parkland and Black Lives Matter. It’s not about one person getting up on a platform getting all the glory and power, but rather collective leadership.

Do you see this trend of activism staying with Generation Z and Millennials as they grow up, or is it similar to young people being synonymous with protesting in the 70s?

Unfortunately, it seems like younger people almost lead two parallel lives. One part is the activist who’s passionate and involved in this collective movement with one part of your mind and one part of your life. With the larger part, you’re still doing this meritocratic, oligarchical, hoop-jumping leadership thing, in terms of how you’re actually going to enter the world as a person. The other stuff doesn’t seem to impinge on that; it’s almost just extracurricular. I think it’s relatively easy to be an activist when you’re still in high school and college. Where it becomes more difficult is when you start to make vocational choices.

What are some misconceptions you hear about the younger generations?

The most obvious wrong stereotype is the idea that millennials are lazy. I think that’s the most insane projection and reaction that I’ve ever heard—it’s basically the last thing in the world that millennials are. You guys are working yourselves to death because the economy is forcing you to do that. Another thing I’ve heard is that CEOs complain that young workers are not loyal. They complain that they get to a company and are immediately thinking about their next job. Of course they are—you’re going to fire them in the next week or the company is going to go out of business. Why should they be loyal to you, if you’re not loyal to them? The stereotypes will change from generation to generation but it just comes with the territory.