Critic of Elite Education Targets 'Leadership' at CMC

Amid the resources of the 5Cs, many consider that students in the consortium—along with students at other elite colleges—are in a position of privilege. But perhaps none have articulated this sentiment as strongly as William Deresiewicz, the vocal critic of American higher education and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, who argues that privilege has forged students whom he calls “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” 

On Nov. 17, Deresiewicz came to Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum to criticize how he believes 'leadership' and 'character' have come to be defined. His incendiary comments warned of the pitfalls of an American society that only rewards the elites and where student success is often defined through very narrow parameters.

After a decade-long stint as an English professor at Yale University, Deresiewicz left the university in 2008 to become a full-time writer. Soon thereafter, his essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" went viral, making Deresiewicz a frequent visitor to elite colleges nationwide. An excerpt of Excellent Sheep—which debuted at #7 on The New York Times Best Sellers list—was published in The New Republic in July and became the most-read article in the magazine's history.

Dante Toppo CM ’15, one of the Athenaeum's two student fellows, said that there is a need for the type of discussion initiated by Deresiewicz.

“I thought that he was calling attention to an issue which has been gaining a lot of prominence; therefore it made sense, especially at an institution like this and especially in a space like the Ath,” Toppo said. “He called attention to a set of questions which go unasked, often deliberately and sometimes unconsciously."

Deresiewicz lodged his main objections at the idea of leadership, arguing that a term that once implied obligation and noblesse oblige now mostly invokes résumé-building. He called today’s leaders “entitled mediocrities” who assume their power for the prestige it carries, not for the courage it requires. Leadership has become “just a little man answering to a bigger one,” he added. 

Not all students embraced Deresiewicz's critiques.

“I was frustrated because I felt like he just presented himself in a way that came across as not useful for discussion,” Fiona Bare CM ’17 said, relaying a sentiment other attendees shared. “I find his prescription to study the humanities and to not think about technology as a solution to world problems not useful.”

Deresiewicz posed the question “How do we dream our dream?” and called on students to forego defaulting to prescribed career paths. Instead, he advocated for increased self-discovery: education for the sake of exploration, not for a career. 

Thomas Schalke CM ’18, a transfer student from Bard College at Simon’s Rock, spoke of his experiences at a school heavily based in the humanities.

“It was a school where liberal arts were in their most liberal form,” he said. “The result was largely a group of people who were simply dissatisfied with everything, and they expressed their dissatisfaction through not wanting to change the system but through isolating themselves from the system.” 

Schalke was not satisfied with Deresiewicz’s critique of elite students and prescription for a more substantial, humanities-based education. 

“His proposed solution to that is to reinvigorate students through the liberal arts: the ‘true’ liberal arts where there’s nothing practical about it; there’s nothing vocational about it,” Schalke said. “It’s all just there for the purpose of learning with the hopes of sparking some kind of ideological urge.”

However, many students said that Deresiewicz provided well-argued and thought-provoking critiques.

“I think he has an important thesis that people should listen to and consider,” Pippa Straus CM ’17 said. “In many ways we are the embodiment of a lot of the things he criticizes—the embodiment of the pursuit of capital, the focus on the practical matters and creating members of the workforce.”

“I think the important thing is to come out of that talk and to listen to it,” she added. “Don’t just say, ‘That’s interesting,’ and go back to our current behavior. As you go forward in choosing what you want to study, think about what is important to you and how it affects society.”

Regardless of their opinions of his speech or his works, 5C students may see more of Deresiewicz in the coming months. As the Mary Routt Chair of Writing, he will be teaching a course on public writing at Scripps College next semester.