Q&A with William Deresiewicz

No stranger to the Claremont Colleges, William Deresiewicz spoke at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum Monday night—the writer’s fifth trip to Claremont since 2010.

This time, however, Deresiewicz arrives as a New York Times bestselling author after the summer release of his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Ahead of his talk, Deresiewicz spoke to TSL by phone from his home in Portland, Ore.

TSL: What has it been like to tour the colleges that you've been criticizing in the book?

William Deresiewicz: It's been good. Generally speaking, it goes like this: I'm invited by someone I know, or some professor or dean who wants their students to hear what I have to say. So they frame the event in a positive way, and then I get up and frame what I have to say in a positive way. Students, despite their initial resistance, invariably figure out pretty quickly that I'm actually human and that we have a lot to talk about, and they agree with a lot of what I say and are certainly interested in hearing it. It becomes very positive.

TSL: You’ve been a frequent visitor to the Claremont Colleges and served as the Podlich Fellow at CMC last fall. What role did these visits play in writing the book?

WD: (Chuckles) Yeah, that's a good question. It has been a lot of trips. I've visited a fair amount of colleges throughout the country, and talking to students helped inform the book. The CMC fellowship came too late for me to do more than throw in a couple of things last-minute. But I think I also have something in the book from my visits to Pomona. I think the Claremont Colleges were almost the only time I had a chance to visit liberal arts colleges up close. That definitely helped a lot, especially since I like liberal arts colleges. Visiting CMC really helped inform my rhetoric about leadership in higher education, which may well be something I want to continue to write about.

TSL: Haven't you been writing about leadership for a while? What about your essay "Solitude and Leadership," which went viral in 2010?

WD: I started writing about leadership on accident. I had written a previous essay about solitude called "The End of Solitude." That, to me, is my real solitude essay. Some people at West Point asked me to come and talk to the first-year class about solitude. And I figured, 'How am I going to get these kids to care?' I figured out pretty quickly that leadership was a really important word there, and I didn't realize at the time that it's a really important word everywhere. But that's how I started writing about that. All of a sudden, I was someone who had standing to talk about leadership, which I thought was ridiculous. But at the same time, I also became sensitized to how ubiquitous the word had become. It's really just a euphemism for getting what you can.

TSL: You make a compelling case that meritocracy is failing America and must be replaced with democracy. But with legacy admissions and recruited athletes, have we even tried real meritocracy?

WD: That's a good point. I mean, the meritocracy has only always been partial. That's definitely a problem. But, I think the main problem is the way we select our meritocrats favors the affluent. And not because of legacy admissions, but because [of] how many resources it costs to produce someone who is going to get in through the door. When I say that we shouldn't have a meritocracy, I don't mean that we shouldn't reward excellence, although I think we should talk about how much we should reward excellence.

China has had the slogan "A hundred Harvards,” meaning they want to build 100 Harvards. My slogan would be “A hundred Berkeleys.” Not that Berkeley is perfect, and I also mean Berkeley when it was free, which it was until the the '70s or early '80s. So if we had hundreds of thousands of slots at top-quality universities: public, free—then we could talk about leveling the playing field, and we can really select the people who have shown the most promise. That, to me, would be democracy. We would have to equalize K-12 education and a lot of things, but when we can really say that everyone has the same opportunity, then we can legitimately talk about how much those who excel should be rewarded more than others. Until then, it's not a democracy.

TSL: Your book claims that elite colleges are repositories of privilege, with little socioeconomic diversity. Don’t you think this undermines real strides that colleges have made to make their campuses more diverse, say through programs like Posse and Questbridge?

WD: I don't think it undermines it. I think it points out that colleges have had very limited success in attracting diversity. There was an article in The New York Times that came out a couple of months ago, and it basically said they've been trying for 20 years, and they haven't made any progress. Some schools have, but, on the whole, selective colleges have not. The extent to which colleges are going to be able to do better will always be limited by their business model. A scholarship costs a lot of money.

Look, to me this opens up a whole larger societal question about our political philosophy and many other things we need to invest in. Not just K-12 education, but also clean energy and so forth. What kind of society do we want to be? What kind of society do we need to be to meet the challenges of the future? What are we willing to give up?

(Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)