Are We All Just Sheep—And Are Colleges to Blame?

Are colleges turning us into sheep-
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Northern California summers are dry and hot, which means that our once-luscious green hills turn brown and transform from lush hiking spots into huge fire hazards. Luckily, there’s an easy way to deal with this situation: bring in some four-legged creatures to munch on the dying grass. The risk of fire is reduced and the farm animals get a free lunch—everyone wins!

My friends happen to live right next to a field where this happens, so they’ve had some time to observe the behavior of various animals who are brought in to graze. And here’s their assessment: “It’s great when they bring in goats, because they’re so playful and interesting to watch. But when they bring sheep, we’re kind of disappointed, because they’re pretty boring.”

There’s a reason that we have expressions like “black sheep” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—in general, sheep are innocuous, safety-loving creatures who tend to stick together and form one mass, where individuality is baaaad (sorry, I couldn’t resist a sheep pun).

So it can be kind of a shock to hear the students and graduates of elite American institutions like Harvard and Yale characterized as sheep. But that’s exactly what author William Deresiewicz does in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life.

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Students have gotten so used to being shepherded through their lives by both overprotective parents and mediocrity-promoting institutions, Deresiewicz argues, that they are nothing more than sheep. Sure, they’re 4.0-earning, high-SAT-scoring, extracurricular-involved sheep, but sheep nonetheless.

Deresiewicz points to an increasing convergence (the herd mentality) as a symptom of this problem. This is reflected in the popularity of a single major: economics. Among the top 40 universities and liberal arts colleges according to the U.S. News list, 65% listed economics as the most popular major in 2013.

Career choices for graduates of elite institutions are equally monotonous—in 2010, nearly half of Harvard graduates, more than half of Penn graduates, and more than a third of Cornell, Stanford, and MIT grads were going into either finance or consulting.

The numbers at Yale were a little smaller—only about a quarter of grads in 2010, but Deresiewicz quotes former Yale student Marina Keegan, who questioned why a quarter of students should be characterized as “only.” “In a place as diverse and disparate as Yale, it’s remarkable that such a large percentage of people are doing anything the same—not to mention something as significant as their postgraduate plans.”

Students are no longer using their college years as a time to truly educate themselves—they’re simply trying to earn the degree that will give them the best-paying job after graduation. In Deresiewicz’s words: “With credentialism comes a narrow practicality that’s capable of understanding education only in terms of immediate utility.”

We develop this mentality of doing everything to set us up for success in the next step of our lives—we play on sports teams or in the school band not because we genuinely enjoy these activities, but in order to demonstrate that we’re “well-rounded” to college admissions committees. We volunteer with charities to demonstrate our “commitment to service.” And we major in topics that are practical (like Economics) so that we can get a job after graduation. Deresiewicz points to the increasing frequency of double-majors as another example—we can no longer take random classes just because they interest us; everything needs to be translated into something that’s marketable or easy to fit onto a résumé.

Instead of using our time in college to truly question who we are and why we believe what we do, we use it to tick off boxes of things we’re supposed to do or things that will help us climb up the next rung on the ladder of achievement.

It’s hard not to think this way—college costs continue to rise, and unemployment or underemployment among recent grads is a serious problem. How can you approach your college years with a truly open mind if you always have that voice in the back of your mind questioning, “How am I going to pay for this?” or “Is this experience worth what I’m actually paying for it?”

And it’s so easy to focus on little points of data: lists of the majors or schools with the best “return on investment” (which, by the way, rest on the very big assumption that these things can be measured in numbers), average salary lists, class notes sections of your alumni magazine outlining all of the successes of your classmates. There’s pressure coming from every direction—parents, professors, even peers. (I recently spoke with a recent grad who said that her choice to work in accounting but not at a Big 4 firm was questioned by everyone she knew. Since when has accounting been considered a risky business? And what would have happened if she’d decided to do something really crazy, like travel in South America for a year?)

So what does that mean for you if you’re still a student? In many ways, Excellent Sheep leaves you with more questions than answers. If you take one thing away from this book, it’s the notion that you can’t be afraid to question who you are, what you believe, and why you believe it. And in fact, asking yourself those difficult questions is one of the most important things you can ever do: “Self-knowledge is the most practical thing in the world, because it helps you find your way to a career that’s right for you.” We try to take that approach here on the AfterCollege Blog—by showcasing a range of careers and people who have followed their own paths, we hope that we’ll help you begin that journey of finding yourself and realizing all of the options you have available after graduation.

No matter where you are in your educational career (yes, even if you’re several years out of college) Excellent Sheep is worth reading. It reminds all of us of the power of a true education, and the importance of maintaining curiosity about yourself and the world around you.

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