“How bad are the colleges?” Chris Benfey asks.

Excellent Sheep author WilliamDeresiewicz. Photo by MatthewSpiro_FI


In a thoughtful and incisive review, Christopher Benfey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, takes on one of the most talked-about books in recent years about higher education. His analysis of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life appears in the October 23 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Deresiewicz writes that “the system manufactures students 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 why they’re doing it.”

Benfey acknowledges that some of Deresiewicz’s points have merit—yes, students should “experiment with different selves and different fields of knowledge” and yes, public higher education should get more government funding, for example—but finds his remedies for education’s ills “rather tame,” his prose style “generic and … deliberately dumbed down,” and his arguments “stale and secondhand.”

“More colleges with a higher tolerance for risk, for passionate weirdness in curriculum and teaching, might well help our children make a more distinctive world for themselves,” concludes Benfey. “How far off such hopes now seem.”

—By Emily Harrison Weir