There is not a book for 20-somethings quite like Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, by William Deresiewicz. No book more clearly articulates what coming of age is like, and why it's so hard. To any parents who are struggling to understand their 20-somethings: this is the book for you. For any college student or college grad who is struggling, this book is also for you.
Deresiewicz puts everything in context: while college is now the ubiquitous path out of childhood for most Americans -- and the one longed for by many who are unable to attend -- it is not a system divined by God, nor one that makes a great deal of sense for most young people to enter adulthood. College is a system that has evolved in very recent history, and not towards particularly positive ends.
Deresiewicz provides the history of this evolution and what it means for students, and families.
For one, children are now raised towards the ends of succeeding in school and going to a good college, not necessarily with any clear sense of the ultimate goal -- Happiness? Joy? Financial success?
"The whole of childhood and adolescence, across a large swath of society, is now constructed with a single goal in mind. All the values that once informed the way we raise our children--the cultivation of curiosity, the inculcation of character, the instillment of a sense of membership in one's community, the development of the capacity for democratic citizenship, let alone any emphasis on the pleasure and freedom of play, the part of childhood where you actually get to be a child--all these are gone. . . .We're not teaching to the test; we're living to it. " (p. 50)
Meanwhile, as Deresiewicz points out so adeptly, the notion of enjoying college or your education, is seen as somehow elitist. Career pragmatism has combined with liberal arts education in all the wrong ways. He quotes some of his former students:
"'Am I being self-indulgent if I major in philosophy instead of something more practical?' . . . 'I want to travel for a while after I graduate, but wouldn't that be self-indulgent?'
...Look at what we have come to. We like to think of ourselves as a wealthy country, but it is one of the great testaments to the intellectual--and moral, and spiritual--poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel that they are being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You're told that you're supposed to go to college, but you're also told that you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education." (p. 95)
In a book that I have underlined almost endlessly, I have a hard time knowing where to begin in sharing its message. Simply: read this book. I cannot emphasize enough how spot-on Deresiewicz is; he nails the critique of the modern American education system and the way the system effects the psychology of all of us. For anyone confused about why they're so miserable in college or out of college, this is your Bible.