On September 22, William Deresiewicz, the opinionated and controversial author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, sat down for a question and answer session in Harvard’s Paine Hall. The atmosphere was respectable enough: on an elevated stage beside the scrawny, bespectacled bohemian sat three deans, one English professor, a recent Harvard graduate, and a current senior. Beneath them, a crowd of about 150 Cantabrigians, many dressed in formal wear, listened intently.
The introduction by the gregarious intellectual Homi Bhabha was long, florid, and chalked full of praise. Deresiewicz’s opening monologue was somewhat boring—(if only he could speak like he wrote!)—but no doubt helpful for those who hadn’t read his book or, more likely, the excerpt of his book in The New Republic.
Yet soon enough, matters took a turn for the tense and confrontational.
Excellent Sheep—which derides elite universities for their propensity to churn out uninspired students who gravitate toward uninspiring careers like finance and consulting—was a direct attack on the world the panelists held sacred. Deresiewicz claimed that current pedagogical methods taught students analytical skills, but failed to cultivate these students’ “souls” and “passions.” Now, the writer was in the citadel of the enemy, and its residents were asking him, politely, to shore up the many sections of his argument that were heavy on rhetoric and light on evidence.
He seemed surprised by this, and treated the panelists with sass. When Professor Diana Sorenson asked him to substantiate an argument he made in Excellent Sheep—that elite schools were intentionally putting out financiers to keep alumni donations flowing in—he dismissed the need for evidence, saying that “others have made this claim before.”
When Bhabha offhandedly referenced the book’s $30 price tag while questioning whether the work was based too much on invective and finger pointing, Deresiewicz loudly condemned his comment as “disingenuous”—a back-and-forth that was followed by several tense seconds of silence.
“He kind of came off as kind of a dick,” said one HPR reporter afterward.
Like most Harvard undergrads, I do think Deresiewicz’s text was laughably light on fact, and heavy on polemical rhetoric and platitudes.
But beneath all the puffed up generalizations, Deresiewicz’s writings have brushed upon uncomfortable kernels of truth—even if these truths are insulated by false claims. Last year, 31 percent of the senior class went into consulting or finance, which is actually down from the peak of 45 percent in 2007. Among men, fully one in four went into the latter, and it’s not because we all dreamed of becoming financial analysts or consultants when we were kids. Some of us did, sure, but a third of us? Not a chance in hell.
One of the amazing aspects of Harvard is the level of passion and talent one encounters—the amount of people who seem reared to be the next great writer, or physicist, or diplomat, or biologist. Even those who lack a driving passion have an enormous amount of potential skill and energy to shed upon the world. I truly believe that.
And yet the stories many of us could tell are disheartening. Several of my friends dream of being educators or academics, yet openly say that they’d ditch it all for a high-powered job at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.
Another friend—who is fluent in Mandarin, was elected phi beta kappa junior year, and received high honors for a thesis on Brazilian politics—now works at a multinational consultancy flying down to the Cayman Islands every few days to work on his first case. (Yay, tax evasion!)
Yet another acquaintance inveighed against Big Finance for a leftist magazine on campus under an alias because he was hired by a financial firm senior fall.
I don’t want to be a downer. These are just individual stories that can’t be extrapolated to a majority of the student body, and there’s not a day I’m not enlightened by my classmates, many of whom go onto impact the country and the world in laudable, often unorthodox ways. I also concede that financial necessity can obstruct us from our dream career path, even at the ripe age of 22.
Yet, if I were permitted as a senior to step up on the pulpit and issue one appeal to my classmates it would be this: at least try to follow your passions. Let’s prove Deresiewicz wrong.