Excellent Sheep


I studied at three different universities in Canada, in small town Guelph and big town Toronto, in the sciences (environmental and computer) and in the humanities (history and education). The experience changed my life, but didn't stop me throughout from thinking it could be better, that a lot of potential was wasted. I've spent twenty years since graduating wondering whether I took these relatively carefree years for granted or was, partly anyway, right. 

Shortly after degree three, I left Canada to work first as a bartender, then a public school teacher, in London, while Aitana pursued her master's at the storied LSE, the London School of Economics. Later I would follow her to the EUI, the European Union Institute, in Florence, another thin layer of creme on the jug. And now we're in California and she's at a "state college," meaning, in the American context, an unremarkable and plebeian one.

As an onlooker, the experience in London and Florence, surrounded by graduates from Yale, Oxford and LMU Munich, taught me one big lesson, especially at parties when the inevitable question about where I'd studied arose: Canadian public universities perform well on the level of genuine learning and critical thinking, but flop miserably in the game that is pedigree, and marketing. In other words, they limit your opportunities beyond the province.

In this conjuncture, and in the quest generally to intertwine my lived experience with higher reflection, here are a few cherry bombs from a recent read, William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I know some people won't like Deresiewicz's line of thinking, but it got me thinking.

  • What I saw at Yale I have continued to see at campuses around the country. Everybody looks extremely normal, and everybody looks the same. No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don't look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for uninterested elegance. Everyone dresses as if they're ready to be interviewed at a moment's notice. You're young, I want to say to them. Never mind "diversity." What we're getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla.
  • The key word there is "safety." Beneath the other factors—the entitlement, the lack of direction, the desire not to close down options—the force that drives the salmon run is fear.
  • You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What's the return on investment of college? What's the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake.
  • So how do you find your vocation...? Do for work what you do spontaneously—or did spontaneously, back when you were younger, before all the spontaneity got beaten out of you. Do what you would choose to do anyway, even if you didn't get rewarded for it. Do the thing you can immerse yourself in for hours at a time.
  • Getting a piercing, growing a mustache, moving to Austin—these do not make you an individual. You can't accessorize your way to moral courage. The choices it involves are not consumer ones... Here's a rule of thumb: if you aren't giving anything up, it isn't moral and it isn't courage. Stumbles, sacrifice, inner struggle, false starts and wrong turns, conflict with parents and peers—these are some of the signs of the genuine article. The way you know it's real is if it hurts.
  • Brilliant, gifted, energetic, yes, but also anxious, greedy, bland, and risk-averse, with no courage and no vision—that is our elite today.