William Deresiewicz on the “Excellent Sheep” of the American Elite
Yascha Mounk and William Deresiewicz discuss the distortion of American meritocracy and the dearth of moral courage among the country's institutional leaders.
William Deresiewicz is an American author, essayist, and critic. He taught English at Yale University from 1998 to 2008. He is the author, among other books, of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and William Deresiewicz discuss how the intensely meritocratic nature of elite universities prioritizes striving over deep learning; the instrumentalization of traditional pursuits to the detriment of mastery; and how broader cultural transformations frustrate deep immersion in art, friendship, and learning.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: We were just chatting before we hit record and you said that you're always interested in the American elite and what's wrong with it. It's a world I admire in many ways—a world of people who are often very smart, very kind, and very hard-working. But it also seems to me to be a world that is particularly out of touch with the rest of society in a way that goes even beyond what’s true of its equivalent in Germany, France, and other countries.
So—how do you think about the American elite in 2023?
William Deresiewicz: Before we get to 2023, and the elite we have at the moment, we should also think a little bit about the fact that America has always had a complex and tormented relationship with its elite or with the concept of an elite, because, after all, we're built on this idea of democracy in contradistinction to the European origins and their aristocracies. There's always been this tension between the people and its leaders, or the very idea that some people are better than others, that some people have a right to rule. This doesn't sit well with the American idea and that leads to, among other things, some weird psychic distortions that I think are particularly sharp today, where you have an elite that is constantly trying to disavow its elite status.
This was sharpened even more by the social revolution of the 1960s. David Brooks wrote brilliantly about this years ago in Bobos in Paradise—we now have this liberal elite that still likes to think of itself as a kind of insurgency and therefore has a kind of a need to disavow its own power and position. At the same time, and this is a related development in some ways, we've had since about the ‘60s what we call the “meritocracy,” where the elite is chosen now not through heredity, but a broader, multi-ethnic, multi-gender elite that is supposedly—and, to a certain extent, is—selected through meritocratic means, through the same Ivy League institutions, but in a way that's become self-perpetuating. Pretty much as soon as we shifted from this kind of WASP aristocracy to a multi-ethnic meritocracy, through the reform of elite college admissions, upper-middle-class and upper-class families started to figure out ways to game the system so that their kids would end up being the winners, which is why an overwhelming percentage of students at selective colleges comes from the top 10 or 20%.
There's also residential segregation of the elite. You now have an elite that is produced in homogenous suburbs and upscale urban neighborhoods, homogenous private schools, or public schools in suburbs that are essentially also homogenous because they're so expensive to live in. That same homogenization continues in college and then after college. We now have this elite that thinks of itself as more democratic than ever because of meritocratic selection. And yet, as you say, it’s comically cut off from the society around it. And I think much of the the elite failure that we've seen now for several decades (I might point to the Hillary Clinton campaign as exemplary) has come from the fact that this liberal elite that speaks in the name of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the workers and the marginalized doesn't seem to have any idea what most people in the country experience, want, and think—and by most people, I don't mean the white working class that votes for Trump. I mean those that are theoretically their own constituents.
Mounk: It seems to me that this lack of accurate elite self-description is at the heart of many of these problems. There is something quintessentially American about this. The way you signify your belonging in the elite is, in part, to find strange, ritualistic ways of performing your rebellion against the elite; what it is to be part of the American elite is not to believe in the establishment or the elite, to claim to be a rebel and an outsider.
Why is it that the American elite cannot self-describe in more accurate ways, and what cultural consequences follow from that self-deception?
Deresiewicz: It's really remarkable the extent to which people go to delude themselves about their actual position in society and the enormous guilt that seems to be underneath it. People talk about liberal guilt. And, you know, there's the elite, and then there's the liberal elite, and we shouldn't conflate them. Outside of the Republican Party and their kind of associated cultural institutions, we've really gotten an elite that's pretty homogeneously liberal.
Mounk: America is such a huge and variegated country that there's multiple groups of such persons. There's undoubtedly a financial elite of the very richest who aren’t always a part of the world we're talking about. There was a good article in The Atlantic about these regional and local elites, the person who runs the local car dealership and so on. That's a different kind of elite, still. But that’s not the sort of elite we're talking about for the purposes of a conversation, it seems to me.
Deresiewicz: Yes. Certainly, it's a big country. It's a regionalized country. There are elites at many levels, in many places, and many different kinds. The conservative elite, of course, are not talking about themselves when they say “elite.” They disavow elite status. They're talking about the liberal elite. Again, it’s this sort of ancient American need to disavow elite status. You mentioned the financial elite. One of the striking things in recent years is that larger and larger sections of, let's say, the nationally visible elite (the Fortune 500 elite, the big foundations, the big institutions, the ones that are based in the Bay, Washington, and New York) have come to have been drawn into kind of the liberal or even progressive cultural sphere. Corporations, in their public facing persona, present themselves as having liberal progressive politics in good standing.
But to return the very idea of a liberal elite, it contains that contradiction, right? If you're liberal, how can you justify the existence of an elite, especially as what it means to be a liberal is kind of getting pushed more and more to the left? A pre-’60s idea of a member of the liberal elite, somebody like Henry Luce, the publisher of Time Life, saw himself and his institution as having a mission that was not only comfortably elitist, or elite, but comfortably aligned with the nation, national greatness, and even maybe American empire (although I don't know if Luce would have used that word). The old WASP aristocracy contained large liberal elements, and they'd go into the State Department, the CIA, the government, and the military. But in the last few years, we now have not only a disavowal of elite status among the liberal elite, but more and more a disavowal of the country, of America itself. The American idea. America is now filthy, evil, tainted, and irredeemable. We have elites who run the country, who benefit from American wealth and power and from the history of American wealth and power that was built up through slavery and through expropriation of Native Americans and also the Northern factories—they have come into this, this is what makes their their existence possible and their power real. And at the same time, they need to pretend that they're not a part of this. And this leads to all kinds of absurdities, contradiction, bad faith, and, I think, a refusal to recognize reality.
Mounk: There’s a deflationary account of the “liberal,” progressive elite and a more substantive one. The deflationary account would say that this is really just one of the elite groups in the country and it's no more significant than the other ones, and the reason you and I are obsessed with it is because it's the one that's most salient to us—these people we know and who sometimes annoy us. Then there's a more substantive account that tries to say that there's some way in which this specific group holds so much cultural power which is that they’re somehow more central to what happens in the country than these other kinds of elite groups. Now, perhaps it's a collective illusion, in which we all somehow are looking to the left while the magician is carrying out real work offstage on the right. But it seems to me as though there's a reason why so much of a conversation revolves around this broad set of actors and institutions.
Where do you fall on this?
Deresiewicz: This is something that I always try to keep one eye on. Is this just the chattering class sort of culture where the real business is happening elsewhere, the real material, you know, form of society is being shaped elsewhere by business, by science and medicine, by government, and so forth. And again, I think that's always worth keeping in mind, that maybe we're just talking to ourselves, and it's a good way to keep us busy, and keep us out of trouble and keep us feeling like we're important with our fancy degrees when we're not. But again, in recent years, in particular, we've really seen quite a turn. Progressive ideology has escaped from the humanities departments where I first encountered it when I started graduate school 34 years ago. And it is now running loose in society and penetrating the reality-creating sectors of society. Medicine is one example. Medicine is now being profoundly changed by, for lack of a better word, a woke agenda about the reality of biological gender and the causes of disparate health outcomes between communities.
It can be really hard for “people like us” to see that there is another half to the country, and it may be even more than another half. In other words, the percentage of people for whom sort of progressive moral prescriptions have kind of a normative command force is, I think, relatively small. We can very much be in danger at that point of thinking that we're talking to everybody, and everybody's listening to us, when it's really just a conversation on Twitter. But again, we've now been seeing in recent years that there are real policy implications—I mentioned medicine, we can also talk about criminal justice. Granted, this was mainly in blue cities and states, but we've seen real material changes as a result of ideologically-driven policy prescriptions. It's not just that sort of the liberal elite has this kind of culture-setting power, but that power has become stronger and more consolidated, and the different parts seem to be more aligned—universities and the arts, the media and journalism all seem to be working in lockstep together, all seem to be on the same page and very much aware of each other.
Mounk: Let's go to one of these links, which is between the university and this particular elite we're talking about. Clearly, the nature of this elite now is deeply meritocratic. And the way to get your entry ticket to the meritocracy is to have attended one of the highly-selective colleges and universities in this country.
You first came to the attention of many people through an extremely viral essay and a book of the same title [sic], Excellent Sheep. What makes the young budding members of this elite whom you had the pleasure of teaching at places like Yale such excellent sheep?
Deresiewicz: The phrase came out of the mouth of one of my students one day in class in a moment of startled self-recognition. It's such a great phrase, because they tend to be very smart, certainly very hard-working, very ambitious, and very good at delivering what we define as excellence. We have to be careful, though, that excellence as understood, as visible to the meritocratic system, isn't necessarily the same thing as what we would call excellence in everyday life. It is being able to give the grown-ups exactly what the grown-ups want. You do 15 extracurriculars, and you take lots of AP courses, and check all the boxes: leadership, service, maybe play an instrument, a foreign language, etc. You can supply exactly what the demand is and that is what gets recognized as excellence. A lot of things get lost, I think, or at least suppressed, in that development of excellence—independent-mindedness, creativity, the ability to take risks, the ability to challenge the wisdom of the group and to go in your own direction, and, I would also say, deep intellectual curiosity. You don't have time to really sink in deeply to any one subject, any one activity. You have to do, and be very good at, too many different things. And you learn that the reason you're doing all of these things is to get into the college of your dreams, not for the activity in itself. You're not doing math out of the love of math. You may have a love of math, but you don't really have time to cultivate it to the fullest extent. Again, the mentality is that everything is instrumental.
And then there's the sheep part. So many of my students had reached this point where the world was all before them, they had more opportunities than anybody else in society, they had made it into the elite, they were Yale students, and they had no idea what they wanted to do. Because the system is one where you learn to please the grown-ups, and you just go from moment to moment, literally, from day to day and from test to test without ever thinking about what you might want, without ever being able to ask the fundamental question “What do I care about?” So you don't know and you don't even know how to go about figuring it out. So those are the excellent sheep.
And in the last couple of chapters of the book, I turn and talk about the elite, which is the adult elite we have. It was obviously produced by this system and it has all of the flaws and all of the problems: it's self-serving, it's risk-averse, it does not seem to have great intellectual capacity and certainly not great moral capacity (meaning the ability to challenge conventional wisdom to stand up for what you believe at the risk, potentially, of your career or your position). We could particularize this. As people have been lamenting about wokeness and what it's been doing to institutions, invariably—and I agree with this—the problem is always identified as the failure of the leaders of those institutions to push back against their rank-and-file. University presidents, editors of major publications, heads of foundations—why won't they stand up for what their institution is supposed to be about? Well, because they haven't kissed this many asses, and clawed their way up the greasy pole, just to lose their job for the sake of some damn ideal or belief. They're gonna make whatever compromises they have to make. Because that's what got them to the position that they occupy.
Mounk: This rhymes with so many of the things that I've been thinking about from teaching at some of the same universities and observing the American elite. In some ways, the French elite is much more corrupt, self-dealing, and self-satisfied than the American elite. But I'm always struck when I speak to members of the French elite, because I think “You still believe in something, and you're willing to stand up for this, even when it's unpopular. And you might actually take a risk in defense of this.” The extent to which that has proven not to be the case among the American elite in the last ten or so years, on both sides, has been a deeply disillusioning experience.
One thing I remember from my time at Harvard is that, at one point, the Dean of Students came to speak to a group of us and said, “We feel like 10% of our students who are admitted just aren’t interested in intellectual things, and 10% are super interested. They could be at any university in the country and they would be in the library reading things. And 80% are somewhere in between. And so we're trying to change the culture so that they become a little more intellectually interested.” And I thought, “Why don’t you just admit more students who actually have an intellectual curiosity in the first place?” But it's not just about who gets in but about how the admissions policies determine how students spend all of their high school years. I think the worst thing about the admission systems of top universities is not their failing to select the most intellectually curious students, it’s that they’re actually encouraging a million high schoolers to chase the CV filling and box ticking, rather than to develop deep interests and passions in a genuine way.
Deresiewicz: What you say certainly makes a lot of sense. But I think there's a false premise at work here, which is that what Harvard really wants is to have lots of intellectuals running around. I don't think they want 90% of their school to look like that 10%. These are elite-creating institutions. They're not intellectual-creating institutions. There are a few that are like that—the University of Chicago, Reed College (here in Portland, Oregon, where I live), the St. John's Great Books colleges, maybe a few others. But these are institutions that are more or less on the margins, right? I mean, Chicago is a little different. It’s always been this strange exception: you went if you were really serious about this stuff, about Aristotle. But that's never been what Ivy League students have been. The history is not that these were intellectual institutions. They were country clubs for the WASP aristocracy where people were sort of socialized into the class that they were going to belong to, and that hasn't changed. The class looks different now. Its mores are different.
Harvard always says this about itself: Harvard is for leaders. What does it mean to be a leader? It doesn't mean that you're sitting in the library; it means that you're the head of this, doing this and schmoozing that. You're meeting important people through your professors or through your internships and you're preparing yourself to occupy the commanding heights of the economy and government. That's what they want. To a great extent they are getting what they want. I think it's producing a bad elite. It's making students miserable. But I don't really think we can expect them to change.
To me, a lot of the problem we have is the way we have defunded public higher education for going on fifty years now. It used to be a couple of generations back that talented young people from around the country would be perfectly content to go to their state’s public university or maybe a different state's public university—most obviously, California. But also Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina. These are states that all have had great public universities. But we've been systematically starving them of funds across the country. There are some public universities now that get less than 10% of their budgets from their states. So they've become more expensive. It used to be that students could go for free. You could put yourself through college with a part-time minimum wage job. You can't do that now. The education has gotten worse, more and more of the teaching is being done by adjuncts, and classes are getting larger and larger. This is one of the big reasons that we have this increasing admission stampede directed at a very limited number of elite institutions. If we had 20, 30, or 40 great public universities in this country, students would be less insane about having to get into one of the top 12 private universities that are ultimately about their own self-perpetuation, not about the public good. But that's something that we have to do collectively, right? That's about taxation. That's about budgets.
Mounk: I find each of your pieces of analysis very compelling, and I'm trying to think through how they add up to a whole. I don't particularly like this term “neoliberal,” which is often thrown around as a kind of form of political battle. I never quite know what it means. And I sometimes struggle with the description of the marketization of society, that everything's become a market, in part because I think some of the things where that’s criticized have actually led to some quite positive results in important parts of human life and endeavor.
But take all of this together and it does seem to be a loss of space for artistic endeavor, for the valuing of non-marketable goods, for thinking of one's own pursuits in non-instrumental terms. There is a kind of great marketization and instrumentalisation of human life, particularly in the United States. But the need and the desire that humans have for having those forms of play, creativity, and self-invention seems to me to be quite profound. So how is that going to reassert itself?
Deresiewicz: Three years ago, I had a book called The Death of the Artist—one of these apocalyptic titles pressed upon me by the editor. But it's about what the internet has done to the ability of individual artists (writers, musicians, visual artists, etc.) and their ability to make a living. The internet has completely reshaped the arts economy from the standpoint of the individual creator. We don't have time to talk about all the ways that this has been the case. But one of the main things that has meant is that, in order to support themselves, artists need to be constantly online. They need to build audiences through online platforms and constantly serve them content on a weekly, if not daily, basis. They are beholden to a much smaller audience than ever before. Even if your album only sold 10,000 copies—I mean, first of all, you got a lot more money for 10,000 copies—it was 10,000 people out of the whole world who might be interested in your music and would hear about it in some way. Now, you have your niche audience of 10,000 people that you are in constant contact with, that you are hearing from, that you are getting feedback from, that is telling you what it expects of you. And you are constantly thinking about how you are going to make them happy. Now, anyone who knows about art knows that that's death to real creativity, that the artist has to start with their own vision, their own need, their own exploration. They have to, let's say, try to make themselves happy. An older age would have said that you are creating for God, that God is your audience (that really means a kind of ideal understanding of the perfection of the work). But it requires open-ended time. On the internet, you need constant content. Everything is short-term, everything has to hit immediately.
Putting together the pieces of what we've been talking about, “neoliberalism” can get thrown around a lot. But fundamentally, I understand it as an ideology that sees everything in terms of market values: everything is valuable insofar as it can generate money. We're judging our educational institutions based on return on investment and so on. But that attitude also penetrates the individual. The individual is valued not even as a consumer but as a producer. Now, the purpose of sending a kid to school through school is to make them ready for the job market. And that's the only purpose. That really came in during the 1970s/80s. Reagan, Thatcher. There was a whole pivot in societal values that had profound ramifications for everything, including the defunding of public universities. You add to that, the internet. The internet has enabled more and more things to be turned over to the market to be marketized. We're all brands now. As you said, what this pushes out—I'm wary to talk about this stuff because I start using words that are very squishy and that can sound kind of goody-goody. But what do they really mean? They do name real things. Play is a real thing. Creativity is a real thing. Being human is a real thing—feeling like somehow you, your whole self, is part of the world and your whole self has the opportunity for expression and you're not just a widget that's trying to satisfy market demand.
How do we get out of this? I think you're right that the urges to be human are eternal and irrepressible. But it doesn't mean that they necessarily find expression. What I always say whether I'm talking to high school or college students about this meritocratic rat race, or to people about what social media is doing to us, what I always say, and what I've had to say to myself (what I have lived in my own life) is: you can do things differently if you want to. You do not have to be on your phone all the time. You do not have to do ten extracurricular things in college. If you want to read, if you want to play, you can do those things. You have to realize that there will be costs. You might be foregoing some measure of opportunity for wealth, status, and power. But you're already giving up a lot—you're not being human. So maybe you should consider making that trade. I don't know what we can do about the larger societal forces. But we have to stop thinking of ourselves as helpless before them, because we're not.
Mounk: You started to talk a little bit about how to get out of this. You're a writer, you make a living from writing. You've built a kind of brand for yourself without being very active about that, but you’re a recognizable name in the writing world. You must feel the pull of those economic considerations, of the attention economy, of wanting to be relevant.
Beyond the excellent advice you've already given, how should all of us think about doing meaningful work, being successful enough in our chosen endeavors, to be able to pay a mortgage and make sure that the kids we might have have a decent life and so on, but not to fall foul of that rat race—create that space for ourselves whether we might be writers or artists or, you know, people who are in business or philanthropies or our lines of work but who want to reconquer a little bit of space for creativity and play and so on, what advice would you have for adults who are thinking through how to be comfortable in that space?
Deresiewicz: Part of the reason that I'm wary of giving any kind of advice is—and I do say this to students as well—we're all different. I don't know you well enough. We all have different needs. We all have different values. It's not one-size-fits-all, by any means. But I grew up this son of immigrant Jewish parents. Ivy League or bust. You had to be a doctor. The whole kind of meritocratic drama of “If you get an A, you're the most brilliant kid in the world. And if you get an A-minus, you're worthless.” And I spent decades struggling with that. Ultimately, it's a long series of daily decisions.
I'm not an academic anymore. And I didn't leave academia voluntarily. I was an untenured English professor at Yale. And as anybody who's been anywhere near academia knows, the way you succeed is through peer-reviewed research. Nothing else matters, nothing else gets you rewarded—not teaching, not writing for a general audience. In fact, if you do those things, you're looked at with suspicion. I wanted to do those things. Those things mattered to me. Being a teacher mattered to me. It was the whole reason I was an academic in the first place. Initially, it was reviews for the New York Times Book Review. I liked doing it. I needed to have some kind of literary outlet that was more than writing journal articles, which have no literary merit whatsoever. And I wanted to speak to an audience beyond the academy. I knew that I was taking a risk, and the risk was that my next job after Yale wasn't going to be at as prestigious a school. It never occurred to me that I would have to leave academia altogether. That's what ended up happening, because I did the things that I felt were important and that were gratifying to me. My career took a very sharp right turn. And I found myself in a position of not having a job and not having a paycheck. It's worked out over the last 15 years and I'm glad it has. There were no guarantees. But on a day to day basis, I'm still asking myself those questions.
I haven't tried to build myself as a brand because it's gross and because part of being a brand means you kind of keep delivering the same product over and over again. I could have been one of those people who write a non-fiction bestseller and kind of turn themselves into a nonprofit and go around doing programming around that issue. That's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about something else, because that's where my curiosity led me. I didn't want to keep producing the same product. And again, it can make life harder, but it's what's been more rewarding. You asked me to give myself as an example. That's me as an example. I don't have kids. That makes choices a lot easier. You got kids, you got responsibilities to your kids, maybe you have more financial constraints. I'm not saying that we can all do whatever we want. You can’t do whatever you want. But you can try to do as much of what you want as possible. And that starts with letting yourself acknowledge what it is that you want, and not caring so much about what other people, like your parents and your peers, want you to be or want you to want. And I think this holds as good for adults as it does for college students.
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