Best of The Month – Excellent Sheep
Kobus Cilliers | On 03, Apr 2019
There’s no such thing as a root cause in a complex system. I know that. But I also know there can be a root contradiction. Provided we understand the system at a first-principle level. In the same way that the CEO conveys the first principle ‘DNA’ of the culture of an enterprise, it is the leaders in our society that set out (often unwittingly) the behaviours we collectively accept and come to live by.
With that in mind, if I was forced to speculate on why large parts of the Western corporate world are delivering so little innovation these days, I think I’d be looking to William Deresiewicz’s book ‘Excellent Sheep’ to help me understand, at a first principle level, what’s going on in the parliaments of boardrooms of the world right now. If I was forced to turn the speculation into a root-contradiction vicious-cycle map of first principles, I think I’d end up with a picture that looks something like this:
Which, expressed as succinctly as possible, says that large enterprises can’t innovate because they’re lead by armies of excellent sheep. Make that ‘excellent selfish sheep’.
Or how about ‘HYPSter’? That’s William Deresiewicz’s term, in his new book, for Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, though it seems more idiomatic to apply that acronym to these schools’ graduates. With HYPSters, and with the recent graduates of the tier of elite American colleges a rung or two below them, he is unimpressed. I think he would have had the exact same reaction if he’d expanded his study to also include the ‘elite’ universities in other nations.
Far too many are going into the same professions, notably finance or consulting. He detects a lack of curiosity, of interesting rebellion, of moral courage, of passionate weirdness. We’ve spawned a generation of polite, striving, praise-addicted, grade-grubbing nonentities — a legion of, as his title puts it, “Excellent Sheep.” A cohort that, to make a fairly big leap into another domain, are rather like the sheep described in the Pink Floyd tour-de-force album, Animals:
Excellent sheep take care to never ask or answer life’s big questions. Excellent sheep graze on trivial grass.
Books like this one, volumes that probe the sick soul of American higher education, come and go, more than a few of them hitting the long tail of the best-seller lists. As a class of books, they’re almost permanently interesting, at least if you work in or around education.
“Excellent Sheep” is likely to make more of a lasting mark than many of these books, for three reasons. One, Mr. Deresiewicz spent 24 years in the Ivy League, graduating from Columbia and teaching for a decade at Yale. (Yale denied him tenure, leading some to shrug this book off as sour grapes.) He brings the gory details.
Two, the author is a striker, to put it in football terms. He’s a vivid writer, a literary critic whose headers tend to land in the back corner of the net. Three, his indictment arrives on wheels: He takes aim at just about the entirety of upper-middle-class life in America (and beyond).
When I say that Mr. Deresiewicz brings the gory details, I mean that he delivers tidy scenes like an account of sitting on Yale’s admissions committee in 2008. The particulars of this experience will make parents break out in a prickly rash.
Only five or six extracurricular activities? Those are slacker numbers. Does the applicant have “good rig” (academic rigor)? What about “top checks” (highest check marks in every conceivable category)? Is he or she “pointy” (insanely great at one thing)? How are his or her “PQs” (personal qualities)? Or is your child, as one committee member said of an applicant, “pretty much in the middle of the fairway”?
Mr. Deresiewicz spends a long time considering college admissions because a vast number of crimes, he suggests, are committed in its name. We’ve created kids who throughout their high school years are unable to do anything they can’t put on a résumé. They’re blinkered overachievers.
Once they’re in college, they don’t know what to do with themselves, so they jump through the only hoop that’s bathed in a spotlight: finance. He argues that many miss truer and more satisfying callings.
He notes that at many of the Top 10 liberal arts colleges — “places that are supposed to be about a different sort of education” — economics is the most popular major. In 2010, he writes, about half of all Harvard graduates had jobs lined up in finance or consulting.
Colleges conspire in this funneling. They are working, he writes, “to line up the major gifts a generation hence. As for the smattering of future artists and do-gooders, they’re there to balance the moral books (as well as furnish a few alumni to brag about).”
Little of what Mr. Deresiewicz has to say is entirely new. Ezra Pound got there first, 80 years ago, with the metaphor that supplies this book with its title. Real education must be limited to those who insist on knowing, Pound said in his book “ABC of Reading.” “The rest is merely sheepherding.”
But the author consistently peels off in interesting directions. He speaks directly to students, giving this advice, for example, about cracking the mold while at college: “Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them about your grades on papers or tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term.” He concludes this litany this way: “Make it clear to them that this is your experience, not theirs.”
He observes how Jewish kids like Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Woody Allen and Philip Roth were socialized academically and otherwise into American culture and “went on to take possession of it.” He has similar hopes for Asian and Latino kids. “Telling them to stick to medicine or finance is just another way,” he says, “of keeping those communities down.”
As ever in our TRIZ-blind world, I had problems with “Excellent Sheep.” Even at 245 pages, it feels padded, especially with quotations from a thousand sources. I didn’t skim pages, but I sometimes wanted to. It gets self-helpy. (“The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.”) Mr. Deresiewicz is a hammering writer, one who could have taken advice from, say, Robert Hughes in his “Culture of Complaint” about nailing your points with saving wit. That said, Excellent Sheep was, by several furlongs, the best thing we read this month, and therefore, there wasn’t going to be a doubt it would feature here in the ezine. Whether you’re a parent, teacher or part of an enterprise leadership team, you need to read this book before the Excellent Sheep vicious cycle takes us all down.