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On William Deresiewicz and Soul-Making

On a somewhat gray Monday afternoon, I had the sudden inclination to attend the event “20 Questions with William Deresiewicz”, the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of America’s Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life.  Mr. Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and alumnus of Columbia University, is well-known for his New Republic Article “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League”, in which he essentially criticizes the college application process and suggests that an Ivy-league education is not the best way to find a career path or future.

Paine Concert Hall was packed on that Monday, with students, faculty, and Cambridge citizens alike.  The mood can only be described as tense, perhaps because Mr. Deresiewicz was about to criticize the very institution that was hosting him.  The question-and-answer session began with a few demands about liberal arts schools and the idea of a pre-professional college.  After an interesting question from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, (“What do you miss the most about being an educator?”) the conversation developed into the idea of a soul.  Can a university such as Harvard give a person a soul?  And moreover, is it the school’s responsibility to do so?

I, for one, do not believe so.

There are a few issues I have with the idea of “excellent sheep”.  I concede that at many high-performing schools, there are those students who can survive on less than 5 hours of sleep, participate in four clubs, and have both a major and a minor.  My question is, does ambition qualify as contributing to the concept of an “excellent sheep”?  At the 20 Questions event, Mr. Deresiewicz stated that many graduates of Harvard, Stanford, and comparable institutions are “high IQ morons”.  That statement hit hard, simply because I disagree with it.  At Harvard, I am a potential neurobiology concentrator, but also love English, language, and politics.  I truly feel like I have gained an actual education here, and the variety in diversity of my classes only supports this further.  I believe that a liberal arts education ensures the greatest amount of exploration, both while at school and beyond.

Furthermore, soul-making is an incredibly personal process that begins with birth and never really ends.  In our spheres of influence, we have our family, our friends, our personal experiences, and our personal maxims, all of which contribute to our soul.  Education is but one aspect of our personality, and should be treated as such.  For some, an Ethical Reasoning or Philosophy class may actually teach life skills.  I have friends who, after reading Anna Karenina in an English class, claim that the novel taught them to live life.  However, these instances are isolated and personal.  It is not in the university’s jurisdiction to create a soul.  This is a personal process that may be furthered in the process of obtaining a degree, but also may not occur for another 10 years, or the 10 after that.


Mr. Deresiewicz raises interesting questions that may lead us to evaluate the quality of our education.  But my soul?  That’s for me to decide.


*Image credit to Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University

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