Around mid-summer I discovered a new literary genre: Ivy League-bashing. Three or four articles from respectable sources—Arts & Letters Daily, The New Yorker—cropped up all at once in response to William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. My contact with Excellent Sheep comes only through reviews, but these sufficiently summarize its main point: “The Ivy League is, collectively, a moribund institution, a triumph of marketing whose allure far exceeds its social utility.” In Deresiewicz’s experience as a Yale English professor, students are “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” They are “achievement machines who ‘have been conditioned, above all, to jump through hoops’” (“American Horror, Ivy League Edition,” Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan).
After privately savoring self-righteous feelings of vindication that arrived four years too late, my smugness faded. I was forced to admit that Deresiewicz’s indictment—exaggerated though it may be—is as relevant to Boston College as it is to our neighbor across the River Charles. We do, after all, consider ourselves the institutional equals of those overgrown climbing weeds. Or, at least, we feel compelled to promote ourselves as such to prospective students and alumni. As a community, we should be confident enough to celebrate BC as its own standard of excellence rather than define its worth in relation to Harvard or any other university. It would be fascinating to trace the public discourse of administrators, students, and alumni to identify the moment at which BC self-perception first became tainted with Ivy-anxiety.
Sadly, there was a time that I gained little consolation from the fact that we are certainly intellectual equals. I am now confident enough to profess this as truth because to think otherwise is to admit that the material and intangible benefits of prestige conferred upon Ivy students amount to actual differences of ability and potential. We are all vested with individual gifts whose worth cannot be delineated by the admission letters we do and do not receive. Our human dignity is forfeited the moment we allow an external entity to define and curtail what we are capable of. Yet, this is small consolation for freshmen with whom I have spoken. Those who attend BC as their second-choice school are frequently plagued by the thought that they should be somewhere else, somewhere better. Nor is it uncommon for these same students to experience feelings of unworthiness that are manifested as ambivalence or rejection of the BC community. I have heard others verbally express these sentiments, and I have wrestled with the same thought patterns myself. These self-indulgent feelings of disappointment, however, diagnose the same problem that Deresiewicz analyzes: high school students of high ambition typically invest their self-worth in imaginary currencies of tradition-enriched labels and positions.
Look again at the complete title: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. When I do get around to reading the book, I expect Deresiewicz to offer a clear vision of the meaningful life. But that assumes that Deresiewicz, you, and I agree on what it means to live an actualized, meaningful life (in my mind, such a life is self-discovered and created through conversation with others, not packaged in one book). At any rate, Excellent Sheep implies that a good life and an Ivy League/comparatively competitive education are mutually exclusive—all the reviews agree on this much. I doubt this is true.
BC prides itself not only on being elite intellectually, but also on its spiritual and moral mission. I sat through enough Orientation Masses, lectures, information sessions, seminars, and homilies to know we enthusiastically celebrate our ability to engage students on the good life. BC shapes thinkers and contributors. BC develops men and women for others—and I whole-heartedly believe this, read no mocking in these words. But, because this has become an integral part of our marketing strategy, BC students may experience a heightened sense of tension between rhetoric and reality. If an economics student is going to secure a competitive internship, there are certain hoops that she must jump through. Does this make her an inauthentic person, an excellent sheep? Is a theology major with a faith, peace, and justice minor living the meaningful life, and is he precluded from being wealthy? Most of us find these ideas ridiculous, but insecurities nevertheless run amok on campus. Just think of the popular Harry Potter analogy: A&S students are Gryffindors, Lynch students are Hufflepuffs, nursing majors are Ravenclaws, and CSOM students are the infamous Slytherins. We are too ready to embrace the stereotypes that maim positive self-image.
The most I can conclude right now is that the tension is the source of resolution. BC students may perceive themselves as lacking in personal/intellectual maturity or in the ability to successfully navigate mechanical and soulless job markets. But here we have a subtle advantage over the Ivy League—BC staff, faculty, and administrators are more willing to challenge students to take up the beautiful struggle between meaning and material demands. Students may enter as excellent sheep formed in the pens of secondary education, but those who engage this special tension leave as shepherds.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Editor