I have given up on being able to properly pronounce the last name of today’s guest writer. But anytime I see the byline William Deresiewicz I make sure to read very carefully. He first came on my radar through friends who raved about him as a professor at Yale. But Deresiewicz separated himself from that herd when he wrote the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” which presaged so much of what we see today—and what he writes about, in part, in the essay below.
Keep an eye peeled for Deresiewicz’s new book, “The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society,” which will be out this August. — BW
I taught English at Yale University for ten years. I had some vivid, idiosyncratic students—people who went on to write novels, devote themselves to their church, or just wander the world for a few years. But mostly I taught what one of them herself called “excellent sheep.”
These students were excellent, technically speaking. They were smart, focused, and ferociously hard-working.
But they were also sheep: stunted in their sense of purpose, waiting meekly for direction, frequently anxious and lost.
I was so struck by this—that our “best and brightest” students are so often as helpless as children—that I wrote a book about it. It came out in 2014, not long before my former colleague Nicholas Christakis was surrounded and browbeaten by a crowd of undergraduates for failing to make them feel coddled and safe—an early indication of the rise of what we now call wokeness.
How to reconcile the two phenomena, I started to wonder. Does wokeness, with its protests and pugnacity, represent an end to sheephood, a new birth of independence and self-assertion, of countercultural revolt? To listen to its radical-sounding sloganeering—about tearing down systems and doing away with anyone and anything deemed incorrect—it sure sounded like it.
But indications suggest otherwise. Elite college graduates are still herding toward the same five vocational destinations—law, medicine, finance, consulting, and tech—in overwhelming numbers. High-achieving high school students, equally woke, are still crowding toward the same 12 or 20 schools, whose application numbers continue to rise. This year, for example, Yale received some 50,000 applications, more than twice as many as 10 years ago, of which the university accepted less than 4.5%.
Eventually, I recognized the deeper continuities at work. Excellent sheephood, like wokeness, is a species of conformity. As a friend who works at an elite private university recently remarked, if the kids who get into such schools are experts at anything, it is, as he put it, “hacking the meritocracy.” The process is imitative: You do what you see the adults you aspire to be like doing. If that means making woke-talk (on your college application; in class, so professors will like you), then that is what you do.
But wokeness also serves a deeper psychic purpose. Excellent sheephood is inherently competitive. Its purpose is to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff—more wealth, status, power, access, comfort, freedom—than most other people. This is not a pretty project, when you look it in the face. Wokeness functions as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. If you can tell yourself that you are really doing it to “make the world a better place” (the ubiquitous campus cliché), then the whole thing goes down a lot easier.
All this helps explain the conspicuous absence of protest against what seem like obviously outrageous facts of life on campus these days: the continuing increases to already stratospheric tuition, the insulting wages paid to adjunct professors, universities’ investment in China (possibly the most problematic country on earth), the draconian restrictions implemented during the pandemic.
Yes, there have been plenty of protests, under the aegis of wokeness, in recent years: against statues, speakers, emails about Halloween costumes, dining hall banh mi. But those, of course, have been anything but countercultural. Students have merely been expressing more extreme versions of the views their elders share. In fact, of the views that their elders have taught them: in the private and upscale public high schools that have long been dominated by the new religion, in courses in gender studies, African-American studies, sociology, English lit.
In that sense, the protesters have only been demonstrating what apt pupils they are. Which is why their institutions have responded, by and large, with pats on the head. After the Christakis incident, two of the students who had most flagrantly attacked the professor went on to be given awards (for “provid[ing] exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College”) when they graduated two years later.
The truth is that campus protests, not just in recent years but going back for decades now, bear only a cosmetic resemblance to those of the 1960s. The latter represented a rejection of the authority of adults. They challenged the very legitimacy of the institutions at which they were directed, and which they sought to utterly remake. They were undertaken, at a time when colleges and universities were still regarded as acting in loco parentis, by students who insisted on being treated as adults, as equals. Who rejected the forms of life that society had put on offer. Who were engaged, at considerable risk—to their financial prospects, often to their physical safety—in a project of self-authoring.
I was involved in the anti-apartheid protests at Columbia in 1985. Already, by then, the actions had an edge of unreality, of play, as if the situation were surrounded by quotation marks. It was, in other words, a kind of reenactment. Student protest had achieved the status of convention, something that you understood you were supposed to do, on your way to the things that you’d already planned to do, like going to Wall Street. It was clear that no adverse consequences would be suffered for defying the administration, nor were any genuinely risked. Instead of occupying Hamilton Hall, the main college classroom building, as students had in 1968, we blocked the front door. Students were able to get to their classes the back way, and most of them did (including me and, I would venture to say, most of those who joined the protests). “We’ll get B’s!” our charismatic leader reassured us, and himself—meaning, don’t worry, we’ll wrap this up in time for finals (which is exactly what happened). The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
And so it’s been since then: the third, fourth, tenth, fiftieth time. In a recent column, Freddie deBoer remarked, in a different context, that for the young progressive elite, “raised in comfortable and affluent homes by helicopter parents,” “[t]here was always some authority they could demand justice from.” That is the precise form that campus protests have taken in the age of woke: appeals to authority, not defiance of it. Today’s elite college students still regard themselves as children, and are still treated as such. The most infamous moment to emerge from the Christakis incident, captured on a video the world would later see, exemplifies this perfectly. Christakis’s job as the head of a residential college, a young woman (one could more justly say, a girl) shriek-cried at him, “is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home!”
We are back to in loco parentis, in fact if not in law. College is now regarded as the last stage of childhood, not the first of adulthood. But one of the pitfalls of regarding college as the last stage of childhood is that if you do so then it very well might not be. The nature of woke protests, the absence of Covid and other protests, the whole phenomenon of excellent sheephood: all of them speak to the central dilemma of contemporary youth, which is that society has not given them any way to grow up—not financially, not psychologically, not morally.
The problem, at least with respect to the last two, stems from the nature of the authority, parental as well as institutional, that the young are now facing. It is an authority that does not believe in authority, that does not believe in itself. That wants to be liked, that wants to be your friend, that wants to be thought of as cool. That will never draw a line, that will always ultimately yield.
Children can’t be children if adults are not adults, but children also can’t become adults. They need something solid: to lean on when they’re young, to define themselves against as they grow older. Children become adults—autonomous individuals—by separating from their parents: by rebelling, by rejecting, by, at the very least, asserting. But how do you rebel against parents who regard themselves as rebels? How do you reject them when they accept your rejection, understand it, sympathize with it, join it?
The 1960s broke authority, and it has never been repaired. It discredited adulthood, and adulthood has never recovered. The attributes of adulthood—responsibility, maturity, self-sacrifice, self-control—are no longer valued, and frequently no longer modeled. So children are stuck: they want to be adults, but they don’t know how. They want to be adults, but it’s easier to remain children. Like children, they can only play at being adults.
So here is my commencement message to the class of 2022. Beware of prepackaged rebellions; that protest march that you’re about to join may be a herd. Your parents aren’t your friends; be skeptical of any authority that claims to have your interests at heart. Your friends may turn out to be your enemies; as one of mine once said, the worst thing you can do to friends is not be the person they want you to be. Self-authoring is hard. If it isn’t uncomfortable, it isn’t independence. Childhood is over. Dare to grow up.