Oh, the Humanities!

Review of

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

New York: Free Press, 2014, 256 pp.

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 248 pp.

One of the side effects of the financial implosion of 2008 has been an explosion of books bemoaning the demise of the American model of liberal arts education. Given that a college degree is the sine qua non for membership in the national “elite,” it should not surprise us that the economic shock has provoked a reexamination of the institution that seems to provide the most reliable intellectual and social capital for succeeding in tumultuous times. Previous surges of concern about the mission and structure of undergraduate education have tracked with similar periods of disruption and fluidity: rapid industrialization and immigration after the Civil War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the vast expansion of the middle class after the Second World War segueing into the schisms of the 1960s. Analysis of the critical gateway to the leadership class—who attends, who teaches, who pays—is a way of charting the winners and losers in the scrum for wealth and influence.

Large economic and demographic shifts not only disrupt the distribution of wealth and power, they also force a recalibration of social values pertaining to things like mobility versus stability, material acquisition versus frugality, even grace and humility versus striving and self-promotion. Most writers on higher education believe that college is the proper moment to push youth towards a consideration of such big questions of value, meaning, and purpose; they further view the curriculum as providing the tools for meaningful contemplation of a life well lived. High enrollments in economics classes, but low in literature, lots of computer science but no anthropology: in uncertain times, books on higher education scrutinize these trends like tea leaves in the hopes of understanding the kind of society we are becoming.


Our twenty-first century institutions of higher education must contend with spiraling costs, increasing class size, competition from massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the desertion of humanities majors in favor of “pragmatic” subjects such as business, statistics, or economics. Those are simply the intra muros problems; outside the walls are toxic political partisanship, a severe contraction of support for public goods (including education), and the return to a level of wealth inequity not seen for a century. Not surprisingly, then, the current analyses cover, to a greater or lesser extent, the interconnections between liberal arts education, the preservation of a healthy democratic process, and the restoration of a just and equitable society. The perceived importance of these concerns is clear from the big guns crowding the field: representative titles from the last six years include Higher Education in America (Derek Bok, former president of Harvard) Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan): Higher Education in the Digital Age (William Bowen, former president of Princeton); Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids (Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus); Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Christopher Newfield); Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Martha Nussbaum); The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Louis Menand); and numerous essays and reviews by the eminent historian Anthony Grafton.

Simply put, a liberal arts education (or else the study of the humanities: not the same thing, though often treated as if it were) is seen by most of these writers as an essential training ground in democracy. (Yet most of the books do not address the demise of civics instruction in elementary and secondary schools, which seems to me a more important question.) The exact ingredients of the secret sauce vary by author, but they generally agree that small classroom discussion, under the guidance of an engaged instructor, creates the set of mental habits we call civic virtue: a spirit of inquiry and critical thinking, altruism, and service. Practices of good citizenship are reinforced through interaction with students from diverse racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds, who gather as equals within the classroom by virtue of need-blind, merit-based admissions. Equally important is individual self-knowledge, born of quiet, contemplative learning, which is (turning outward again) a critical component of empathy. These ideals are under assault by economic forces. The commodification of the educational experience means more money for facilities and less for teaching. The drive for profit and efficiency means larger class sizes, contingent labor too ill paid to provide mentoring, and the unholy combination of virtual classrooms and robo-grading. A weak economy has strengthened the instrumental notion of higher education (finding a good job) at the expense of the moral or spiritual one (becoming a wise/good/happy person). Finally, the declining fortunes of the middle class (not to mention rising poverty) and the scarcity of affordable loans means we are on the way to a two-track system of higher education: the top quintile mingle only with each other in the best schools; the rest are relegated to poorly funded institutions of mass education, assuming they pursue higher education at all.


Andrew Delbanco and William Deresiewicz stake out the same corner of this gloomy landscape: the changing nature of undergraduate education at “elite” institutions. The authors know whereof they speak: both were educated entirely in the Ivy League, Delbanco at Harvard and Deresiewicz at Columbia. Delbanco is a leading expert on Melville with tenure at Columbia, one of the few remaining schools that insist on familiarity with the Western canon as the basis of cultural literacy. Deresiewicz was an Austen scholar at Yale until leaving the academy after being denied tenure. His subsequent career as a pundit began with a shot across the bow of the ship that cast him adrift, in the form of a 2008 essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Sheep is that essay padded out to book length. (When an advance excerpt of the book appeared last summer it became the most forwarded article ever published by The New Republic.) Since they are writing are about institutions in relatively robust financial health, many of the aforementioned economic stressors are not discussed. But the issues that concern the authors most—the looming triumph of the instrumental notion of education over the moral and spiritual one, and the weakening diversity of the student body—derive from, and in turn affect, political and economic policy. And so the two English professors venture into social commentary, by asking important questions about the complexion of the elite undergraduates who will presumably become our future leaders. Does the way we teach them lead to contemplation, empathy, and respect for those less fortunate than ourselves? Or are we breeding entitled, driven self-promoters who will only reinforce barriers to economic mobility in order to preserve their own status? The authors hold out some slender hope that a more just and equitable society can be restored, if we can return humanistic education to its former place of grace.

For Delbanco, the etiology of the current crisis is complex, but generally stems from the gradual supersession of the traditional college, with its mission of mentoring students towards ethical adulthood, by the modern university, with its emphases on research, publication, and technology transfer. This death spiral is in turn the product of very broad secular trends such as industrialization, specialization of knowledge, and the growth of the sponsored research complex. Deresiewicz’s root of evil is much narrower and more recent: over the course of the last few decades, the admissions process for elite schools has grown so absurdly competitive and unforgiving that today’s elite college students are risk-averse, conformist, and permanently scarred by the “toxic levels of fear, stress, and anxiety” that dominated their childhoods. The admissions process has created an elite class of damaged souls incapable of growing into empathic maturity. Midway through Sheep, Deresiewicz discusses his own unhappy childhood in a family of overachievers, and we begin to realize that there is a much better book—a memoir—buried inside the existing one. But his personal trauma does not excuse the extravagantly nasty tone (students are described as “too stupid” or “entitled little shits”) and gratuitous allegations of conspiracy (upper middle class parents teach their children contempt for the disadvantaged in order to preserve their own class advantage). Other reviewers have rightfully slammed Sheep for these things, and rightfully praised College for its nuanced and deeply sourced approach. Virtually all of my misgivings in the following paragraphs apply much more strongly to Sheep than to College; the flaws of the latter are more forgivable in an overall context of goodwill and careful consideration.

The language used by the authors to describe the value of the humanities is quasi-religious, and consciously so. Deresiewicz talks a great deal about college as the key moment for building a “soul;” Delbanco cites the tradition of educating the “whole man” (a term closely associated with his alma mater Harvard). Both fully subscribe to the idea that, in our contemporary secular society, the innate human need to contemplate big questions of meaning and purpose is now fulfilled by the humanities. Yet their assumption that we live in a secular society is parochial. How could it be that neither author considers the resurgence of overt religiosity in American society since the Reagan era? Given that our late twentieth-century religious revival tracks neatly with the worrisome decline in humanities enrollments, might the authors have considered a relation between the two trends? Is it not possible that the need for contemplation of meaning—which elites can pursue in expensive universities—has once again become the province of the churches, for at least a considerable portion of the population? What does it say about the authors’ true commitment to empathy and diversity that they ignore this major social trend?

The authors’ shared background in literature also places them in another echo chamber: of the current crop of books on higher education, the great majority are written by humanists. At best, one gets an occasional outlier from law (Bok), or sociology (Hacker); not a single one was written by a natural or quantitative scientist. Indeed, why would one write such a book, when the sciences are widely perceived as beneficiaries (or at worst unscathed bystanders) of current trends? It is the humanities in crisis, and the humanists framing the issue. This may be natural, but it is also a problem.

Two flawed arguments at the core of these books reflect the authors’ disciplinary limitations. The first, about the necessity of the humanities in producing the type of empathic wise leaders critical to a healthy society, implies that the pursuit of the other subjects cannot fulfill this function. The authors believe that a student’s experience of guided yet open-ended discussion of big life questions—ethics, purpose, meaning, and so forth—is a critical rehearsal for wise leadership. This is not incorrect, but it assumes that the production of good citizen-leaders is due to the particular content, rather than the more general process of learning. Is it not possible that collaboration on a science project provides equally valuable practice in give-and-take? Or that passionate inquiry of any sort leads us to a satisfied sense of purpose, which, in turn, makes us kind and empathetic? Furthermore, the idea of a bright line between modes of knowing—with certainty and measurement on one side, and intuition and creativity on the other—ought by now to be obsolete, if not banished. Think of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who balances his experimental observation of decision making with a profoundly sympathetic contemplation of our human need for meaning. Or perhaps the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty, second to none in the marshaling of economic data, yet tempered by anecdotal gems from Balzac or Austen, and suffused with compassion and wisdom about human behavior. Finally, the idea of the unique civilizing function of the humanities is an uncritical rehash of the famous “two cultures” debate that roiled the chattering classes in postwar Britain. That discussion was nominally about the changing fortunes of various fields of scholarship and the value of different modes of knowing. But as was well understood at the time, it was also an expression of the power struggle over the kingdom’s future leadership: “gentlemen” educated predominantly in the humanities, versus those educated in engineering or “civic science” in the burgeoning twentieth-century “redbrick” and “plate glass” universities. The idea that the humanities have an irreplaceable character-building function comes with the baggage of retrograde class snobbery; at the very least the baggage should be unpacked.

Shopworn class myths imported from across the Atlantic are also the source for the second problematic thesis at the core of both books: that our hollow rhetoric of meritocracy perversely obstructs rather than supports class mobility. When Delbanco and Deresiewicz describe the barriers faced by lower income students in pursuit of higher education, they do not simply mean the pincers of spiraling costs and inadequate financial support, nor the very high costs of “enriching” extracurricular activities that have become a prerequisite for admission to elite colleges. In their indictment, the implementation of “merit-based” admissions has turned elite schools into leading propagandists for a pernicious ideology of entitlement. In a kinder, more genteel age, our country was led by the WASP elite, who, whatever their faults, were at least imbued with a sense of obligation to those less fortunate. They recognized that their advantages came to them as lucky accident of birth, rather than through innate superiority, thus it behooved them to “give back” to the nation through public service. And, in the middle of the twentieth century, the WASP elite had the good of the country at heart when they opened the gates of admission to talented but non-elite students (chiefly the children of Jewish immigrants). In contrast, argue Delbanco and Deresiewicz, today’s elites believe that they have achieved their advantages by dint of their own hard work and superior abilities. By corollary, today’s disadvantaged are held back not by structural barriers or ill luck, but by their own lack of ability or drive. Thus societies with a dominant ideology of meritocracy are paradoxically much harder on the lower strata, who must bear the resentment of their betters, and the shame of their own “failure.” Elite schools are the high temple for this ideology, and unless our future leaders are taught differently, our hopes for a more just and equitable society are doomed.

To be clear: I share the authors’ revulsion for unthinking entitlement, and our meritocracy is clearly not working as well as it might. But to place the blame on the schools rather than on, for example, the dynamics and ideology of capitalism, is like the blind humanist mistaking the leg of the elephant for the whole. Furthermore, the authors’ nostalgia for the noblesse oblige of the old WASP elite is a dubious notion, based on narrow reading in the same few sources (indeed so similar is their use of sources, down to identical quotes, that “echo chamber” hardly begins to cover it). These are Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel Stover at Yale; E. Digby Baltzell’s sociological treatise The Protestant Establishment (1964); and the 1958 novel credited with coining the word in question, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. This last was a dystopian vision of future British society oppressed by an arrogant, hyper-rational caste of test-selected bureaucrats; eventually the lower classes, in coalition with the leaders’ more compassionate wives, revolt against the elites. The author, Michael Young, was an academic-cum-public servant involved in the same postwar British debates on higher education (and not coincidentally from the same lower-middle class background) as C.P. Snow and the popular historian J.H. Plumb. The story about meritocracy leading to a society of selfishness and entitlement turns out to be just that, a story—an artifact from another time and place that we should scrutinize rather than simply cite as evidence. At this point, even the most ardent defender of the humanistic values of imagination, intuition, and elegant writing might be forgiven for wanting some cold rational data.

Cite this Article

Poskanzer, Deborah. “Oh, the Humanities!” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 2 (Winter 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter 2015