Are college students “excellent sheep”?

May 24, 2022 • 9:30 am

The essay below just appeared on Bari Weiss’s Substack (I believe the piece os free, though I subscribe, as should you if you read often). The essay is by William Deresiewicz, an author who taught English at Yale and wrote a book summarizing the essay below, as well as a new book coming out in August. First the two books (click on screenshot to access Amazon links):

First, the book from 2015; it gets high ratings and was a New York Times bestseller (I haven’t read it):

The new essay book, out August 23. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:

What is the internet doing to us? What is college for? What are the myths and metaphors we live by? These are the questions that William Deresiewicz has been pursuing over the course of his award-winning career. The End of Solitude brings together more than forty of his finest essays, including four that are published here for the first time. Ranging widely across the culture, they take up subjects as diverse as Mad Men and Harold Bloom, the significance of the hipster, and the purpose of art. Drawing on the past, they ask how we got where we are. Scrutinizing the present, they seek to understand how we can live more mindfully and freely, and they pose two fundamental questions: What does it mean to be an individual, and how can we sustain our individuality in an age of networks and groups?

And today’s essay; click screenshot to read:

The piece deals with how to reconcile two phenomena Deresiewicz observed in his Yale students (his quotes are indented), and whether they’re connected with Wokeness:

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.

Now I can’t comment on undergraduates any longer, as I’m too far removed from the classroom. Certainly a lot of undergraduate behavior I read about, like the assault on Gibson’s Bakery by Oberlin students (and Oberlin College), or the shenanigans at Evergreen State College, bespeak immaturity as well as conformity.  (I’m of course not denying a large element of conformity in the student society of the antiwar Sixties, but, as this essay argues, that was a different kind of rebellion.

Part of Deresiewicz’s thesis is that students are “sheep” because they are infantilized by modern society: highly trained but with few opportunities to grow up. One reason, I suppose, are the theses floated in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failurethat young people are now taught the tripartite lesson that, as I quoted in 2018.

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

I don’t think one can entertain much doubt that these tropes are ubiquitous in secondary schools and campuses, and are also impediments to emotional maturity.

As an example of emotional immaturity, Deresiewicz mentions the the opprobrium that rained down on his ex Yale colleagues Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika when Erika wrote an email to the students in their “house” (they supervised a residential group of undergrads) saying that students use their own judgement when choosing Halloween costumes.

Well, the idea that one should use one’s judgement rather than follow Woke dictates got the students so riled up that both Nicholas and Erika, after being verbally assaulted in the most horrible way (see below) left Silliman House, and Erika left Yale for good.

It still gives me the chills to watch this video of a bunch of students yelling at Christakis at Yale after the “Halloween” incident. Can anyone deny that these students are, well, damn immature, as well as entitled?

Why is this video relevant? Because, says Deresiewicz, it raises a question:

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 applicationsmore 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.

You might respond that no, we’re seeing real protest here, an assault on authority. Deresiewicz counters that a). these protests are not countercultural, but simply an amplified version of their parents’ views, and b). they differ from protests of the Sixties as the purpose today is “to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff.” He argues:

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.

And who denies that they think they’re making the world a better place, even when they get someone like NYT science writer Don McNeil fired for saying the n-word in a didactic fashion on a NYT “field trip”, getting “Kimono Wednesdays” canceled at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or gettin a statue of Jefferson removed from New York’s City Hall?  Is the world a better place now that McNeil is out of a job or Westerners don’t get to try on kimonos? I doubt it; it’s a chillier and more divisive place. It’s a place of fear, where your adventurism and willingness to explore ideas are stifled by fear.

Finally, here’s Deresiewicz’s claim that students need to grow up:

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.

If this claim be true, what can we do about it? In this piece, at least, Deresiewicz is a bit short on remedies, though perhaps they’re in his big book.

Here are a couple of my remedies. First, treat students like adults. When I urged one of my colleagues to reply to a misguided student op-ed in the Chicago Maroon, I was told that professors should not criticize students, for that constitutes “punching down.” And that is pure guano. When students enter college, they deserve the respect of having their professors engage them in civil debate, not to have the faculty kowtow to them even in disagreement.  Of course one must try to deal with the psychological stresses and competition that bear on students in elite colleges, at least, but in matters intellectual and political, shouldn’t should be treated as equals. (Except, of course, when it comes to letting them exercise power over the university.)

Second, ensure that every student entering college is given a good orientation in free speech: what it is, why we have it, and what happens when we don’t have it. I hope dearly that the University of Chicago will do this, but there’s no telling. And, of course, the Chicago Foundational Principles, including those of Free Expression and the Kalven report, should be adopted and in all colleges and universities.

In the end, though, if the attitude of entitlement and immaturity derives from a new way of raising children, as Lukianoff and Haidt claim, then the problems start much earlier. And I don’t know from child rearing.

Why does this matter? Because, as I’ve think we’ve learned, many of the problems afflicting our side, the Left, begin in college. Deresiewicz would argue that they’re sent out in the world without the requisite maturity. I’m not sure I agree 100% with that, but, as As Andrew Sullivan said sagely, “We’re all on campus now.” What is playing out in Hollywood, in the mainstream media, and on social media are all attitudes that began in universities. Ignore what’s happening on campus at your own peril.

40 thoughts on “Are college students “excellent sheep”?

  1. You could make an argument that turning out ‘excellent sheep’ bolsters the existing (mostly) progressive elite by thinning out and cancelling opposing thoughts and speech from the younger generations before it becomes a problem.

    Furthermore the excellent sheep are not just cogs in a political machine, but feedstock for a political factory of politicians, public servants, the main stream media, the intelligensia, the clerisy. Without changes a political monoculture will become super dominant, controlling everything. Absolute power…

  2. It’s not just the young we are infantilizing, it’s ourselves. How many of us work at government, private, or non-profit offices that make a huge deal about how workforce happiness is their #1 or #2 priority? Now look, I’m all for a positive work space, and things like harassment should be just plain unacceptable. But beyond that, workforce happiness should clearly not be the main priority of such organizations. If you work for DoD, their priority should be the defense of the country, not making DoD a warm and welcoming place to work. If you work for Apple, their priority should be putting out good Apple products, not making it your second family and safe space. Good workforce treatment is a factor in achieving corporate or agency goals, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be touted as a main goal. That’s infantilizing. Yet, in the past decade or so, I’ve seen (anecdotally) a huge increase in the stress companies and agencies put on workforce happiness sorts of issues. As the Christakis’ protestor says, for a lot of working people today, it seems like they expect their work community or work place to be a home.

    So I’d say it’s not just about how we are treating our kids, it’s about how we role model adult behavior and expectations in our own lives. If they expect to be the center of their school’s attention, well how much of that is from watching we adults at work demand our bosses put their employee’s happiness front and center?

    1. A lot of a technology company’s success depends on the quality of employees they can attract and keep. Making them happy is a big part of that. Rather than responding to societal demand to make a safe home, they are merely looking out for their own interest. Same as always, in other words.

      1. When “making them happy” equates to fawning over them and coddling them like babies, then it’s not the case that our college-bound kids are particularly infantilized. They are simply demanding the same treatment we adults in the professional workforce are demanding. They are behaving like we behave. I get your point that the companies themselves are catering to their employees demands out of mercenary self-interest, but what we as employees demand shows that the current generation of college kids are not particularly infantile. They are just like us. The infantilization occurred 10, 20 years ago, and the reason we are only noticing it now is because it’s much easier to see the faults in young people than in ourselves.

    2. Perhaps all graduating high school students should be sent to one of Elon Musk’s factories or engineering centers as interns for six months. Unpaid. “Workforce happiness” there comes from being challenged to excel and create something greater than oneself. By effort and brains. That will show them the source of that “home” feeling: that they are competent in the world to create value, and be valued.

      1. A surgical operating room would do as well. They’d have to shut up, though, and try to stay out of the way.

  3. Just FYI, Yale designates those undergrad residential/academic units as “colleges”, not “houses” as at some other institutions. See . Prof. Christakis was Master of Silliman College. (The role of Master has been renamed to Head or Head Of College.)

    Chicago’s residential “houses” have the interesting feature of being portable. Houses organized at particular dorms which were removed from the housing system got transferred to new physical units.

  4. After reading Deresiewicz’s essay, it reminded me of how I felt in college: directionless. I suspect this has always been true of most college students and will continue to be the dominant feeling as long as there are colleges and students. Nothing really new here on the student side of things.

    One bit did anger me though:

    “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.”

    IMHO, this is the real story here. The administration is driving this Wokeness! The students are the sheep as always but they are being driven in a direction now that has little to do with education, justice, or making the world a better place.

    1. I tend to agree. As is often the case the real problem seems to be incentives, which come from those in charge. As usual the system is incentivizing the wrong behaviors, if the goal is to produce quality citizens (for a given definition of quality). And, also as usual, that isn’t the goal. The goal is to make money. Now even your elite universities are become mere diploma mills, a bit higher class to be sure. Schmooze the customer, get the sale, get their money, keep them paying.

    2. Thought the same when I watched the video. Also, there is no braveness and sincerity anywhere, everyone on center stage was role-playing. A self assured bully like Michaela has power over professors (who have to crawl in the dust before them) because the administration supports any student grievance however silly or unimportant, as long as it is interpreted/presented as racism/ableism etc by the complainers. (I am sure complaints about lack of academic rigor in a professor’s classes would not see similar support from the administrators.) The power relations are inverse to what the students imply.

    3. I was far from directionless when I was an undergraduate student at UCSD. I attended at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement and became a passionate participant.

      1. And then what? That was 54 years ago. I hope that wasn’t the high point of your life. Besides, the war turned when it dawned on the American public that the United States couldn’t win, when President Johnson lost Walter Cronkite. The “stoonts” demonstrating on college campuses had nothing to do with it, even if you think you did. You weren’t there getting shot at, all too often successfully.

    1. I just listened to that Carlin bit the other day (despite having it memorized) and was going to link to it here before I saw your comment. I’m glad I’m not the only one who recognized its connection to this post. Society could use a good double-barrel blast of Carlin and Hitchens right about now. I hope their successors will soon rise to the occasion, though I wouldn’t count on it.

  5. Jerry, if you haven’t read any of Deresiewicz’s excellent essays, then you’re in for a treat when his new book is released. He’s a terrific writer and a clear, deep thinker. As far as Wokeism is concerned he’s also positioned at the movement’s epicenter, having lived for years in Portland.

  6. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, but I am skeptical that it is new. In the specifics it may be, but in general, when have college students not been sheep? Heck, when have human beings period not been sheep?

    I wonder if Deresiewicz is remembering the wheat and forgetting all the chaff. We humans tend to do that.

    1. I don’t see them as “sheep” either, although they are of course highly conform to current fads, as youth is wont to be. They are part of a revolutionary movement, only we don’t know yet how that revolution will turn out, apart from what we are already seeing. Capitalism is probably not in danger. (Judging from experience here: when the 1968 revolutionaries reached the big fleshpots and high power in Germany in the 1998 elections, they turned their coats to show Armani suits and extremist finance deregulation neoliberalism painted green via regressive subsidies for well-off people to put solar panels on their roofs). But liberalism, individual human rights, institutional functionality and civic peace may well be in danger. I hope it won’t be as bad as in the liberated zone in Seattle where the youngsters were able to have their revolutionary model fiefdom for a while.

  7. I disagree. Are they really merely executing the views of their parents, or the views of whoever’s in loco parentis? I don’t see that at all. What I see are bright kids who see oppression, racism, bigotry, and they want it gone, completely, entirely, and right now. It’s just an extreme, more contemporary version of what I remember feeling back in the 60’s when I marched and demonstrated about civil rights. I’ll admit, though, they may need to learn that authoritarian measures usually don’t do well in the end.

    1. Most of us “see oppression, racism, bigotry, and they want it gone, completely, entirely, and right now”. The problem with the Woke is that they seem to have given up actually trying to effect change. They talk about tearing down the structure that they claim supports racism but have zero chance of doing so. I don’t really even hear of any attempts to tear it down, except perhaps for the “defund the police” lunacy. My theory is that their ineffectiveness will also be the cause of the demise of Wokeness. It simply has no future. Still, I wish it would hurry up and die.

    2. “…bright kids who see oppression, racism, bigotry…”

      …everywhere and anywhere. They’ve been conditioned to endlessly scan for it.

      1. And I think that one of jason riley’s panelist’s points in the manhetten institute video with mcwhorter et al is that there IS something there that is not always obvious…just not the overwhelming issues seen by kendi and company. So it is good to back down the ladder of inference and look deep, but scan with an aim toward discussion and problem identification and solutions

        1. “…that there IS something there that is not always obvious…”

          Microaggressions? I think that the real social issues (eg. wealth disparity) are pretty obvious. They just don’t get any traction with certain types unless there’s a scapegoat.

    3. Such people need to be reminded that good intentions are not enough; they are merely the beginning, and they are barely even that. Good intentions achieve NOTHING in and of themselves, and randomly charging forward because of good intentions (blinded by the fact that you HAVE good intentions) without thinking things through, assessing, planning, being open to criticism and correction, reassessment, improving one’s plans, etc. just tends to lead to a lot of wreckage.

      “All improvement is change, but not all change is an improvement”–evolution via the process of mutation and natural selection, the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature” surely provide excellent demonstrations of that fact. This is one of the reasons I hate to hear people saying they want “change”. Burning down a house changes it profoundly, but you can’t live in it anymore. If you want to improve it, you need to learn how its built and try to figure out how actually to make it better while still living in it while you do. Earnest desire for good things to happen is no excuse. Anyone can wish and want.

      I think of the line from Revolution: “You say you’ve got a real solution, well, you know…we’d all love to see the plan.”

    4. Being naive is part of being young; the only big thing that has changed is that young people can express their feelings better and more cheaply thanks to the internet.

      When people grow older they get better control over their emotions. Whether that’s a good thing is just a matter of opinion. My opinion is that emotions contain no knowledge, and should not be taken into account for good conscious decision making. Ironically my opinion is also purely based on emotions.

  8. The Yale student’s cry sure is revealing: ” “…is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home!”” As others point out, this attitude is spreading to the workplace, including academic administrations’ view of their faculty. Some institutions now enjoy Offices of Faculty Well-Being! We look forward to the appointment of a Program Manager for Faculty Yoga Mats, not to mention an Associate Dean for Regular Bowel Movements,

    In institutions more generally, this trend correlates with the growth of the HR bureaucracy—which is antecedent to the more recent growth of the DEI bureaucracy. These developments are a hybrid of at least 3 different things: (1) a purely bureaucratic (hence reductive and often stupid) response to the deeper issue of alienation in work; (2) the natural tendency of bureaucracies to expand without limit; and (3), the therapeutic language that the advertising industry has taken to exploiting in recent years, and which seems to spill over into everything else. Consider commercial TV or radio for an hour, and one is astounded by the superabundance of drugs, treatments, exercise devices etc. etc.
    [ I wonder if this reflects deeper anxieties in a society entering what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency”?]

  9. Thank you ronsch99 for bringing us back to be able to understand the bigger point as we were falling into Lukianoff and Haidt’s third untruth and a bit of their second untruth ourselves. Students may well be doing as we did years ago, but we owe them some guidelines to make their voicing of real concerns be productive in the end. I think jerry’s recommendations are good ones, though my experience has been that the universities (and k12 for that matter) need the script he has in mind…they have followed the woke script for the past five years and are pretty far down that rabbit hole; certainly a copy and paste of the chicago principles and kalven report are straight forward, but a mind-set by boards of visitors and policy makers that would motivate that is a tough issue. Years ago, a team that i led made a number of science content recommendations to our state board of ed such as “teach nanotechnology” and teach chemistry before biology and teach quarks, etc. Adirector of a governor’s school program took me aside and told me that we have to write and give them the actual curriculum for these content elements because they do not know what we are talking about. If they did know, they would likely already be doing it! So if jerry could go one steo further and at least outline the good orientation to free speech that leads into adopting kalven and the principles and we can get political leadership in business or some governors mansions to appoint boards of vistors to lead and implement this critical redirection.

  10. I don’t find that I agree with arguments a and b about why Woke students are the way they are. For a: No they are not necessarily copying their parents. Plenty woke students have more conservative parents. Although yes, among the privileged of them, they are definitely continuing to live a privileged life. As for b: No again, its not about getting more stuff. In their minds, its about defending the downtrodden and valorizing the traits of the downtrodden.
    There is factor c: It is most definitely about burnishing ones’ own creds. It is a form of social climbing to be seen as someone who goes after the bad person du jour.

    1. I don’t think there’s any contradiction between “getting more stuff” and “defending the downtrodden”, because the younger generations, around 30 and below, have internalized the idea that people who are “oppressors”, “racist”, “transphobic”, or otherwise bad should not be able to reap the financial and economic rewards of success.

      And since their view of the world, both economically and morally, is zero-sum, black-and-white, “bad people” not having anything means that the good “defenders of the downtrodden” will have more stuff for themselves. It played out this way in every communist and socialist country, so there’s definitely some unconscious motivations going on here, hence no contradiction.

  11. Don’t know if I’ve been ninja’ed above, but is there any data that indicates that the situation at the time is any worse than 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago?

    1. Speaking as one who was teaching students both 50 and 20 years ago, I can report that it wasn’t
      nearly as bad then as now. (1) Back then, there was no bureaucratic structure for complaints, by which students could anonymously claim to authority that they suffered from “bias” or a “hostile environment” if a professor dared to depart from the orthodoxy du jour. (2) The adversarial students 50 years ago opposed US military policies on moral and historical grounds, but never whined about not “feeling safe” on campus due to those policies. That therapeutic language, with its appeals for “safe spaces”, its “trigger warnings”, and its “microaggressions”, was invented by bureaucrats, who then taught that language to the students. The kids are not copying their parents, they are copying the academic bureaucrats, who in turn egg the student “activists” on further, which gives the bureaucrats more to chatter about—a classic positive feedback loop.

  12. An formulation that sits as the base of 20th Century neo-Marxism and feeds into the motive for Progressive Education (Paulo Freire) and collectivized political theory is people’s yearning for “… an environment free of worry and fear.” ~ Herbert Marcuse

    Not ‘free to provide oneself with it,’ but rather that “something” make it come about as a right, as defaulted on them. To want reality solved for them. So they can coast.

    That describes the students in this essay.

  13. In the spirit of engaging in a bit of whataboutism, these students are little different from the whiny children on the factory floor (and they really are giant babies, even the ones past middle age). There is however a crucial difference: the higher ups don’t often cave to their whining.

    I say this as a member of the white working class, employed in a factory, and surrounded by barbarian children.

  14. I think all of this discourse about how terrible young people are these days misses the point. Wokeness or infantilisation or whatever other pejorative we come up with is not the cause but a symptom. The best writing on this issue I’ve come across comes from Peter Turchin. He writes extensively about the nexus between the overproduction of elites, inequality and the demise of co-operation in demographic structural terms that makes a lot of sense of both the wigged out nature of the woke and the insane violence of the far right.It makes much more sense that what we see as crazy behaviour is people rationally trying to navigate the structural, demographic and economic world they find themselves in. Not just a bunch of young people with dumb ideas

    1. As usual, it is the older people with the dumb ideas. CRT and Wokeness was not really invented by young people but educated elites. That said, I definitely agree that economic inequality is at least partly responsible for the extremism we are witnessing on both left and right. It turns people away from wanting to rise within the system to wanting to overturn it. The game has to appear fair for players to want to play.

    2. Thank you for beating me to the punch and explaining the core points. Today’s college students can not expect to do better than their parents’ generation, for the first time in many generations. The Great Risk Shift from corporations and government onto families and individuals is part of the pressure. The “devil take the hindmost” attitude that these policies express cannot have prevailed in the policy realm without a corresponding culture – also affecting student’s expectations and aspirations, at least often and on average. So yes, they weaponize wokeness as a moral fig leaf with which to clamber over others to get to the top.

      What do you expect?

  15. I’ve taught at university for over 20 years in two different countries and the students now are definitely much less self-reliant than when I started. Much more handholding is required than in the past. Parents usually accompany prospective students to the university’s open day and are the ones who ask all the questions – I would have died of embarrassment if my parents had come along to my university visits.

    1. Do the students really want their parents to come to these visits or is it parents wanting more oversight of their $45k per year investment? My guess is that kids of that age still try to avoid their parents supervision like the plague.

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