This is a love letter of sorts. It’s not to a summer fling, or an unrequited love, but to this place where I have spent the last two and a half years and will spend one and a half more. What I have to say has been stewing in my brain for some time. Until now I have been unable to put it into words, but a book I’ve read recently—because aren’t books the solution to all problems?—has helped me to understand what I’ve felt in my marrow since halfway through my freshman year.
The book is “Excellent Sheep,” subtitled “The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life,” and I think it should be required reading for everyone that ever has, and ever will, go to college. While I could sing my many praises of this book anytime, this letter isn’t really about the book. Well, it is and it isn’t, because it has been a conduit to understanding my own experience at Lawrence University.
In this book, the author, William Deresiewicz, talks of the ways in which many of America’s elite colleges, and by extension the graduates they turn out, have lost sight of what college is truly about. While his exploration mainly focuses on the Ivy Leagues—where he attended and taught for 24 years, all told—it serves as a springboard of thought about the dire situation of the American system of higher education as a whole.
I’ll state the obvious first: The way much of our society thinks about college now is the cut-and-dry numbers version of money, scholarships, FAFSA and test scores. Parents and students strive for acceptance into a college where students are chewed up and spit out at the end with a specialized degree, a strong “network” and a bunch of student loans.
We have been conditioned to look at college in this way, as a “return on investment,” and really only in a purely monetary sense. Deresiewicz explains this process of thought in weighing our higher education options: “How much money will you get out of doing it, relative to the amount that you have to put in? What no one seems to ask is what the ‘return’ that college is supposed to give you is.”
Certainly money matters, in that there is some minimum amount you should be able to earn by which you can fulfill your basic needs and then some. It isn’t the only thing that matters, yet people still subscribe to the formula that money = happiness. They’re afraid of being without it either money or happiness, especially when they spent so much money on their fancy education.
So, they pursue high-powered careers, instead of what they really love, out of insecurity. According to Deresiewicz, their thought process goes something like this: “How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me?”
The result of this is that “a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.” So, in the end, what may seem like the best education you can get actually ends up being far from it because you are emotionally and intellectually empty at the end of it.
So, funnily enough, here I am, having had these same anxieties when I started at Lawrence that now, in my third year, have since gone away. Why is that? Deresiewicz was one step ahead of me because, according to him—and he’s not alone—it is a liberal arts education that is the key to saving our broken system of higher education that has forgotten its true values. A system of higher education that values the liberal arts will prevent students everywhere from becoming only “really excellent sheep.”
So, this is what I have come to realize about my education at Lawrence. I might not get a high-powered career, go to medical school or make millions of dollars. In fact, I’m quite sure I won’t. I might even take a break from my career and stay at home with my kids when I have them.
And here is where I may start to sound crazy, if I didn’t already before—wanting to be a stay-at-home mom is a really crazy idea for this liberal/feminist/“Lean-In” generation, I know. But even if the financial “return on investment” of my education doesn’t fit the perfect formula of money earned equals greater than money spent, my education at Lawrence will have been worth it. I mean it: All the money, the time, the occasionally unbearable pressure, the fun and the memories will be worth it.
Because at the heart of it, college shouldn’t really be about a degree in the same way that life shouldn’t be about a job. What it should be about is an education of the self. Deresiewicz says it should make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. His writing is echoed by Allan Bloom: “True liberal education requires that the student’s whole life be radically changed.”
Lawrence has changed me irrevocably. It has arranged and rearranged the very fibers of my being. I didn’t really know that it would when I first arrived here. I thought I’d probably make some really close friends and learn some things I didn’t know before, but that college would just be another four years on the timeline of my life.
And while my formation is not yet over, Lawrence has already made me who I am and who I will be. I grinned in self-satisfaction each time I turned another page of “Excellent Sheep” because I recognized myself, and my fellow Lawrentians, within its pages. All the things that college is really about, people are doing at Lawrence: unlearning old ideas and relearning them, continuing conversations from classes deep into the night, checking out a book at the library on a subject you want to learn for the sake of learning, pursuing creative acts for pure enjoyment.
I have interrogated my thoughts and beliefs about so many aspects of humanity. Like a reverse Alex P. Keaton, I returned home from my first year at Lawrence with political views quite different from those of my more conservative parents. Now I can engage in political conversation and even debate on par with my parents, who are some of the smartest people I know.
I have expanded my mind in ways I never anticipated and learned about things that a year or two ago I had no idea even existed. I can discuss these ideas with others, even sometimes without bullshitting a single sentence. Postmodernism, film analysis and feminist theory—ideas I would have met with a quizzical expression three years ago—I now engage with on a nearly daily basis.
I have examined the trajectory of my life and realized that what I thought I wanted isn’t what I want at all. This makes me feel one step closer to real happiness for knowing more about myself.
I am well aware that Lawrence isn’t perfect. I think everyone who works and learns here can see the small fractures and larger cracks that inevitably blemish the surface of this slick and shiny institution. There are ways in which Lawrence recreates, at least to a degree, some of Deresiewicz’s anxieties about elite education when it comes to diversity, class and privilege.
For one, I can’t deny that I have some anxiety about the class and privilege that has gone into my making here. If anything, I wish everybody could have my experience or at least the chance at it. But Deresiewicz has the answer to this too: “Is [college] a privilege that most young people in the world can only dream of? Absolutely. But you won’t absolve yourself by throwing it away. Better, at least, to get some good from it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
There are also a lot of ways in which, cliché as it may sound, a liberal arts education is the cure to so many of the problems of our current approach to education. They say that hindsight is 20/20, but I often wonder why those who work to “sell” Lawrence must constantly try to convince prospective students and their parents that a liberal arts education is worth it because now, as a student, there is not a doubt in my mind that it is.
While this love letter isn’t really about the book, please allow me to urge you one last time: Do yourself a favor and read “Excellent Sheep.” If not only making you feel better about handing over that tuition check, it will reassure you that what you and I are doing at Lawrence is the stuff of life. And while you have hopefully already been living the life of the mind at Lawrence that Deresiewicz describes, he puts it into words so eloquent it makes your heart burst because, finally, someone understands.
At the end of the chapter “What is College For?” Deresiewicz writes, “Most of what you come across in college will inevitably fade from memory. What’s left over, precisely, is you.”
Me, indeed. Because for all that I have learned and will continue to learn, in the end, Lawrence has taught me no less than how to live.