Baa baa black sheep, have you any Core?

Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is alarmist but not unfounded when applied to our own University.

By Jon Catlin

When I told my uncle I was going to the University of Chicago nearly four years ago, he gave me a worried look. “I went there once for work,” he told me. “I ran into a student on the street and asked if he knew what time it was. He stopped, looked me in the eyes and responded, ‘yes’ before walking on.”

When I was a first-year, the pages of The Maroon were littered with impassioned cries to “Keep UChicago weird,” a slogan from an old Max P Scav team t-shirt. In what seemed like weekly laments, the then third- and fourth-years decried the supposed “normalization” of the incoming student body and hearkened back to the Uncommon years before the College switched to the Common Application in 2008. Years earlier, writers pleaded, “Save the U of C’s Soul: Save the Uncommon App!” (11/17/06) to no avail.

The Common Application, their story goes, brought with it the dreaded Common Applicant. You may know her. She really wanted to go to Princeton, but didn’t get off the waitlist. She knew little about UChicago before she got in, but her college counselor—no doubt pointing to the latest U.S. News rankings—assured her it was now “basically an Ivy.” She boasts a perfect GPA and a dozen extracurriculars—but why does she belong here in particular?

This narrative has by now just about died out among College students. This is because we are all that once-dreaded generation of Common Applicants. We are thus in need of some perspective. With the current acceptance rate at 8.4 percent, it probably sounds scandalous to us that 77 percent of applicants were admitted the year I was born. UChicago is now more selective than half of the Ivy League. This drastic shift has undoubtedly led to others.

In his talk on November 13, the higher ed critic William Deresiewicz evoked this normalization narrative, suggesting that UChicago was going the way of the Ivy League. And you would know that that’s not a compliment if you saw the cover photo of the New Republic piece he wrote this summer: a Harvard pennant in flames.

“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” Deresiewicz’s controversial article, is an excerpt from his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. A former Yale English professor, Deresiewicz argues that elite students are “smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” He thinks, “what people are feeling is that nobody has ever talked to them about what their education might be for” beyond credentials or a narrow conception of success.

Deresiewicz noted UChicago’s “historical reputation as a bastion of intellectualism,” but harbored doubts as to whether it will last. “I hear that the University of Chicago may not be remaining the University of Chicago,” he said. “And that concerns me.”

This concern is not new. In a 2010 Maroon article, D. D. Ryan rightly noted that even if Common Applicants aren’t tangibly different, they have a different attitude: “These new students, although perfectly intellectually capable of doing so, do not tend to care deeply about ‘the life of the mind’ or about learning for the sake of learning.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it entails the danger “that we are moving away from what has historically made this university distinct.”

I’m a proud UChicago intellectual in Deresiewicz’s sense. I’m a fundamentals major and was a That Kid in my Hum class. When I applied to college, it was to places like Reed, which Deresiewicz singled out as more intellectual than any Ivy. When researching colleges, I looked at a less common metric for something like intellectualism: the percentage of undergraduates that go on to earn a Ph.D. The National Science Foundation reported in 2013 that, adjusted for size, graduates of the College had the eighth highest rate of going on to earn a Ph.D.: 15 percent. This put us ahead of all the Ivies and behind only engineering schools like Cal Tech and MIT, and hyper-intellectual liberal arts colleges like Reed, Swarthmore, Carleton, and Grinnell.

I’d suggest this metric as the one to put speculation about the College’s changing ethos to rest. The above data tracked Ph.D. recipients 2002–2011, and thus College alums from even earlier. However, when the data comes out for our classes, I doubt we will maintain our current position. I am one of the few fourth-years I know who plans to pursue an academic career, and UChicago Careers in Higher Education, of which I was once a member, went under in 2012 (it was rolled into UChicago Careers in Education Professions in name only). The academic job market is bad, yes, but not worse than ever. Now is actually one of the best times ever to be a Ph.D. student, with most top programs now offering full fellowships to all admitted students.

In addition the number of students in the College receiving humanities degrees, one crude metric of pursuing “learning for learning’s sake,” increased only 5 percent from 2006-2007 to 2013-2014, while the total number of degrees increased 26–, with economics degrees increasing 39– and physical sciences degrees increasing 64 percent. Who knows what else isn’t the College advertising.

Deresiewicz’s critique might help us explain these changes. As Anthony Grafton glosses Excellent Sheep in the New York Times, “Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think.” We are told that we can do anything, yet we tend to choose curiously few fields: More than a third of graduates at some Ivies go into finance or consulting. Academia is just one field, alongside the military, the clergy, and running for electoral office, that has been displaced from the horizons of most elite students.

But in his talk on campus, Deresiewicz clarified, “I’m not criticizing any particular choice: There are possibly legitimate reasons for going to Wall Street or consulting. I’m criticizing the way people tend to make their choices nowadays.”

Deresiewicz said that attending college should allow one “to learn to think,” yes, but more so “to build a self,” to become a whole individual. The problem is that elite students’ “sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed”—by measures not their own. Students are asking him, “Why do I seem to be living out a script I didn’t write?”

His answer is that our horizons have narrowed. “Work within the system,” is the ethos of the day, he said. (It is also the ethos of Career Advancement.) “The world, like a test, consists of a series of discrete problems, and all we need to do is go out there and solve them.” With our start-up approach, we think innovation is making hailing a taxi easier. “How many in today’s young generation even think of altering the structure of society?” he asked.

Parts of this narrative are true of my experience in the College. We all do things just to put them on our résumés. We are all needlessly busy. We are in many respects too “successful” for our own good. But this does not mean we are doomed to join the Ivy League.

Excellent Sheep calls for little more than the Socratic self-examination the Core is designed to promote. In this regard, Deresiewicz unfairly lumps “elite schools” together, neglecting the unique traditions that protect against sheepishness. Debating the Aims of Education address during O-Week is another such invaluable tradition. As for UChicago staying UChicago, these intellectual traditions are not going anywhere.

Even if we accept the conclusion that the College is changing, however, it would not simply be an occasion for despair, as previous generations seemed to think. Ask any middle-aged alum of the College about their experience here (David Axelrod, for example), and they will invariably tell you a dozen ways it is better now than decades ago.

In a 2010 column protesting the Common App laments, then-fourth-year Marshall Knudson wrote, “U of C students are not born but made, formed in thought and habit through a four-year, love-hate relationship that elates as often as it oppresses.” Who is admitted is not the whole story; it is still we students who define the UChicago experience.

UChicago is not yet an Ivy in Deresiewicz’s pejorative sense. But recognizing that the College is changing puts the onus on us to redefine what it will stand for in the years to come. It prompts us to conceive of and promote an intellectualism beyond stereotypical bookishness and Harry Potter. It demands that we think hard about and rearticulate what about our experience here remains so special, and, yes, sometimes downright weird.

Jon Catlin is a fourth-year in the College majoring in fundamentals.