The Sheep and the Fat Ox

Sheepdom is a malady no school can cure. And yet there is much hullabaloo about William Deresiewicz’s hypothesis that “elite” schools are producing “excellent sheep”—that these schools are failing their students by producing graduates hustling to land prestigious jobs with nary a second thought. I agree with Deresiewicz that graduates of so-called elite schools are excellent sheep, and that sheepdom is undesirable—though more for its impact on society than for its effect on the individual—but disagree with him that the schools are responsible for their graduates being sheep, or that the schools are failing their students.

Elite schools are elite in large part because their graduates go on to become leaders of establishments—and establishments welcome the conformity that sheep provide. Nevertheless, a debate has raged over Deresiewicz’s hypothesis not only in college newspapers, such as The Harvard Crimson and The Stanford Daily, but also in national newspapers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Among others, Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard joined the fray, arguing in The New Republic that Harvard’s faculty and students are each doing a commendable job meeting their goals, and that the problem lies with Harvard’s admissions process. I agree. Students are admitted for their likelihood of becoming famous, in any sphere, and that is the goal they work toward while the faculty imparts to them the facility to think clearly and rationally.

Deresiewicz’s lamentation that elite schools are failing their students appears to rest on two assumptions: One, students admitted to elite schools are willing to be molded into “non-sheep”; and two, elite schools can mold students into non-sheep. I disagree with both assumptions.

As I argued in The Stanford Daily last summer, holistic admissions to elite schools are intellectually unmeritocratic. Elite schools seek to admit potential leaders while taking into account not only academic merit, but also alumni parents, extra-curricular activities, donations to the school, and family prominence. Consider how despite their dismal academic records, scions John F. Kennedy '40 and George W. Bush were admitted to Harvard and Yale, respectively. When what binds students at elite schools is their desire to lead—and to lead any existing establishment, one must first “fit into it”—why wouldn’t students at “elite” schools want to be “excellent sheep”?

Establishments abhor challenges. Socrates faced death for corrupting Athenian youth. Galileo was put under house arrest for challenging the Church's teaching that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Martin Luther King, Jr., was denigrated for criticizing the Vietnam War. Given the hardship non-sheep face, most students everywhere would rather be sheep than stick their necks out.

Furthermore, sheepdom is so ingrained in society that no school can mold students into non-sheep at its choosing. Consider how most individuals follow the religion of their parents without ever questioning that religion’s beliefs, or how “sheep” refuse to shed their sheepdom even when they can without any hardship. For instance, as Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago argues, notwithstanding their lifetime appointments, our Supreme Court Justices often prejudge cases ideologically—based on their sheepdom—rather than judge them “in a principled, fair-minded, and objective manner.”

Then, it is unrealistic to expect any school to remedy sheepdom, as Deresiewicz expects elite schools to do: The best any school can do is equip students to recognize sheepdom. The initiative to reject sheepdom, and to accept any ensuing hardship, must come from the individual.

Although I agree with Deresiewicz that sheepdom is an individual failing, what concerns me more is that sheepdom impedes societal progress and undermines democracy.

If no one challenges “common wisdom,” how can we discover the error of our ways? It was sheepdom that caused Aristotle’s assertion that heavier objects fall faster to remain unchallenged for almost two thousand years, until Galileo decided to check it.

Sheepdom also robs group judgment of its advantage over individual judgment, which in turn robs democracy of its advantage over an autocracy. In 1907, Sir Francis Galton related in “Nature” how the “middlemost estimate” of about 800 individual guesses of the weight of a fat ox at a livestock fair was far more accurate than its any one single guess, even by a “cattle expert.” Subsequently, James Surowiecki pointed out in “The Wisdom of Crowds” that such superiority of group judgment relies on independent and diverse individual judgments—of which sheep provide neither. Then, group judgment by sheep—of the “weight of a fat ox”—is no better than individual judgment.

Then, whereas Deresiewicz is correct in identifying sheepdom as a problem, he is grazing on the wrong pasture: The problem is not with the education elite schools provide, but with the society that nurtures sheepdom.


Gitika Nalwa is a junior at Saratoga High School in Saratoga, California.


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