Thursday, November 06, 2014

Excellent Sheep

"I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. Many students took this in for a second - introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they had not been asked to think about before - then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, "So are you saying that we're all just, like, really excellent sheep?"

All? Surely not. But after twenty-four years in the Ivy League - college at Columbia; a PhD at the same institution, including five years as a graduate instructor; and ten years, altogether, on the faculty at Yale - that was more or less how I had come to feel about it. The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it. I published an essay that sketched out a few of these criticisms. Titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," the article appeared in the American Scholar, a small literary quarterly. At best, I thought, it might get a few thousand readers.

Instead, it started to go viral almost the moment it came out. Within a few weeks, the piece had been viewed a hundred thousand times (with many times that number in the months and years to come). Apparently I'd touched a nerve. These were not just the grumblings of an ex-professor. As it turned out from the many emails I began to get, the vast majority from current students and recent graduates, I had evoked a widespread discontent among today's young high achievers - a sense that the system is cheating them out of a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn't somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them to contract their futures."
 - William Deresiewicz
"Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, Free Press, New York, 2014.
Sounds an awful lot like the concerns I hear from medical students, residents, and young physicians today, doesn't it? They are excellent test-takers, rule-followers, and lock-step thinkers, for these things help people succeed in medical school.  But add the burdens of seemingly insurmountable debt, regulatory testing and re-testing, and data entry mandates that mean more to their pay than actual visits to the bedside, I wonder how many our our new physicians will be willing to really work to evoke change on behalf of their patients rather than working with the system that drives them to do otherwise.

I worry when we're breeding really excellent sheep, I'd much rather they were breeding cowboys.