Much has been made recently of a book by William Deresiewicz entitled Excellent Sheep. By most accounts, it is a scathing review of the highest echelons of the American university system. His main point is simple, we’ve created a system where entry to the top levels of society is predicated upon high achieving hyper-conformity.
Mountains of eerily similar student profiles litter the desks of admissions agents. Perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a carefully cultivated list of extracurricular activities are stacked in homogenous piles, waiting for a harried admissions agent to pick out the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”
How do so many high achievers end up looking exactly the same on paper? In an age where “individualism” is disingenuously held up as a self-evident virtue (the 40 other people at the train stop staring at their (I)phones are unique little snowflakes, doing exactly the same thing), how are we producing so many uniformly similar students?
I’ve spoken in earlier posts about the danger of narrow thinking. To pull some of society’s highest achievers into a conformity trap at a young age is condemning them to a life with a golden ceiling.
It prevents many of our best and brightest from ever trying their top gears, and we wonder why we have such high levels of depression in our high achievers. Life is great for a natural test taker so long as there is a test put on the desk. When the scantron becomes a blue book though, well that changes things.
Deresiewicz’s moniker of sheep seems harsh, but his point is that our high achievers have become excellent at doing what they’re told.
What are the long term ramifications for a society that promises security and wealth to those who show the most unwavering adherence to the script? Is our current political structure symptomatic of this thinking, so far as we’ve made no haven for truly dynamic leaders, only those who stick rigidly to the party line?
What happens to a society when our leaders are merely managers instead of visionaries? Like the multitude of blinkered horses dragging carts here in Thies, so many people are blinded to the wider world by the next task at hand. It is impossible to build an integrated sense of self if you are constantly waiting for an external force to reveal your next task.
It isn’t those tasks that reveal character, it is the introspection that occurs during and after. 2500 years ago, Socrates revealed that existential truth that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and it rings no less true today.
Unfortunately, the linear obstacle course only requires eyes on the horizon. The hyperlogical approach would say that there is nothing to be gained by looking around.
As I near the end of my trip, I find myself thinking more and more about my “place” in the world upon returning. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my development as a person has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams. I can feel it instinctively, and I can see it, plain as day through my writing.
Taking the blinkers off will do that.
Yet, there is an element of fear creeping in as my return gets closer and closer. That nagging doubt that says, “All this was fine as long as you kept running, but the downside is coming.”
It takes a certain amount of confidence to take off and start an adventure, but that can be faked if you start at a bit of a run. Ending an adventure requires a confidence that can’t be faked.
In every cell of my body, I know that this was the right decision. But now, I’ve got to return to the “real world” where the sum of a person is distilled to a resume and a cover letter. Excellent sheep make for excellent resumes.
I guess I’ll just have to see what wayward sheep make.
Hopefully not dog food.