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Does the Ivy League Breed Excellent Sheep?

06/09/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Is there something wrong with higher education?

There's no question that many have had gripes with how schooling is done in America - or really, around the world. Modern education's emphasis on skill over thought may be rational in light of our economy, but has been castigated by Indian philosophers and Yale professors alike. In his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, writer William Deresiewicz targets the Ivy League - specifically "HYPsters" (Harvard, Yale and Princeton students) - in his criticism. He claims that not only are students incapable of doing anything they cannot put on their résumé, most of them are funneled into careers in finance and consulting without giving it much thought. Curiosity is stifled, originality is regimented, thought is controlled and Newspeak is established and ... oh wait, wrong reference.

Are we growing up too fast?

Deresiewicz's point is not the first of its kind, and part of the reason for this perpetuating phenomenon is no doubt economic in nature. The pursuit of a "practical" degree (e.g. business, engineering, medicine) seems to promise a quicker return on investment for $60,000 USD of annual school fees than a liberal arts degree. The University of Pennsylvania, as the pre-professional Ivy League par excellence (the only one with an undergraduate business school), is a magnet for this culture: an arguably cutthroat academia and a vocationally inclined education. As a Penn student from Hong Kong, I am no stranger to the radical pre-professionalism displayed at Penn. More than half of my friends back home are on inexorable courses to become lawyers, doctors and businessmen. I still recall a friend who almost choked on a drink when I informed him of my decision of being an English minor ("English! Good luck getting a job at Goldman for writing haikus!"). It has become far too common to see students forfeiting a liberal arts education in favor of professional degrees. Even though I have met liberal arts students who have moved on to become leaders in entertainment, entrepreneurship, even finance and consulting, they are usually the exception, never the rule.

The pursuit of a "practical" degree (e.g. business, engineering, medicine) seems to promise a quicker return on investment for $60,000 USD of annual school fees than a liberal arts degree.

A friend once told me that schools like Penn are not where dreams go to die, but where dreams become lucrative -- aspiring authors become copywriters and painters become graphic designers because they learn of more financially sound ways to apply their skills. In fact, Deresiewicz talks about this in his essay "The Death of the Artists - and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur": "A Gen X graphic-artist friend has told me that the young designers she meets are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours. One reason may be that they recognize that 10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts."

Interestingly, these vocationally inclined students also seem to form a unique stratum among Generation Y -- the millennial generation, a generation supposedly characterized by wild ambitions, an inflated sense of self-worth and contempt for banality. My generation's tendency to have quixotic aspirations seems to be contradicted by Penn students' eagerness to dive head first into the work force and sit behind a desk. Penn's pre-professionalism and its emphasis on vocational practicality seem to go against the very zeitgeist of our generation, let alone the interests of our contemporaries. And evidently, this job-centric thinking is far from localized to the United States, let alone the Ivy League: a friend studying in London confirmed that virtually everyone he knows in his grade is doing everything to break into investment banking.

...vocationally inclined students also seem to form a unique stratum among Generation Y -- the millennial generation, a generation supposedly characterized by wild ambitions...

This pre-professionalism among college students has led to a rise in over-specialization in course work, which may very well backfire, as pointed out in an article on the Wall Street Journal. This mentality, however, is not only observable in how students choose what to study, but in the very way they evaluate the value of what they do. During an entrepreneurial boot camp in New York, I had the pleasure of meeting with students from Fordham University and managed to talk to them amid the roars of beer-pongers during a house party. While the budding entrepreneurs from Fordham talked to me about how their ideas were going to change the internet-using world, my friends from Penn discussed how Facebook could acquire their company for millions. Perhaps that is why I was shocked when my former band mate decided to major in music even though he has no plans of pursuing music as a career. Perhaps that is why I was confused when a Saudi Arabian friend told me he was willing to skip school for one semester to go on a biking trip around the world. Perhaps that is why I was impressed when a schoolmate dropped out of the prestigious M&T program (a business and engineering dual degree offered at Penn) to read literature and philosophy because the latter two "resonated with [his] soul."

Leaving the "Sheep" out of "Excellent Sheep"

Objectively, neither liberal arts nor professional degrees should be intrinsically "bad". One must take care not to subscribe to the false dichotomy in which the Fine Arts major epitomizes the free-spirited, Starbucks-drinking, solitary artist/hipster and the Finance major represents the one with the actual job. As the saying goes, some people can become so poor that all they have is money.

As much as I despise "self-helpy" advice, I truly believe one should study simply what he or she likes (even if it's winemaking - yes, you can major in that). As author Aldous Huxley once pointed out, too many of us treat death as if it were an "unfounded rumor". There simply is not enough time to completely toss aside the notion of fun and expect it to come eventually after a lifetime of toil. English playwright Noël Coward once said that "work is more fun than fun" - a state of mind that we should aspire to.

Pre-professionalism, like self-edification, is simply a mindset and the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. If anything, believing in both when choosing a degree to pursue can be a positive thing: it implies a conscious decision to focus one's education with an end goal in mind, while opening oneself to disparate fields (where the fun usually lies). In other words, preserving depth while opening up to reasonable breadth. As long as the pre-professional mindset originates from a genuine interest in a specific career (or interest) and not from conformity, we can shed the "Sheep" in "Excellent Sheep".

Ambitious Millennials love to dream. The dreams may be ambitious, they may be big and they may even be lucrative, but there is no saying that they cannot be all at once - in other words, be quite excellent.