Excellent Sheep

I read this book with great interest since I am obsessed with thinking about the education I received and how the heck I’m going to try to fake-guide my children in their pursuit of higher education. (If my mom was a “tiger mom,” then I would be considered “sloth mom.” Somewhere between us is probably a healthy model.) The author, who taught English at Yale (I think), summarizes the joylessness and intense anxiety he observed among his students. He takes down former colleague Amy Chua, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom,” for education approach of all-or-nothing excellence, calling her out for not seeing that the excellence she demands from her daughters is so much about proving herself to her own mother that she is profoundly handicapped at excelling at parenting herself. (Damn. I will never publicly call out a former co-worker, but also? It made me feel gleeful and a bit vindicated.) The author makes this sad observation that more than half of the undergrads of Yale go into consulting, a third go into banking or financing. Like, is my alma mater producing the least interesting humans ever?

There is an emphasis in college, overall, on being pre-professional, being hire-able. The book says kids often apply with five to six extra-curriculars and get perfect SAT scores and pitch in at the local soup kitchen, while performing as a world-class violinist. (Eww.)

I have worked with people from fancy consulting firms and heard them speak disparagingly of the liberal arts degree. (“We don’t need another barista with a liberal arts education.” To which in my mind, because let’s be real, I say “Really? Maybe that’s the job they can get in this garbage economy where there are fewer low-skilled jobs.) Through those projects and witnessing what gets funded through my kids’ schools (science, engineering, advanced manufacturing, STEM, STEM, STEM), I keep hearing how science and its cousins are so worthy ALL THE DAMN TIME.

But you know what, cutie? The world needs English majors. The world needs writers, actors, and creative types. If we are really going to get taken over by robots (and by all accounts, this is totes true. The reason why this latest industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 gives economists agitata is that computers that can make decisions now exist – that quality was once considered a uniquely human trait. Now, not so much. Oh well. But can a robot juggle? Can they overeat to the point of pain even though they know better? Yeah, I DIDN’T THINK SO. #HUMANPRIDE.) All of these trends, to me, further reinforce that we all need to learn how to develop the skills related to the right brain, the creative part, the weird part. As thought leader (is that title?) Daniel Pink has hypothesized, the right brain is the key to make us distinct as job seekers and work creators in this competitive job market.

Reading this book made me feel madly lucky. While raised by a quasi-tiger mom, I have always been myself. As an undergrad, I took whatever classes I want, including ones I failed abysmally. My grades ranged from A- to W, as in “withdrawal.” I would drop classes to not get an F, but I was okay with the D on Introduction to Psychology freshman year. (As mom said, I got every letter in the alphabet (not very happily, I might add. “I regret letting control go over your college years,” she says. “But Mom,” I say, “what is life without regret.”) (She hates me.) Junior year, I decided I needed to take classes outside my comfort zone so I took Military History with a bunch of guys with baseball hats with bulldogs on them and Old English, which I nearly failed. I acted for the first time. Like, I felt free to experiment, in a way that contemporary college students don’t seem to feel comfortable with. Poor things, lucky me.

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