In Excellent Sheep, the Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, Deresiewicz said there is one thing driving all the pressure in education, what he refers to as “…the insatiable need to be ‘the best.’” The idea that you don’t need to be the best also came up in World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao, that the world no longer needs the United States to “be the best” but to be “part of the world.”
What is the worth of being the best?
This is a tricky concept for me. In many cases, the drive to be the best is what drives excellence. This can be how you achieve excellence.
But in search of a guaranteed shot at getting into a good college, I’ve seen first-hand parents and students trying to do over-whelming amounts of work to attempt to guarantee admission to some college or another. There is a whole list of items they’re trying to check off: high class rank, high SAT, leadership positions, a sport of some type – preferably an elite club sport, hundreds of volunteer hours, play an instrument, something unique that other students aren’t doing…
The college admissions process has started to resemble the process of taking a standardized test. You’re looking at questions, and have or buy the experiences so you can be sure to have all the answers.
The result is “we’re not teaching to the test; we’re living to it.” (Excellent Sheep)
But still, don’t we – and our kids – want to be the best?
When I first took this notes on this section of the book, and even as I started to transcribe it here, it was frightening to me to give up on the idea of striving to be the best. But as I typed this, I started thinking.
Really, is this how all excellence is achieved?
Was Mozart driven by the need to be the best?
Or by his love of music, his joy when he was playing the piano?
Was Einstein driven by a need to be the best physicist in the world? Or was he driven by his curiosity, his wonder of the universe and his desire to puzzle it out?
By the end of his life, you might be able to say that’s what drove Steve Jobs. But I don’t think that’s what drove him at the beginning. And in any case, as much as I admire what he was able to do, after reading his biography, it’s not the life I want for my kids.
Maybe that’s partially because of what I read in Excellent Sheep. And some of that has to do with what I read about the experience of being a student on those elite campuses. Students who read notes and reviews on books so that they will seem knowledgeable in conversations with their “friends.” The stress and pressure that exists on campus. And a lot of it corresponded with some observations about elite education that I read about in How Children Succeed.
What do you think? Has our race for excellence become misguided? What is the worth of being the best?
Posts in this series reviewing Excellent Sheep
- Excellent Sheep review and discussion – Excellent Sheep Part 1/5
- The Accumulation of Gold Stars for Success – Excellent Sheep Part 2/5
- The College Admissions Arms Race – Excellent Sheep Part 3/5
- AP Failure and the College Admissions Arms Race – Excellent Sheep Part Part 4/5
- The Worth of Being the Best – Excellent Sheep Part Part 5/5