Excellent Sheep Run The World
Updated: May 30
Elite schools train smart, self-interested people to lead us. What could possibly go wrong?
When I was an undergrad at Princeton, the running joke on campus was that the students who would one day become presidents and CEOs were the ones who got B+s, not straight-As.
Why? Because straight-A students were the brainiacs who locked themselves in labs and libraries, the socially handicapped misfits destined to struggle with life in the “real” world. The kids who would become rich and powerful were smart, but not brilliant. They were well-rounded, gregarious types who could schmooze their way through interviews and parties on their way up the ladder.
But when I graduated to the real world, I discovered that the people who ran things at the top weren’t straight-A students or B+ students. I realized the world is run by excellent sheep.
Excellent Sheep Do What They’re Told
Former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz coined the term “excellent sheep” in his scathingly candid, eponymous book. After teaching some of America’s best and brightest for a decade, Deresiewicz noticed something disturbing: his students were essentially high-functioning zombies, devoid of critical thinking and lacking a sense of purpose. His observations prompted him to look beyond Yale, where he saw the same phenomenon unfolding at other elite schools.
Deresiewicz discovered that these institutions had become high-pressure conveyor belts, cranking out Type A graduates trained to work hard and flawlessly regurgitate whatever their professors fed them. He called these single-minded high achievers “excellent sheep” because they were supremely skilled at following directions and performing any task without asking questions. They were more concerned with getting the “right” answers so they could ace a test and less concerned with the validity of their answers. They were consumed with credentialism and accumulating gold stars.
I know that Deresiewicz’s observations are spot-on — because I was once part of the excellent flock.
At Princeton and Harvard Law School I got an up-close-and-personal look at how our future leaders are trained to think — or in many cases, not to think at all. They were the most excellent of the excellent sheep, the kids who could skim a book at lunch, then control the class discussion by expertly spouting bullshit, dropping key words and phrases that would signal to the professor: “Oh, he/she gets this. They’re saying the right things. I like the way they think.”
They could masterfully regurgitate whatever decision makers wanted to hear. They would say and do whatever it took to “succeed.”
Excellent Sheep Run The World
B.F. Skinner, the famed Harvard psychologist, once boasted that he “could make a pigeon a high achiever by reinforcing it on a proper schedule.” Whether you call them excellent sheep or high achieving pigeons, the academic all-stars at elite schools are obsessed with overachieving without giving much thought to what they're achieving or why. They’re taught to think inside the box instead of asking what purpose the box serves, or if a box is even necessary.
So why are elite students primed to become excellent sheep? Deresiewicz believes it starts with the highly competitive environment these young minds are bred in. Most attend prep schools that condition them to jump through hoops that guarantee success, and as they move through life they crave the safety of a path that will continue to reward them. This causes an extreme aversion to risk that extends to intellectual pursuits — an aversion that, ironically, makes elite schools hostile environments for learning. I can attest to this because like the rest of my excellent flock, I often avoided notoriously challenging classes. Leaving our comfort zones carried the risk of getting lower grades — and we knew that grades mattered more than what we actually learned.
So why should any of this matter to you?
Because elite schools produce our leadership class, the men and women groomed to run governments and businesses. We rely on them to oversee economies and to pass laws. They are the politicians, bankers, judges, and heads of agencies we trust to make monumental decisions on our behalf.
They will become the people who run the System.
But our “best” schools aren’t teaching these leaders to think critically or to ask questions. Instead, they’re training them to become risk-averse, high-functioning followers who expertly regurgitate what they’re told.
Even worse, excellent sheep aren’t confined to the U.S. In fact, 10% percent of students at America’s elite schools now come from overseas, which means the elite higher education system has gone global. It imports tender lambs from abroad, feeds them, and repatriates excellent flocks to unsuspecting counties around the world.
In other words, excellent sheep run the world.
Excellent Sheep Look Out For Themselves
The leaders that elite schools breed are also selfish.
To be fair, this isn’t entirely their fault because like almost everyone else these days excellent sheep have money on their minds. When I graduated from Princeton in 1984 and Harvard in 1991, tuition, room and board cost $142,000. Today, the combined cost is more than $550,000. By the time my 11-year old son is ready for college, the tab will probably be $1 million. How many families have that kind of cash?
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more students at top schools are coming from high-income families. In 1985, 46% of these students were from families with incomes in the top 25%. By 2000, that number had risen to 55% percent. In 2006 it was 67% . The pattern is clear: elite schools are becoming havens for children of elites.
Think about how this plays out. If you come from a rich family, you’re likely to follow a path that allows you to maintain or expand your family’s wealth. And if you’re someone like me who comes from a middle class family, you’re laser-focused on getting a high-paying job to repay enormous student debt. Either way, graduates from elite schools overwhelmingly opt to pursue high-income careers.
The facts bear this out. In 2010 nearly 50% of Harvard grads and more than a 1/3 of Cornell, Stanford and MIT graduates accepted jobs in finance and consulting, and in 2012 36% of Princeton grads headed to a career in finance. This means that most students at top schools see college as a vehicle to propel them to careers that deliver hefty paychecks, not as an opportunity for intellectual exploration that will allow them to serve the greater good. The problem with being surrounded by people who are focused on money and power is that this mindset ultimately permeates the consciousness of students in other disciplines— even those who pursue a career in public service.
Excellent Sheep Are Dangerous
In a 2017 report in The Harvard Law Record entitled “Our Bicentennial Crisis,” Peter Davis highlighted the school’s failure to honor its mission to produce leaders dedicated to safeguarding the public interest. Davis argued that instead of extending legal power to less privileged Americans, Harvard now breeds lawyers who advance the interests of elites.
This mindset is inevitable at a school that’s become ground zero for the “cult of smart,” the masturbatory circle of hyper-competitive intellectuals who embrace a game-oriented worldview. Within this cult, those with the “sharpest and narrowest analytical skills” are held in highest regard. They’re taught to be clever and rely on nuances and technicalities to divorce themselves from real world consequences and moral considerations.
Put it all together and a disturbing picture emerges: elite schools are spawning global leaders who are trained to advance their careers, please those with power, not ask questions, and abandon ethical considerations.
This is the dirty little secret of elite education that no one dares to mention, and it has grave implications — because these are the people we’re supposed to trust to make decisions that affect nearly every aspect of our lives.
So if you’ve ever wondered how our government, economy and laws can be so screwed up with “experienced” and “educated” people in charge, this should give you a better idea why it's happening. Once you understand what makes these people tick and how they “think,” everything begins to make sense. We see why the System functions the way it does and why the people in charge never change it in ways that serve us. We see why politicians blindly pursue power for its own sake and lose their moral compass. This is why they tell us what we want to hear without giving much thought to what they’re actually saying.
So why is all of this important?
Because regardless of their party allegiance, gender, or the color of their skin, these people are a threat to all of us. They’re perfectly suited to protect a System that favors powerful elites — and they control our economies, public health, and freedoms on a global level.
In other words, these sheep are not only excellent; they’re dangerous.
We Need A “New” Breed of Leaders
It wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, leadership meant duty, honor, and service to the benefit of others. We were guided by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy who understood their country relied upon them to protect and preserve its core values and institutions. These men came from the elite schools that have groomed generations of leaders.
But now these institutions are failing us.
Now they produce people who use public service to amass enormous wealth: the Clintons entered the White House with a net worth of $700,000 and used their political fame to generate a $240 million fortune in 15 years. The Obamas had a net worth of $1.3 million in 2008 and now reportedly have assets of nearly $135 million.
Our leaders expect us to abide by laws they ignore. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner somehow “forgot” to pay Social Security taxes. After receiving private briefings on the impending market meltdown in 2008, GOP Congressman Spencer Bachus bought options that increased in value when the market tanked. When average Americans engage do these things they go to jail, but members of Congress feel they can cheat the System with impunity.
These aren’t the kind of people we should be trusting to make decisions for us.
What we desperately need are leaders who are good citizens first. We need people who question those with power instead of trying to seize power for themselves. People who identify fundamental problems and craft fundamental solutions instead of buying time by making short-term fixes to keep a broken System running. People who formulate new ways of doing things instead of putting themselves at the front of a herd that’s rushing toward a cliff.
These are the leaders we need — especially now, when we’re in crisis, when we must trust them with decisions that will impact our lives on the most fundamental levels for years to come.
The American System is failing spectacularly.
Its economy is in slow motion collapse, a situation that’s been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. The so-called middle class is on a ventilator. Infrastructure is deteriorating on every level. Health care is a disaster. Corporate interests spend billions to meddle in our elections and lobby Congress to pass laws that serve elite interests.
Yet excellent sheep distract us with Russian plots to destroy our democracy, while making no effort to protect it, themselves. They blame China for sowing pandemic panic while corporate-owned media peddles Coronavirus fear 24/7. Excellent sheep point fingers at others instead of taking responsibility for their own failures and betrayals.
Throughout history, humanity has relied on the educated class of thinkers and innovators to guide it through treacherous times. Nearly half of the Founding Fathers who spearheaded the American revolution were lawyers, and 4 were physicians. The intelligentsia re-shaped European culture and politics in the 19th century. Business leaders, college students, and professionals ignited the revolution that toppled the 30-year reign of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But in the western world today, and especially the U.S., our best and brightest minds have been co-opted by the broken systems they’re charged with overseeing. The people who should be saving us have been conditioned to look the other way and save themselves first.
How much longer will we tolerate such feckless leaders? How much longer will we fool ourselves into believing that people with Ivy League degrees and silver tongues are looking out for our best interests? When will we demand true public servants instead of supporting self-serving sheep who thrive on the partisan divide that’s destroying us?