The sheep are always more excellent

The sheep are always more excellent on the other side of the green.

british_milk_sheep1As it happens last night I was reading William Deresiewicz‘s  Excellent Sheep about the pressure students feel to get good grades at the expense of learning, and how this extends right into the Ivy Leagues – because you don’t get into the Ivy Leagues without having accepted and mastered this technique. He quotes one of his students, “Yes, I am miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”

Dear daughter asked me what I was reading so …
I tried to pose a question:  suppose you were assigned to read a book, In scenario A you give the higher priority to finishing the book, even if there are interesting things you would like to explore along the way, you cut short your thinking about them so that you can finish the book. In scenario B you go ahead and explore them even though you might not finish the entire book.

Obviously this is a hard question for dd as she has not really been assigned a book, though there have perhaps been a few that she read on my request.  There have sometimes been deadlines, for example, if she was reading a book for book club, but on the whole she has not faced stringent time limits for reading, and reads most of the time anyway.

She insisted that it was important to finish the book, but she would certainly not cut short thinking about any part of it.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that that was the kind of scenario that the college students were facing in this book. I merely said, that “it looks like you are preferring an option C where you would have time to do both.”

She has never not had time to finish a book, and never not had time to think about whatever she wanted and return to the book later.  So it is naturally difficult for her to imagine such scenarios.

Deresiewicz is bemoaning the tendency he sees among the students to prioritize grades over learning, each and every time. Not only in their major, but also in their electives. Choosing classes where they will get As, doing assignments & lab experiments in the way they know will get As rather than trying something new that might or might not lead to a result.   And sort of sabotaging the whole meaning of electives, which are classes outside your major that just allow you to explore, let your mind wander, and maybe discover new connections.  Instead he sees more and more students trying to fit all of them into a double major or at least a minor, so that there will be one more line on the resume.

It was funny having this conversation with dd because all we’ve ever done has been to prioritize learning. And we’ve never had a grade and hardly ever a real deadline or test that we didn’t decide ourselves, (apart from twice yearly review by the county). She could sense that I / the book was critical of all of these measures and hence she rose in defense of their role in the education process.  She insisted that grades were important and that the purpose of college was to get the diploma. “It would be really nice,” she said, “to be in that ceremony and collect the diploma.”


  1. Umang Kumar said,

    22 October 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for this Aravinda. This was especially brought home to me in grad school…with multiple classes and each class boasting of 100+ pages of reading/week (dense stuff all in 6 pt font…)…I often wondered how it was possible to read/absorb/analyse/think…and yet, that is the way of almost all grad schools, and students are supposed to thrive in those environments…

    • Aravinda said,

      22 October 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Yes Umang, though I felt while reading Deresiewicz’s book that things were not so bad when I was in college, I also recall that there were classes that had less reading – for example just one 20 page paper per week and we had much more intense discussions.

      Also, I thought much more excitedly about books when they were not assigned, often long after the classes were over. If only we could have had time to talk over these ideas then … c’est la vie.

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