Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Excellent Sheep"

A seminary rabbi told over this story: There was a girl who was seminary perfect in every way. Attendance, grades, attire—the Mary Poppins of seminary girls. 
When she returned home, she confessed, "I am living a lie." 

David Brooks, in "Becoming a Real Person," references William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.
Deresiewicz argues that once, that was the point of college. When one is away from home, becoming exposed to great thinkers, one's mind can expand into something individual and unique.

But colleges today no longer provide that experience. 
Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.
The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.
Doesn't that sound an awful lot like the current dating scene? 

I'm going to make a leap here, but I am going to assume that the seminary girl had had shidduchim on the mind. 

I wonder how many people—male, as well as female—are not doing what they would most like to do in life because it's "bad for shidduchim." Yet, I have not yet witnessed an example of anyone who was so "out there" in their choices that they couldn't get married. But it is still considered a valid explanation. 
Steven Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “ . . . I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. . .”
I'm going to be blunt again: Some people are followers. They just want to fit in. They don't want a special calling. They want to do what "everyone else" is doing, and they don't want to stand out at all. That's fine; that's who they are. But I get annoyed when they fall back on "bad for shidduchim," a nice, safe, socially-acceptable excuse for why they lead clone-like existences.
Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control. . . But . . . An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.
Daters, certainly, feel as though we are being rated nowadays. That's thanks to the internet, according to Delia Ephron in "Ouch. My Personality, Reviewed." She thought that she was done with report cards. Ha. 
All those larger-than-life Biblical heroes and heroines who struck out on different paths—none of them were single because they broke molds. But we project our own insecurities on the community at large, blaming it like some sort of Big Brother entity if we desire to "check all the boxes." Sure, there will always be that obnoxious person who will gleefully tell one what one's "mistake" was, but that doesn't make them everyone, nor right.      


Daniel Saunders said...

I completely agree, about university as well as dating. (Although university is arguably wasted on the young.)

Certainly I want to be an individual, but I get scared of rejection! I'm not just talking about dating. I play down my frum-ness with non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, I sometimes hide from the frum community the fact I occasionally read non-Orthodox religious thinkers and that I don't just watch TV, but have had a TV-related blog.

None of this has ever got me anywhere and revealing more aspects of my personality has usually not been problematic. So I am trying to be more true to myself. But scars from childhood can be slow to heal and it is easier to sound confident online than to be confident in real life...

Princess Lea said...

"it is easier to sound confident online than to be confident in real life..."

Oh, yeah.

lirehagi said...

I can understand why people want to conform. It's safe, cozy and everyone accepts you.

I used to feel like how your post sounds- that people should LIVE because they are worth something, and not live in the shadow of societal agendas. Now though, I really understand. It's hard to stand alone with your true self on display, especially when most people don't like your true self all that much (seriously, people who naturally have all the right thoughts and opinions are naturally conforming and not thinking about this).

I used to disdain the conformers and now I just feel compassion for them.

Princess Lea said...

Some people's identity is "conformer." That's how they were set up, that's what they aspire to. That's cool. What annoys me is when they foist their reasons for not being unique on "bad for shidduchim" or something like that. At least take ownership of your conformity!