On “excellent sheep” in the corporate university

University of Virginia English Professor, Mark Edmundson:

Universities now teem with people who must do what people who work in corporations do: be responsive to their superiors, direct their underlings, romance their Blackberries, subordinate their identities, refrain from making mistakes, keep a gimlet eye always on the bottom line. Organization men and women have come, and they are doing what they can—for an administrator must administer something—to influence the shape of the university. Are they having an influence on the students? Often they don’t have to, for many of our students—not all, many—are already organization men and women. Though “organization man” is not the name in favor now; the current term of art is “leader.”

How does a young person begin to qualify to become what is now called a leader? The essayist William Deresiewicz talks about the endless series of hoops that students have to jump through now if they hope to get into the right colleges: “Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors.” What you get at the end, he says, are “great kids who [have] been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers.” They are, as one member of the generation observes, “excellent sheep.”

All colleges and universities want leaders. They recruit them from high school. They cultivate them once they have arrived. Colleges are determined to graduate leaders and send them into the world to become prosperous and grateful alumni. But who is a leader? A leader is someone who is drawn to organizations, learns their usages, internalizes their rules. He merges his identity with that of the organization. He always says “we.” He starts at the bottom, a leader in training. Then he progresses, always by gradual steps, as close to the top as his powers will allow. He begins “mentoring” other leaders. In his ascent, he is assiduous to get along with people. He blends in like a white moth on a white-washed picket fence. Everyone likes him. He gives no offense, and, where possible, he takes none. He questions the presiding powers, but in the manner of a minor angel, inquiring into the ways of his more opulently fledged brethren.

Under the Sign of Satan: William Blake in the Corporate University (The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2012)


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