Excellent Sheep

Yesterday an IB2 student wandered into my office and, as often happens with Grade 12 students, within minutes, he began to fill me in on his university plans. He is a good student. He has a terrific list of schools, and he has a very positive relationship with his university counselor. Despite all that he has going for him, the more he talked about these very competitive universities, the more his affect seemed to sag. He seemed to get smaller right in front of my eyes. Even though he has all kinds of personal strengths — and he is a wonderful, wonderful boy — his slumping shoulders suggested a fear that some Admissions Director might find him somehow lacking.

In his new book “Excellent Sheep,” William Deresiewicz claims there is actually a danger in a becoming a “HYPSter” his acronym for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students. According to Mr. Deresiewicz, these institutions are breeding grounds for timid-minded students who are people pleasing, risk-averse, gold star searching, credential accumulators. Deresiewicz doesn’t blame the students; he sees them as victims of an out of whack admissions system that rewards those who jump through mind-numbing academic hoops, without ever giving themselves the opportunity to grapple with life’s important questions, questions such as, “What does it mean to live a good life?” or “How can I define success on my own terms?”

It is easy enough to take shots at snooty schools and their insanely competitive admissions’ standards, but I wonder if some of Deresiewicz criticism might ring true for us? In our personal quest for the illusive 7, do we, too, overlook what is important? If education is more than an elaborate training exercise, if it’s more than a search for power and prestige, do we pause often enough to ask ourselves what we are being educated for? What is the real purpose of the pilgrimage we begin today?

A few years ago, another Grade 12 boy told me that he had worked very hard to get into UCC; that he worked very hard while he was here to get into a competitive university; that he would continue to work very hard in university in order to get a job; where, you guessed it, he would work very hard, so that he could eventually be in a position to send his own son to UCC where he expected he would, in turn, work very hard. Why, he asked, was he doing all of this?

It’s worth noting that one hundred years ago, the Great War, the “war to end all wars” began. It’s been described as “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” I’d like to show you a short clip, taken from the movie “Chariots of Fire” as a way to respond to some of those important questions. Here’s the context: World War I has just ended, and former soldiers have now returned as new students at Cambridge, a HYPSTER school if ever there was one! This scene is of the opening banquet, where the headmaster delivers a short speech during which he addresses issues of purpose. The scene may remind boarders of last night’s dinner, if only we had had the Blue Notes serenading us in the Upper Dining Hall!)




A few observations: The clip begins with a shot of a great board, which honours the Cambridge old boys who had died between 1914-1918. That board may remind you of our own memorial plaques on display in the main foyer, where we honour the UCC old boys who made the same ultimate sacrifice, at the same time, for the same noble cause.


The headmaster then gives a short but profoundly eloquent speech, as all heads of schools want to do, of course on a regular basis. He begins by describing the old boys who had died, “boys who were full of honesty, and goodness, zeal, vigor, and intellectual promise. The flower of a generation. The glory of England and all that England stands for.”


The headmaster’s words, by the way, also describe you. You might bristle a bit at being described as “the flower of a generation” but that’s what you are. We don’t believe the admissions office made a mistake with your application. There were lots of bright and talented boys, boys with great promise who desperately wanted to be here in Laidlaw Hall with you this morning. For many good reasons, you are the fortunate few who have been blessed with this extraordinary opportunity. And we have great hopes for you.


Which leads me, at long last, to my takeaway, which echoes the headmaster’s final word of advice to his new students. “Let me exhort you. Let each of you discover where your true chance at greatness lies.”


A proper British school head would not have felt comfortable with language like “ignite curiosity, imagination, and passion” but that’s really what he is saying. “Discover where your true chance at greatness lies.” Find what makes your heart sing. Follow your bliss. Discover where time disappears. However you want to parse this sentiment, I hope that as you begin to explore the worlds and wonders of chemistry, Copernicus, soccer, and Shakespeare, this year you will find – not just hoops to jump through or gold stars to collect, but I hope you will find what excites you. “Seize this chance. Rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.”



11 thoughts on “Excellent Sheep

  1. Realistically, most UCC boys have no chance of getting into a HYPSter school. UCC boys are told they are the flower of a generation, the best, the cream. Truth is that is true of a handful, just as it is true of a handful of boys at any school in the country. The boys’ shoulders sag under the weight of parental expectation.
    I’ve sat in Laidlaw. It’s just another place to park your rear end.

    1. I wouldn’t define “success” as gaining admissions to a HYPSter school. I think our boys succeed in a wide variety of places.

      I can’t tell you where most of my colleagues attended university. It’s just not that important to anyone over the age of 24.

      What matters, I think, is who you are, and what you can do.

  2. Great message! I wish I received this message in Laidlaw Hall over 7 years ago but sadly, I probably wasn’t listening anyways!

  3. I think that Dr. Power raises a good point, but I feel that UCC is just as guilty as the institutions that he mentions in his article, if not more so. UCC pressures students into attending post-secondary university from a very young and impressionable age. I remember being in Year 1 or 2 (Grade 8 and 9) and having senior members of the administration speak to my math class about how 100% of UCC students attend university, and that we should have our future goals already in mind. At that age I was more concerned with playing Xbox then what my career was going to be. Students that young are convinced that they should follow a certain path, and then they become disillusioned when they arrive at university. I’ve seen a large number of my peers dropout after first or second year because they weren’t ready for the change, or that it wasn’t what they expected despite what they were told in high school. The fact that students are pressured to attend university and that UCC is structured to guide students down such a singular path results in UCC contributing to the problems that Mr. Deresiewicz describes in his book. This also promotes, perhaps accidently, the mindset that students should be focused on the wealth and prestige that comes with attending certain post-secondary schools. Should students have goals in life? Absolutely. However, there are many different paths in life, and university is not the right one for everyone. Dr. Power has the best intentions when he tells students to “discover where your true chance at greatness lies”, but until UCC changes the way it mentors its students, it will do little to help them discover those chances for greatness.

    1. Schools are certainly at fault of perpetuating that which they already know. Every faculty member holds a B.Ed. (at the least) and thus they all have drank the university-bound Kool-Aid. It is up to students like you to buck the trend and show those teachers what success truly looks like.

  4. Two comments.
    Unlike Duloc (the “perfect place” in Shrek), life does take its twists and turns along the way, as the frustrated IB students will continue to learn. The path is not always straight or obvious.
    At the end of the film “Dead Poets Society”, Robin Williams the “unconventional” faculty member, challenged his students to “carpe diem” or seize the day, which is exactly what the Headmaster had suggested at the opening dinner….

  5. Carpe Diem Jim. This is an excellent post and to be punctuated by the remarkable Headmaster’s comments is brilliant.

    Also so appropriate on this the 100th anniversary of the start of the War to end all Wars.

  6. Carpe Diem.
    Jim – this is an excellent post and most relevant on the 100 anniversary of the War to end all Wars. The headmaster’s clip is remarkable. Bravo

  7. Well said – shared with our secondary department out here at my school .

    UCC’s ability to question its own hallowed halls and in so doing bring more from its boys than simple gold stars is what gives me confidence that UCC can and just might retain its place in the educational landscape for good reason, not merely due to history.

  8. Dear Jim,

    You (like me) are such a romantic. Chariots of Fire and all the old-school virtues: sportsmanship, modesty, perseverance, friendship, high purpose, grace. Bravo! I read Deresiewicz’s synoptic version of his book in the New Republic and forwarded it to several of my colleagues. I think he nails it.

    Thanks for the chance to enjoy your latest.

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