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Review Essay

Class and the Classroom

How Elite Universities Are Hurting America

In This Review

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
By William Deresiewicz
Free Press, 2014, 256 pp. $26.00 Purchase

One of the most fruitful ideas to emerge from twentieth-century social theory is Max Weber’s notion of the “iron cage” of purposive rationality. Weber argued that once some principle of organization—market competition, say, or ideological orthodoxy—has achieved dominance in the spheres of production and governance, the rest of a society’s institutions find themselves gradually but inexorably adopting the same principle. In an ideology-dominant society, everything fluid turns to stone; in a market-dominant society, everything solid melts into air.

Not everything, of course. The iron cage is, like most other useful theoretical notions, an ideal type. All societies retain protected (or neglected) spaces where not-yet-rationalized traditions and communities flourish. Still, although the mills of rationalization turn slowly, they grind exceedingly fine. In time, Weber believed, every practice or institution in a modern society, regardless of its original purpose, experiences an irresistible pressure to adapt to the society’

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