Many a Yalie flocked to hear William Deresiewicz’s controversial Master’s Tea on Wednesday. In what was essentially a more subdued presentation of the indictments presented in his book Excellent Sheep and in essays like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” Deresiewicz spoke at length about the alleged cultural and institutional problems with the Ivy League.

The first twenty minutes seemed like a calculated attempt to diffuse palpable tensions in the room. A discursive anecdote about Deresiewicz’s travels to India ended with a whimsical and decidedly uncontroversial life lesson: life should prepare you for “doing things without knowing why you are doing them.” This tone—moralizing, vaguely philosophical—characterized the bulk of his advice to students.

Finding your passion “has become a cliché” said Deresiewicz. “It’s not a useful way to think about it.” Instead, we should speak about finding a purpose. And “if you haven’t found it by the end of college, that’s fine.” When asked about the tension between being open to new experiences and living with a sense of purpose, Deresiewicz struggled for a moment. “That’s a hard question,” he admitted, before going on to describe “that state, where it seems like some kind of unity between the body and the mind.” Suffice to say, he did little to answer the question.

This was not the only instance of evasive abstraction. On the topic of leadership, Deresiewicz derided the term as a “buzzword” on college campuses synonymous with “becoming a bigshot.” What it should mean, he concluded, was “doing some good for other people,” something that can “only happen if you have a strong sense of self.” A charitable reading of this response would be well-intentioned—if faintly platitudinous—advice. But the consistent opacity of his replies felt frustratingly familiar after the nebulous (and some would say contradictory) tone of the articles that have been published as excerpts from his book.

Yale’s so-called sheep generally kept their questions civil. Nonetheless, there were a few notably uncomfortable moments. When asked about how financial and social constraints can limit students’ personal and professional options, Deresiewicz was quick to alert the audience to the existence of special cost-effective graduate school programs. After this unsolicited non sequitur, he asserted that“a compromise is not a capitulation,” and that “a Yale degree means it will be very hard not to make a good living.” Few audience members appeared entirely satisfied with that answer.

After a fair bit of digression, instruction, and equivocation, Deresiewicz ended on a didactic coda: “despite the cost, college is still the best investment you can make…don’t forget about earning a living, don’t forget about learning something, but don’t forget about all this other stuff.” Hopefully, Yale students have learned enough by now to judge for themselves the merits of Deresiewicz’s recommendations.

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