College Admissions and America’s Second-Rate Aristocracy

What quickly came to be known as the “college-admission scandal”—charges being brought against several score of people, including parents, for bribing their children’s way into admission to elite universities—brought to mind Whit Stillman’s 1990 film, Metropolitan. While hinting the children (and their parents) consider themselves the American equivalent of aristocracy, a decidedly unaristocratic hint of desperation nonetheless suffuses their lives.

The issue is not merit. It is consciousness of merit and the coordinate need to justify oneself. The requirement that each generation replicate or even exceed the success of one’s parents in the U.S. makes all the difference relative to authentic aristocracy.

After the initial generation, aristocrats live oblivious to merit. This obliviousness is a luxury American meritocrats can never experience. Consciousness of the possibility of loss creates a fear that makes American elites the vulgar, grasping class we see in the scandal.

Tocqueville suggests in Democracy in America that the critical factor in creating authentic aristocracy is not wealth itself. Rather it is keeping wealth intact across generations, particularly instantiated in land passed from generation to generation. The rotation of wealth or, more particularly, fear of the rotation of wealth, means rich Americans might be as wealthy as aristocrats—wealthier even—but will never replicate aristocratic virtues even as rich Americans replicate aristocratic vices.

Early in Democracy, Tocqueville discusses the seemingly obscure topic of the “laws of inheritance.” He wonders at neglect of these laws as a driving force in human development: “I am astonished that the public law experts, ancient and modern, have not attributed to the laws of inheritance a greater influence in the course of human affairs.” He adds, “They have an incredible influence on the social state of peoples, of which the political laws are only the expression.”

While European aristocracy originated in a meritorious deed by a forefather in the often distant past, the system created subsequent generations unconscious of the possibility of privation. While this can create “sumptuous depravity” among the aristocrats—Tocqueville was not uncritical of aristocracy—it can also have the opposite effect.

The natural and instinctive taste that all men feel for well-being, being thus satisfied without difficulty and without fear, their soul heads elsewhere and becomes attached to some more difficult and grander enterprise, which inspires it and carries it off.

Critical here is that aristocratic well-being is met “without fear.” In contrast, without the intergenerational stability of authentic aristocracy, contingency and fear infects even the richest Americans.

[When] ranks are mixed together and privileges destroyed, when patrimonies are broken up and enlightenment and liberty spread, the desire to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor person, and the fear of losing it to the mind of the rich one . . . .  [Those who possess fortunes] never obtain them without effort and never indulge in them without trembling with fear.

Tocqueville adds that he “never saw among the rich of the United States that proud disdain for material well-being that is sometimes shown even in the midst of the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies.”

Instead of a “proud disdain for material well-being,” fear of loss of status among the rich in the U.S. creates the opposite. The grasping, vulgar competition for admission to elite universities is just the leading edge of the desperation to sustain a family’s all-too-contingent success for yet one more generation.

It’s all done in the name of the children, and fear about their future. A part of it, however, is parental fear about themselves. They fear what it says about one’s parenting when they fail to replicate and sustain their success in their children: their failure when children of an Ivy-league educated couple isn’t also admitted to an Ivy League school. More than anything, however, this grasping, hypercompetitive dynamic creates a grim life for children. The very children parents desire desperately to sustain, but fear they will not.

The parents who bribed their children into selective schools, and those who assisted them, merit prosecution and punishment. But the desperate fear that motivated their behavior goes much deeper, and extends far wider, than this group of parents. They are only a glimpse of the dark side of America’s democratic soul.

Reader Discussion

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on March 15, 2019 at 09:35:38 am

"The grasping, vulgar competition for admission to elite universities is just the leading edge of the desperation to sustain a family’s all-too-contingent success for yet one more generation. "

This would appear to be a fruitless / failing enterprise as *internment* at an elite university dulls rather than heightens mental faculties and instills in the recipients of elite education a disdain for the very practices / beliefs that the "fearful" meritocrats espouse.

Oh, let [they, too] eat cake!

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on March 15, 2019 at 10:51:26 am

L'argent fait tout, as the French say. There is a circular relationship between wealth and status, or more like a snake swallowing its tail. Newly rich bourgeois in the 19th century were often rather desperate in their desire to purchase titles of nobility, and I imagine they wanted heritable titles, which would endure (so they believed) notwithstanding a future reversal of family financial fortune. Of course Tocqueville would know better than I, but I thought that the ancient European titles of nobility were decoupled from wealth; the whole premise of Downton Abbey rests on this, no? By the 19th century wealth and land were not functional substitutes.

I think Rogers misses the real point as it seems Tocqueville did. In America, money standing alone is not a proxy for merit, and in a culture that publicly regards itself as meritocratic, it is not enough to have money to be deemed part of our aristocracy. These kids' chances of retaining the family fortunes and even growing them have nothing to do with any college diploma (see Kardashians, e.g.), so the issue can't be one of rotation of wealth and laws of inheritance. Money does not need to buy tokens of merit to preserve itself. It needs to buy tokens of merit because it is not itself meritorious.

Elite university admittance is still regarded as indicative of merit. It is the closest thing America has to a European title of nobility, and it is not heritable. And while rich parents use their wealth to buy admissions, universities use their wealth to purchase higher US News ranks. A USC graduate is a mere Baronet but maybe by the time of the next US News rankings will have financed its way up to Count or Marquis, while a Duke graduate is an Earl and a Harvard graduate a Duke, amirite?

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Image of QET
on March 15, 2019 at 11:12:33 am

In the current low-prole subculture a S.T.E.M. degree is the only one permissible, and it is suspect. The princes are unionized bolt-turners. The relative aristocracy is perceived in, first, a row of four-wheelers, boats, large SUVs, and pickup trucks under a metal shed, and, second, a large brick-veneer house whose altar to the Lares and Penates is a telescreen the size of Vermont.

Books are suspect save for five high school yearbooks and a large Bible that is never opened.

Literacy beyond a literal, contractual level is suspect.

A MAGA cap is the coronet.

This is stereotyping, but the point of stereotypes is that they are so often true.

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Image of Lawrence
on March 15, 2019 at 11:34:13 am

No doubt there are many of us who can confirm, anecdotally, this archetypal dilemma felt in dynastic terms in upwardly-mobile American families. I was privileged, in the late '50s, as an inland hay-seeder, to attend a prestigious beach city high school with a body of particularly anxious students driven by high-achiever parents. Rumours ran openly of those whose artistic moms and engineer dads not only pushed, but performed much of the academic work that nudged their progeny up the GPA ladder, one to valedictorian of a large graduating class eventuating in scholarships to a renowned school of technology, only to see him back in a year at the hay-seed junior college drawing post-parental C's. It is just a lamentable fact that two superior gene sets do not always hybridize into an even greater set. Yet, given the American mindset this article lays out, the grace to accept is, or was, rarely the de facto family narrative. Hence, generational conflict invaded the plots of daytime television. When the American dream comes true, there is still no perfectly happy ending. A souring anxiety emerges with the realization that the children may lack the vision, talent, or will to maintain the illusion--not even through injections of influential cash. But this is only a small bit of the story--the criminal fudging of college entrance exams--in the search for the leading edge. According to Harari, we are on the verge of a new era of "enhancers" available only to the well-heeled elite: memory enhancing drugs, genetic tampering, Ritalin and related attention-promoting pills for normal kids, tutors and technology camps. Remember the more innocent times when playing Mozart to them in the womb could do the trick? Living vicariously through the achievements of one's offspring is probably hard wired. Culture merely adjusts the forms of its expression. And here we are, facing not only a brave new world of cheating, but of medical and genetic engineering. As the adage goes, if you can't design the curriculum to the kids, design the kids to the curriculum, and better living through technology gains a whole new meaning (also Harari, as I recall). Some, in present circumstances, may be brought to feel shame, but the driving imperative will likely never change, and Americans will devise their unique cultural means for its pursuit. If Dawkins is right, it's just one more of the darker sides of our species.

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Donald Beecher
on March 15, 2019 at 11:47:34 am


Is anyone else like me on this matter.
I could not give a hoot about it.
So what, someone with money paid extra money in order that their child may enjoy the putative benefits of an elite education. Big Deal!
What else are they to do with their money. I, for one, thinks this a much better use of their money, both [personally and for the society at large, than donating that money to some Leftist NGO - Oh wait, is that the Democrat Party.

Moreover, how long before we read stories lamenting the practice of wealthy parents enrolling their children is "elite" private high Schools / Academies. etc. Indeed, the practice includes "elite" pre-schools and Grade schools.

After that we will hear complaints about "cash bail" because it disproportionately inconveniences the poor.
Oops, that is precisely what the Seattle City Clowncil is debating.

Why have money if you cannot make good use of it. Helping your children is preferable to helping the Proggies.

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Image of gabe
on March 15, 2019 at 14:27:48 pm

"The issue is not merit. It is consciousness of merit and the coordinate need to justify oneself...."

Hmmmm, extrapolating beyond referenced admissions revelation, American current contretemps could also be subsumed under aforementioned quoted excerpt. The greater the emphasis (real or imagined) on equal opportunity, the greater the strain on individual self esteem (generational success, even). Robert E. Lane sums it up thus: the greater society's emphasis on equal opportunity, the greater both the need and the difficulty for its members to find a comforting rationalization for their own statuses.

In a game in which the results are alleged to measure relative individual worth and in which the stakes are income, status, and power, the losers (by their lights) will always confront a critical problem of self-image. The problem is how to avoid the conclusion that one's failure is due to some inadequacy within oneself - Rogers referencing the dark side of the American democratic soul cryptically begins to point.

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Image of Anthony
on March 16, 2019 at 15:03:35 pm

“A MAGA cap is the coronet.”

A MAGA cap at a Right To Life March, cannot be construed to be elitist, in fact, how cam America become great again, when our elite and plauralistic system of government merge with the denial of Divine Law?

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Image of Nancy
on March 16, 2019 at 22:06:39 pm

“The problem is how to avoid the conclusion that one’s failure is due to some inadequacy within oneself.”

Most likely, the problem is a narrow definition of success, if one feels inadequate for not having been accepted into an elite school.

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Image of Nancy
on March 17, 2019 at 01:54:26 am

You hit this particular nail squarely on the head, with especial kudos for that second paragraph.

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Image of Max
on May 05, 2019 at 20:17:47 pm

You claim that "the parents who bribed their children into selective schools, and those who assisted them, merit prosecution and punishment." This is false because applying to college is like applying for a job. We don't incarcerate people for lying on their resume nor should we incarcerate people for defrauding a college. If the victim college wants redress, they should take their case to court where the government will adjudicate the dispute. Alternatively, they could screen applicants better. Private businesses take employee screening seriously so why can't colleges do the same?

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Mark J Brophy
on May 05, 2019 at 20:28:09 pm

I don't give a hoot, either, because colleges are criminal organizations. Why should I care if a criminal student defrauds a criminal college? Let them hash it out in court.

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Mark J Brophy

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