Sins of Admissions

You might have heard the adage, “There will be prayer in schools as long as there are tests in schools.” The same goes for cheating on tests.

There will be bribery, deception, extortion, and other crimes as long as old Adam walks the earth. That, at least, was my initial reaction to the college-admissions scandal. Are we, to borrow Stanley Fish’s phrase, surprised by sin?

Clearly, however, my reaction was unusual. Many Americans are fixated on the story. Talk radio, I gather, could not get enough of it. What did I miss? America has an elites problem. Again, that is not news. Reconciling our creed of egalitarianism with the reality of elite leadership has been a tricky business since the Founding. Consider the great debate between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on that topic. In our generation, the problem is focused on our schools, the selective ones in particular. Admission to an elite school seems to be the entrée to the upper echelons of American society.

Were we well-governed, and were it apparent that people who are doing well financially seemed to be decent people who treated their fellow Americans with respect, the problem would be much less acute. If the election of Donald Trump signifies anything, it is that many Americans are unhappy. As several commentators have noted, for many, electing Trump was a way of extending a giant, metaphorical middle finger in the direction of our elites.

Kushner and the Bobos

But the Trump-haters also represent an important constituency. Their reaction to the admissions scandal is instructive. The Clinton voters I know tend to have come out of elite schools. They seem to think this scandal is not about elite colleges in general but is confined to “them.” This “them” is the corrupt folks who might brandish credentials they didn’t earn. Jared Kushner, so the story goes, was admitted to Harvard only after his father wrote the institution a very large check. The President’s son-in-law is one of “them.” He did not deserve to be at Harvard. Similarly, he, like the President, is a builder and entrepreneur. That is not the business model preferred by the chattering classes. Other than in the tech industry, the new class, to use a slightly old term for the group David Brooks calls Bobos, does not include old-fashioned entrepreneurs.  

Writing in the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, who taught and then served as a guidance counselor at an elite Los Angeles prep school, reflects that a certain number of the parents at the school were the kind of entitled boors who would be perfectly willing to cheat and bribe to get their kid into an elite university.  

One political scientist I know saw a story indicating that at least one of the parents who falsified his offspring’s college application was a Trump supporter. Typical, he thought. Confirmation bias, I thought, for the scandal seems to be mostly focused in coastal cities in blue states and includes Hollywood people. Flanagan notes that the parents she knew tended to be “limousine liberals.” It would in fact be a surprise, to me at least, if MAGA folks predominated. (The Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson found that the cheating parents’ political donations are not confined to, but certainly skew toward, the Democratic Party.)

There has also been some discussion on the Left of affirmative action in the context of the scandal. If this nonsense goes on, and if athletes and children of alumni get special treatment, so the logic goes, why is it bad to give a bump to minority applicants? That this attitude clashes with the resentment of the Kushners merely reminds us that few of us are always consistent. Rather than advocating stricter enforcement of merit (or what is understood to be such), in this case the argument is that if the standards don’t always apply, there is no reason not to apply them to ensure a “diverse” student body. (Interestingly, Heather Mac Donald notes that a study of legacy admissions at Middlebury College found that the SAT scores of those admitted because family members were alumni were higher than the class average.)

On the other side, conservatives believe that the current system is fundamentally wrong. Our elite schools have become training grounds for snobbish and materialistic Lefties, rather than places where genuine learning takes place. Moreover, conservatives have a bias against the kind of concentrated system of elite power that today’s “best schools” represent. By contrast, progressives, true to their technocratic roots, are invested in an American version of the ancient Chinese model (the national administrative test). It would work in the United States too were it not for those meddling rich folks, and the way they leverage their resources and connections to even more wealth and power.  

The Trump-supporting types suspect that the scandal is indicative of a broader corruption in our elite institutions in general. There might not be that many who use actual bribery, but the entire system of elite schools and tracking is itself unfair to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. Perhaps more important is the perception that what goes on on campus is not education but credentialing. That also explains the fascination with the rise of “snowflakes,” “trigger warnings,” “hate-speech regulations” and the like on campus—all are taken by conservatives as signs that these campuses do not deserve the moral, political, or and economic respect they have long enjoyed.

In the 1996 movie Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer, playing a roguish U.S. Navy captain, is dressed down by an admiral: “You are addressing a superior officer.” He responds, “No. Merely a higher ranking one.” That’s the attitude.

The Inevitability of an Old Boys Network

Finishing school has been with us nearly forever, of course. John Winthrop went to Cambridge University for a couple of years, taking no degree, as befitted a gentleman. Franklin Roosevelt was content with his “gentleman’s C” at Harvard. In the early 20th century, the old boys’ network was very much part of the system. If memory serves, Hotchkiss sent boys to Yale and Exeter sent them to Harvard. So launched, graduates were very well positioned to move into the upper echelons of American society. But before the Progressive Era, the elite class in the United States was more federal than national. It was diverse across the states, and there were a range of ways to break in. Attending Exeter and Harvard was close to sufficient to launch one’s career. It was by no means a necessary condition.

Nowadays, with the rise of a national administrative state, a national and increasingly international economy, and the political and economic institutions that attach to globalism, such credentials threaten to become both necessary and sufficient, unfortunately. We the People don’t seem to have any real ability to rule, or even influence, our government.

Moreover, the same applies increasingly to our culture. Movies friendly to middle America are rare. Networks try to kill shows like Last Man Standing. More broadly, the effort to say that everyone who disagrees with the latest progressive moral fad is a bigot, the equivalent of Bull Connor, generates resentment. Hence the backlash that Trump represents. And hence the MAGA enjoyment of the sight of corrupt elites’ getting exposed. This scandal (unlike some others we could mention) vindicates their votes.

A funny thing happened on the way to technocracy: Few people actually like it. Moreover, as John Adams pointed out long ago, it is not only inevitable that a society will have an elite class, it also seems to be inevitable that many in that class will gain elite status for no good reason. My favorite reaction to The Bell Curve (1994) was an article in Newsweek (if memory serves) showing that good looks give one a much greater boost in life than does IQ. (That was what Adams meant when he called beauty a “talent.” It gives one a edge in life.) The graduates of elite schools who worked their buns off to get where they are are very reluctant to admit that their entire model of how society ought to work is flawed because it ignores human nature. 

The bien pensant technocrats who fill our government bureaucracies and universities assume that what is learned on campus actually matters. Does it? No one wants to come out and say that his or her degree was more about the laying on of hands than about hitting the books. Yet, more and more, that seems to be what’s going on.

It is not just that Trump got elected, although that is a trigger. It is also that crony capitalism—itself partly an artifact of big government, for the more government regulates, the more connections matter, and America is in danger of imitating Europe in this regard—is making some people a great deal more wealthy and powerful than most of our well-credentialed professionals are. That the technocratic/meritocratic model is, in fact, simply one that does not square with human nature or a functioning society is not allowed to be the problem. Supposedly the problem is that corrupt actions—committed by “them”—got in the way.   

My own view is, what kind of fool expected the progressive model to evolve differently? Given human nature, we are witnessing the most likely outcome.

All Is Not Lost

Before signing off, I should add a final note on our schools, elite and otherwise. What are they teaching? I believe it was at a Thanksgiving dinner in graduate school (I was at the University of Virginia) that we found ourselves discussing our undergraduate experiences. Among the assembled, who included people pursuing professional degrees and doctorates in academic subjects, the consensus was that the most memorable and important part of their undergraduate years was not the classroom experience. It was this trip, or that competition, or some other such side activity. I was puzzled, and noted that if what we learn in the classroom is not the heart of college, then we are doing it wrong.  

Perhaps that is too harsh. True education is rare, and few of us really want to make the sacrifices it entails. And great books are often wasted on the young. Not many 18-year-olds can appreciate Marcus Aurelius.

All is not lost on campus, however. So long as there are good books and intelligent teachers, education will (sometimes) happen. Sometimes students who, on paper, have no business being on a particular campus suddenly catch the fire of learning. Mike Piazza was, I gather, drafted in the last round of the baseball draft as a favor to his father by his friend Tommy Lasorda. He is about to enter the Hall of Fame. Such turns, though similarly rare, can also happen in education.  The belief that liberal education can be scaled up to suit an entire democratic society is a myth. Too few want it. Most of us would rather master the art of getting along and getting ahead.

Now that the myth that justifies our national education system is being exposed, we need to figure out what to do next. Mass higher education is the model for a national technocracy. It is a 20th century idea whose time seems to be passing. The admissions scandal is one important sign of that.