The True Scandal of College Admissions

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Around the Ides of March, the college admissions scandal became America’s most popular news story. Many people were surprised, and very unhappily surprised, to learn that there was widespread cheating on college admissions. As someone who teaches in a college, I was shocked, but not surprised. I’ll tell you why.

A few years ago, I enjoyed one of my few social encounters with the very rich. I was invited, along with several other faculty members, to a country club lunch for graduating seniors from the town’s best prep school. The food was pretty good, and the people — the students and their parents — were very nice. There was no agenda, but the topic of conversation soon became the terror gripping both parents and children — the hideous, enormous, overwhelming fear that the kids wouldn’t get into college. All of them were applying to seven or eight schools, including one or two C-rate schools in case they were rejected by the better ones.

I reminded everybody that the kids were attending a high school with a great reputation, and that (as I had been told) they had good grades and high test scores, so of course they’d get into a good college. My words did nothing to dispel the terror, which was irrational and obsessive. It was as if the kids had cancer and were desperately trying to find a doctor — any doctor — who could cure it. The possibility that the cancer didn’t exist meant nothing at all.

In our time, the idea of college inspires unnatural respect and, consequently, unnatural anxiety. The students I met at the country club were well motivated; they would probably do well in college and get some intellectual benefit from it — if they and their parents could ever relax for a moment and indulge a bit of intellectual curiosity. But what shall we say of the millions of other kids who have no purpose in attending college except to receive a credential of purportedly exalted social status? They are wasting their time; the credential is false. It’s a credential awarded for nothing but showing up — as is particularly evident in the millions of instances in which the college itself, whether “noted” or not, is merely a degree mill; the courses passed are such as anyone can, and will, pass, addressed to subjects that are not worth knowing, and taught by professors who spend half their time in political agitation and the other half burnishing their resumes with absurd or empty “publications.”

America is a country that provides commencement ceremonies for kids who graduate from kindergarten — complete with tiny diplomas testifying to the fact that, yes, praise God, they made it! America is a country in which orgies of tearful congratulation are lavished on the “long, hard work” of young men and women who manage to leave high school without knowing how to read or write. America is a country that annually bestows upon higher education approximately two-thirds of a trillion dollars, the majority of which is spent on the production of credentials that are significant only because Americans assume that you are not significant without one.

In this context, the fact that a few (all right, a lot of) parents are willing to spend a fortune bribing colleges to admit their offspring, without any concern for the offspring’s desires or talents, or for the ethics of buying a status that is meaningful only if it results from intellectual achievement — no, that fact should not be surprising. Taken as a sign of the national mentality, however, it is certainly shocking, and still more shocking when one hears politician after politician proposing that the imaginary glory of attending college be passed out free, to all, like the shopping ads that cram your mailbox. America is now a place where everyone demands certification, even if it is the kind of certification that anyone — anyone, that is, with any values — should recognize as utterly and obviously bereft of meaning. Yes, that’s shocking, but at this point it is also quite predictable.

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