Like many people, I am somewhat concerned by the stories of parents who spent outrageous sums of money to secure entrance for their children into prestigious universities. But let’s not talk about top universities’ wealthy donors right at the moment. That’s not a practice that’s going to stop anytime soon.
Cheating to Get In
What I am more worried about are the cases where parents cheated to get their children into schools like Yale, USC, and Stanford. (After all, donating 10 million dollars toward a new dorm to grease the skids for your kid to get into a college isn’t cheating, it’s just good business. The mistake these celebrity parents made was in thinking that they could get their kids into Yale for a mere 500,000 dollar bribe. Plebeians!) I am not concerned for the reasons most people seem to be, however. Most people seem concerned that these students got into Yale, USC, and Stanford unfairly. I am more worried about those children. As Sir Thomas More tells Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”
But for Yale? Heaven help us, what kind of education do you think those kids are going to get there? Granted it’s the natural follow-up to several years at Self-Righteous Dilettante Prep. But at Yale, they will likely lose any chance at a real liberal arts education of the sort that would shock them out of their comfortable complacency and encourage them — or allow them — to start questioning and thinking for themselves. It’s a tragic no win-no win. They spend mountains of money cheating to get in, and then they get cheated out of mountains of money on the education their children receive.
Prestige or Substance?
Oh, I know: it’s Yale and it’s Stanford. And they’re prestigious. So is a Rolls-Royce, but it’s still a lousy car that needs too many expensive repairs.
And what makes for prestige in an educational institution? Are the students really educated better? Do they have the kind of moral principles — have they developed the moral virtues — that will serve the nation well in the future? Are they able to think critically and creatively across disciplinary boundaries and in new ways? Are they hard-working? Are they “teachable?” Can they re-train themselves again and again as they economy and world situation changes? Do they understand people? Do they care about their fellow men and women? Can they become “servant leaders?” Isn’t an educational institution supposed to be about what it can do for the students, not about the prestige of the school?
This “cheating scandal” is the kind of thing you get in a celebrity culture that has lost its sense of what an education is for. These parents (and let’s be honest, they are far from the only ones) view education primarily as a credential. What happens in the classroom; what their children study, what they read, what kind of mentoring they get, what kind of spiritual, moral, and intellectual journey they engage in — all of this was simply beside the point. What happens in college is a black box. You pay mountains of money and at the end they give you a diploma, whether you can read, write, do mathematics, think analytically, show up on time for class, or not.
The Best and the Brightest: Sow’s Ears and Silk Purses
Even a very smart guy like Justice Scalia once told an American University law student that her chances of getting a Supreme Court clerkship were very low because, “By and large, I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest [well, maybe not all the time], and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?”
First, the saying is the reverse, “you can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear,” but no, it’s not okay. Because you don’t judge a school by what goes in one end of the pipe-line, but by what comes out the other end. Any school in the nation can take the best and brightest students and turn them into mediocre dilettantes (turning silk purses into sow’s ears), which is what many of the top schools do. What a great school does is take the hard-working middle and help them become great. Because it has always been the hard-working middle that has been the key to America’s survival and success.
To his credit, Justice Scalia acknowledged that Jeffrey Sutton, now a federal appeals judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was first hired by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., and later worked for Scalia, was “one of the very best law clerks I ever had.” But he also admitted “I wouldn’t have hired Jeff Sutton. For God’s sake, he went to Ohio State!” Ohio? Heaven help us! What’s next? Nebraska? Oklahoma? Texas? Could the republic possibly survive?
The Unprivileged Middle
I would have told him this story. I have a student, a Hispanic mother, who is tremendously bright, works hard in class, takes care of her husband and son, writes well, grasps concepts quickly, and is, in fact, one of the best students in my class. What she lacks is the kind of swagger and moxie one sees in many of the students at the top schools. But I like that. I admire her quiet competence more than the mouthy mediocrity with no substance I see too often. She doesn’t do much for the prestige of my university, since she’s married, with children, not a single “progressive” Hispanic woman headed for an elite position in Washington, D.C. or New York. But let’s be clear, the university exists for her and others like her.
Too many people, including Supreme Court justices, have indulged for far too long the idiotic notion that the future of America should be in the hands of the so-called “best and brightest” who graduate from places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. There are plenty of excellent graduates from those institutions, but plenty of lousy ones as well. It would be wrong to discriminate against those students just because they went to those schools, but it would be equally foolish to discriminate in their favor just because they went there. The consequence of doing the latter is that businesses, politicians, and Supreme Court justices (all of whom at present graduated from either Harvard or Yale Law School) are not searching out the amazing potential that exists throughout the nation in places where people have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and a different set of values. That kind of narrow-minded, prejudiced, prestige-mongering is killing us.
O dear parents, Yale? You sold your soul for a chance to hang that symbol of dubious prestige around your neck? At least when Judas lost his soul, he got thirty pieces of silver. In modern top-ranked American universities, you lose your soul, and you give them the thirty pieces of silver. No one should say the devil isn’t ingenious. And he’s got too many of us by our greedy throats.
Forget Yale. Forget the whole pack of prestige-mongering schools. We need a future generation of young people who obtained a real education and can think outside of the narrow categories of the current ruling elite. More of us need to “just say no.” No to vanity and empty prestige. No to what the chic magazine covers are telling us. No to what the “elite” are thinking and doing. No to college education as an empty credential. But yes to an actual education reading the best works of the best minds in history. Yes to developing real skills of reading, writing, and clear thinking rather than merely gaining the knack for adding more empty verbiage to a media world overstuffed with it. Yes to a deeper appreciation for truth, justice, and beauty as it has been expressed in works that have passed the test of time and have shown themselves to be powerful guides to justice and ordered liberty.
Until Americans embrace again the notion that a real education of the sort Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington had is both worthwhile and important, an education in the classic liberal arts tradition, whether one gets it in a university or not, and not a faux education for celebrity or prestige such as is too often being sold to the highest bidder on the market currently, I fear our sickness will only grow worse.
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