The admissions scandal reveals a lot about the characters of the parents, college officials, and others that were involved; more importantly, it points up some unpleasant truths about the state of American higher education today.
None of this could have happened if higher education had not itself become a corrupt institution, featuring low classroom demands, no core knowledge acquisition, low grading standards, fashionable (but society-destroying) left-wing activism, luxury-hotel amenities, endless partying, and huge expense. Students often learn virtually nothing during their college years…
Peggy Noonan, writing in the WSJ about the pressure on kids to become Success Robots:
I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.
In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.’
Indeed, much of the promotion of Higher Ed in the US has been based not on the idea that you will acquire knowledge, which is in itself a worthwhile thing, nor on the idea that you will acquire specific conceptual skills needed for your career, but rather, on the point that you will acquire a Degree, a Credential, a piece of paper. And where ‘elite’ colleges are concerned, a big part of the perceived value of that credential is its scarcity value, quite similar to the scarcity value of a limited-edition print, the plates of which are destroyed after the initial run in order to keep the prices up.
Fifty years ago, Peter Drucker asserted that one of the major advantages America has over Europe is the absence of a narrow educational funnel, in the form of a few ‘elite’ institutions, through which future high-level leaders must pass:
One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…
We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.
It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman.
Parents who participated in the admissions scam seem to have had a view of American society similar to that which Drucker attributed to European society of 50 years ago. And indeed, as I noted above, for some fields, this has even become somewhat true.
To a considerable extent, the real social function of the ‘elite’ college degree in America today is the erection and perpetuation of class barriers: the limitation of social mobility. See this piece by Glenn Reynolds.
If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work. And bribing your way into a flight training program wouldn’t do you any good unless you developed the knowledge to pass the relevant written exam and the skills to convince an FAA Designated Examiner that you knew what you were doing. Unfortunately, too many of America’s colleges seem to be more interested in establishing their admission processes as gateways to success than in demonstrating enough respect for what they profess to be teaching to ensure that their graduates have actually learned something about it when they get that magical certificate.
Drucker also wrote:
The central moral problem of the knowledge society will be the responsibility of the learned, the men of knowledge. Historically, the men of knowledge have not held power, at least not in the West. They were ornaments…But now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement. Scientists and scholars are no longer merely “on tap,” they are “on top.”…
But power and wealth impose responsibility. The learned may have more knowledge than the rest of us, but learning rarely confers wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that the men of knowledge do not realize that they have to acquire responsibility fast. They are no different from any other group that ever before entered into power..They too believe that anyone who questions their motives must be either fool or villain, either “anti-intellectual” or “McCarthyite.” But the men of knowledge, too, will find out that power can be justified only through responsibility…
It is highly probable that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.
I’m not sure university administrators, for the most part, should really count as “the learned”, although they do play that role on TV.