Their overriding goal is not enlightenment

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The admissions scandal is an opportunity to separate the lofty mythology of college from the sordid reality:

Despite the grand aspirations that students avow on their admission essays, their overriding goal is not enlightenment, but status.

Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.

What, then, is the point of sneaking into an elite school, if you lack the ability to master the material? If the cheaters planned to major in one of the rare subjects with clear standards and well-defined career paths — like computer science, electrical engineering or chemistry — this would be a show-stopping question. Most majors, however, ask little of their students — and get less. Standards were higher in the 1960s, when typical college students toiled about 40 hours a week. Today, however, students work only two-thirds as hard. Full-time college has become a part-time job.

If computer-science students slacked off like this, employers would soon notice. Most of their peers, however, have little reason to dread a day of reckoning — because, to be blunt, most of what college students study is irrelevant in the real world. Think of all the math, history, science, poetry and foreign language you had to study in school — if you can. Indeed, you’ve probably long since forgotten most of what you learned about these subjects. Few of us use it, so almost all of us lose it. The average high school student studies a foreign language for a full two years, but, according to my own research, less than 1% of American adults even claim they gained fluency in a classroom.

Why do employers put up with such a dysfunctional educational system? Part of the answer is that government and donors lavish funding on the status quo with direct subsidies, student loans and alumni donations. As a result, any unsubsidized alternative, starved of resources, must be twice as good to do half as well. The deeper answer, though, is that American higher education tolerably performs one useful service for American business: certification. Most students at places like Yale and Stanford aren’t learning much, but they’re still awesome to behold if you’re looking to fill a position. Ivy Leaguers are more than just smart; when tangible rewards are on the line, they’re hardworking conformists. They hunger for conventional success. From employers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter if college fosters these traits or merely flags them. As long as elite students usually make excellent employees, the mechanism doesn’t matter.

So why cheat your kid into the Ivy League or a similarly elite school? For the lifelong benefits of corrupt certification. When I was in high school, my crusty health teacher loved to single out a random teen and scoff, “You’re wanted … for impersonating a student.” If you can get your less-than-brilliant, less-than-driven child admitted, he’ll probably get to impersonate a standardly awesome Ivy League graduate for the rest of his life. Of course, the superrich parents the FBI is accusing could have just let their kids skip college and live off their trust funds, but it’s not merely a matter of money. It’s also about youthful self-esteem — and parental bragging rights.


  1. Graham says:

    Well history was my passion and best subject from childhood. Thank goodness I got to study it at university level in the last days before the end.

    I tend to think all the stuff one is taught in public and high school is to:

    1. See if anything catches your fancy enough that it fires your imagination, you can be a real student of it, or at least one day use it at work or as a citizen. It’s all about student identification and possible direction here.

    2. Give you some sense of just how much there is to know that you do not know, that you might want to tackle some of it, or at least come away with a sobering sense of your own ignorance.

    3. Give you a corresponding sense of how much humanity in aggregate has learned, and the sense you can partake of as much or as little as you can, so that you know that despite #2, much can be learned and has been, and it’s available to you to take what you can handle. TO give you some sense of possibility.

    Naturally, schools do not seem to think of it this way, or provide a realistic range to a realistic range of kids, what with the all go to college mindset. But I’d hate to have some of the more academic stuff removed from the menu off the bat. Not unless we really are ending liberal democracy.

    Like progressives, I don’t want to be governed by the clueless. We just disagree on who they are.

  2. Say What? says:

    College was supposed to be about learning, cultivation, understanding one’s civilization, then preserving and adding to it. It was not meant to be a job certification center. Employers, businesses and general labor-mania have destroyed the “City of the Mind.” I highly doubt that all of this is necessary for the workforce, and said workforce protests a bit too much if this is brought up. We need a separation of education and work. Stop making people go to college who don’t belong there, school is for math, history, languages and the like. Stop letting the market infiltrate every aspect of life. The entire social system of the current west needs to be radically overhauled.

  3. Adar says:

    Schooling in the scholastic system, learned in the classics a thing long gone. Was used however until relatively recently even in universities such as Harvard. A knowledge of Latin, Greek, even Hebrew a requirement. Gone forever?

  4. TRX says:

    What many people have a hard time understanding is that the “education” part of a Name college degree is valueless. Many of them put their entire curricula online, or you can show up in person and audit classes for free. You get the exact same education, but you don’t get the diploma.

    That’s because colleges aren’t in the business of selling education, they’re in the business of selling diplomas. They restrict access to justify higher prices.

  5. Graham says:

    I always wondered, do universities police the number and type of people who audit classes? If so, how? Do you have to get written permission?

  6. Bill says:

    I discovered an ominous trend when looking at US News college rankings yesterday (I was curious about USC). It turns out that the ranking system now promotes not only diversity on campus, but also graduation diversity.

    In other words, it is no longer enough for colleges to give the opportunity to a more diverse group of students. The new algorithm only rewards the desired outcome, which is more diverse diploma holders.

    This would be the “guaranteed outcome” problem we’ve all been worrying about.

  7. CVLR says:

    Graham: “I always wondered, do universities police the number and type of people who audit classes? If so, how? Do you have to get written permission?”

    Probably not. If you didn’t look entirely out of place, no one in admin or security would even notice. Verbal assent from the prof, probably enough.

  8. Scott says:

    Albert Jay Nock figured this out 90 years ago.

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