The celebrity college admissions scandal feels tremendously validating. I don’t mean I’m reveling in the misfortune of vapid celebrities with disagreeable politics, although if I’m being honest, my schadenfreude meter blew past acceptable levels for a practicing Christian as soon as the story broke.
I mean this: As soon as my wife and I started talking about marriage, we started talking about having kids, and as soon as we started talking about having kids, we started talking about what a good education for them would look like. That’s not a terribly uncommon sequence of events for college-educated couples who decide to get married.
However, my wife and I have a very different view of what a proper education looks like than does American culture writ large. Our primary goal is that we raise children who continue to practice our Lutheran faith and have stable, child-rearing families.
Yes, concerns about career achievement and financial security are in the mix, but only insofar as they are necessary to support their family, church, and community, and do not otherwise interfere with a life focused on higher things. We believe inculcating specific values such as gratitude, selflessness, charity, and a diligent work ethic is a recipe for their happiness.
Decisions related to educational philosophy have dominated our lives. We made significant financial sacrifices to move close to where our Lutheran church’s classical school is located, and we are actively involved in the school as parents and members of the congregation. I have educated myself in classical curricula and pedagogy, and I’m even on the school board.
Getting good grades at my children’s school requires even the good students to grow and face challenges. The school encourages self-sufficiency among students, and is not afraid for children to face consequences for bad behavior and mistakes. This is what I want for my children, precisely because I want what’s best for them.
We’re Not in the Rat Race, But Elites Are
But, as has been so well illustrated by the college admissions scandal, America’s elites, much less our educational institutions, don’t seem to give one whit about the idea that education should be first and foremost designed to produce moral and competent citizenry. The end goal for them is preserving and passing on their elite status to their children, and in the case of the universities, making enormous amounts of money off the anxiety surrounding this goal.
As a friend of mine who’s no stranger to dealing with wealthy and powerful people put it, “It’s not an exaggeration to say [elite colleges are] the central organizing obsession for a large segment of American society. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And that system’s roles as both central feature and obsession have only gotten more so over recent decades, as (a) anxiety over the future keeps getting worse, (b) focus on elite colleges as the main avenue to avoid that risk has only increased and (c) the difficulty of getting into the elite colleges has skyrocketed.”
In this respect, this scandal has captured our attention like few news stories as of late — and that’s clearing a high bar. The populist frame of discussion over the last however many years is premised on the idea that the system is rigged to benefit the rich. This is a pretty dramatic example of that, given it took college admissions, a system everyone already knew was stacked to benefit the rich, and showed that it’s so much worse than anyone thought.
The result is that America’s bourgeoisie are focused not on the actual education of their children, but ensuring they get into the right college as a guarantor of success. But what counts as “success” in education? In the case of the people who can afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cheat on entrance exams or buy their kids’ matriculation outright, financial success shouldn’t even be a concern. Do they think their children are going to be happy when they grow up and get thrust into a world where they are forced to confront the yawning chasm between their credentials and actual capabilities?
That’s not even dealing with the self-doubt and anger hundreds of rich kids are confronting right now. It exists, first, because their parents failed to take an active interest in their education, moral and otherwise. Second, it exists because they thought so little of their children they bought for them the biggest signifier of personal merit they are likely to have at a young age.
This brings me to another aspect of this scandal that should alarm everyone concerned about what kind of society we are creating for our kids. We are increasingly devaluing applied knowledge as a function of education. Partly this is because we are victims of our own success. We live in a society that spins off so much wealth that it’s possible to earn a good living as a narcissist posting pictures of yourself on the internet.
Credentialism creates the illusion of knowledge and capability where none exists. You cannot build a strong society when the need for family doctors is approaching crisis levels. Meanwhile we’re telling our kids that spending $150,000 for a sociology sheepskin or, God help us all, journalism degree is the going rate for upper-middle-class success.
Of course, not everyone is destined to get a science degree, even if increased emphasis on such fields is necessary. Merely understanding what knowledge means as it relates to the world outside yourself is vital to being educated in any truly meaningful sense.
In high school, my best friend Jake got a job insulating a barn on his dad’s boss’s property. He couldn’t do it by himself, so I got in on the action. (Even then, Jake really knew what he was doing — he is now a partner in a very successful architecture firm.)
Anyway, we had to cut out plywood panels and nail them to the framing to cover up the insulation in the barn. Yet we had limited access to tools. For reasons I can’t exactly remember, we had to cut out all the panels to fit the walls with the saw all at once, but we didn’t have a ladder tall enough to reach the eave of the barn to measure the height of the triangular piece of plywood we needed to cover the eave.
What we did have was right triangles, and could measure the length of the side on the bottom. We were both in high school and had just taken trig, so some quick back of the envelope math gave the length of the other two sides. We crossed our fingers and cut out the triangular pieces of wood with the skill saw.
A couple of days later, we got a ladder and, wouldn’t you know it, it fit perfectly. It turns out all those story problems in my math textbook weren’t just theoretical. Heck, if you put a gun to my head, I might even be able to repeat that feat to this day. (SOHCAHTOA for the win.)
The Real Point of an Education Is Actual Competence
Ultimately, I learned on that job that accumulating knowledge isn’t about meeting some minimum threshold so some institution can declare that you are an educated person. My Algebra II grade did not retroactively improve because I was able to apply rudimentary trigonometry in the real world, but the abilities and earned self-worth from this and other episodes like it are the ultimate aim of education.
In that respect, my upbringing was fortunate, because I knew how to recognize a teaching moment like this when it hit me upside the head. My Lt. Col. father was a recon Marine who thought knowledge of the world didn’t just make life more interesting and allow you to be more helpful, but possessing a certain piece of basic knowledge could also be a life or death matter. Think of how many tragedies have occurred because someone botched some basic math.
There’s also increasing evidence that our focus on education as a means to selfish ends is creating a mental health crisis. So many people now have information economy jobs where they don’t have any tangible sense of what they’re accomplishing day to day, and in comparable terms, there’s profound satisfaction to be found in traditional tradesmen jobs where one tangibly builds and fixes things.
These, of course, are the well-paying jobs we’ve spent 50 years denigrating as inferior to jamming a PEZ dispenser full of Prozac while sitting in whatever Godforsaken corporate cubicle your comparative literature degree lands you in. Much evidence for this disparity is provided in Matthew Crawford’s excellent Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.
You hardly have to be a welder to enjoy your job, but a proper education should start with the idea that it needs to give you the skills to control your own destiny, at the very least to the degree you are happy and productive. A big part of figuring out what work is going to fulfill you isn’t just determining what interests you, but understanding what values are important.
If you really care about your kids’ education, you will be focused on cultivating their faith and character; making sure that they understand the accumulation of knowledge is ultimately a tool for improving the world around them, and not just about credentials and wealth; and give your children the confidence and capability to forge a path in life of their choosing.
Having your child attend an elite university, however, will not automatically accomplish any of those objectives. Rather, it should be painfully obvious that whatever benefits a top-tier college education might confer, if you’re not vigilant, these institutions are likely to undermine morality and debase the more meaningful aspects of education. Indeed, no one should be surprised that America’s corrupt elites are using corrupt means to get their undeserving kids into corrupt educational institutions, and we still mutter “meritocracy” under our breath like it’s some kind of magical incantation that makes us feel better about what we’ve become.
Of course, for all the effort I’ve put into thinking about my own kids’ education, I can’t and don’t pretend to have all the answers for what does constitute the best education. There are never any guarantees that kids will turn out as you hope, to say nothing of every parent’s struggle to avoid saddling your children with your own flaws.
But this college admissions scandal has affirmed we have one thing right. I have high and detailed expectations for my children, and if you asked me to prioritize them I’m not even sure what college they are going to attend would be anywhere on the first few pages. Unfortunately, this has become the primary, all-consuming educational goal for far too many parents, at the expense of understanding what constitutes a good education and what it should accomplish.
For the children, the result of this thinking is an elitist Peter Principle at best, and a generational existential crisis at worst. For the parents, the result of this college obsession ranges from guilt to jail time. And for society as a whole, it all comes down to the cliche that children are our future, and our prospects aren’t looking so hot right now.