College Placement

Growing up, I had an ongoing war with education. Not the content of it so much as the method of transmission. I hated school. Hated being there, hated being held accountable for failing to meet its requirements, hated the monumental waste of time I considered it. My continual demand was to know “what is this for?”

As for the content…well, judge for yourself how I may have felt about that. Clearly I have suffered from the inattention I paid my classes.

This recent scandal about celebrities bribing admissions officials to get their kids into pricey schools underscores something I came to believe and explains one of the reasons I never got an answer to that “what is this for?” question. It also explains—demonstrates—how the American class system operates.  (What, you really bought that stuff about this being a classless society? I bet you did well in school, too.)

Teachers seldom give answers to that question because they suspect, if not outright know, that what it is for is nothing but a lottery to see where you place upon exit in the hierarchy of society. The content of the lessons is less important than the status bestowed by matriculation from certain institutions which can grant a Good Housekeeping seal on students that says “These are acceptable.”

It’s hard to see it in the chaos of social interaction, but for anyone on the receiving end of the snobbery and elitism endemic to the process, you can’t help but know this is how it works.

Usually we’re aware of it with regards to athletes who get special treatment in order to keep them playing for the school. (I suspect it happens far less than advertised, but it doesn’t take but a few to stain a whole system.) Now we have the evidence that something has been going on in general, all tied to money.

A couple of things may be inferred from the two big-name actresses who got caught trying to buy into the system and cheat for their offspring. One is, what does this say about the kids in question? Did they fail just to get into these schools or did they not come up to scratch anywhere? (One wonders if they asked for this “but my best friend is going there!” begging.) Or is it just that mommy knew that the prestige of the school was far more important than any actual education being offered. That a degree from that school would open more doors than one from this school.  (For all the less well-off kids who simply never have that kind of choice and have to make do with what they can get, this must seriously grate.) And what does this say about our (shopworn but not altogether ragged) pride in merit and ability?

In grade school, around fifth or sixth grade, we started playing a game at lunchtime. I don’t know if it has any other name, we called it “Initials.” The rules were simple: name a category, give the first or/and second initial, and then guess the thing being named. It started with movies and tv shows, but over a few months it grew into a rather elaborate thing that included historical figures, geography, ships, cities, cars. Four of us became very involved. We were going home and doing research for this game.

The principle stopped it. Just shut it down. He thought we were spending far more time and energy on it than on our “studies.” Well, we were. It was fun, but more than that, we were learning. He didn’t see that. He stopped it in order to preserve the form of education, which was not fun.

I mention that because later, when I looked back on it, I found it supported my view that education is only tangentially related to the content of a subject. The purpose it to make citizens. Failing that, it is to enforce conformity.

Which, by the time you get to the college and university level, is a game of associations. You go to these schools to make these connections which will serve you far more effectively in work life than what you might actually learn along the way.

No, I do not believe that is all there is to it, and I do believe actual learning takes places, otherwise all those “associations” would do nothing but show us who to blame when nothing works anymore. But clearly that part of it is far more important than we may be willing to admit and obviously Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman believed that.

And whether we want to accept it or not, the flip side of this is demonstrated by those parents with no money who are doing serious jail time just for slipping their kids into different school districts for a presumably better education. (Even if you accept my premise, that association matters more in this system, then the disparity is clearer still.) Who am I talking about? Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio and Tracey McDowell in Connecticut. There are probably others.

In any case, when wondering about privilege, well, here’s another example. And it damages far more than just the reputations of a couple of entitled celebrities and a couple of school admissions officials. It erodes trust that often finds definition difficult. The whole notion, never true or at least true enough, that all anyone needs is hard work to get anywhere desired, is corrupted by this kind of thing.

I am not surprised this happened. It has doubtless been happening for centuries to some degree. Gentry have always tried to smooth their descendants’ paths through life and if they had the money, they used that, regardless of what talents and abilities the beneficiaries brought to the game. For them, it is a game.

For too many, it’s a violation.

Elizabeth Warren is calling for the blanket forgiveness of student loans. She wants college to be free. I have some quibbles about this, but in principle I support it. If the road ahead is to be navigated by those with the knowledge, charging a toll for that knowledge would seem the opposite of any democratic sentiment. And since college enrollment has risen in the last four decades precipitously, obviously a lot of the “wrong” people are getting in. The best way to shut the out of any advantage is to keep charging them more for the ticket. Forgiving the debt might be the right thing to do, but then the upper crust would have to actually compete for those choice positions and the perks that attend them. Free college would not level the playing field, but it would at least make the game more honest by allowing for genuine ability to compete.

And if college is free, how could anyone bribe their way in? (Well, there will always be ways, but it would be harder—and over time, maybe pointless.)

Just some thoughts.

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