The College Admissions Scandal and Being Human

As the fallout from the admissions scandal at elite colleges and universities perpetrated by wealthy and elite-status parents unfolds, the reactions from media personalities and the general public via social media have been predictable.  The appropriate word to articulate the sentiment is a German word, "schadenfreude," which means taking pleasure in the pain of others.

Make no mistake about it: these parents committed serious crimes and should be punished.  The crimes revolved largely around bribery, fraud, racketeering, and obstruction of justice.

Truth be told, the real crime of the wealthy was arrogance.  Their wealth, power, celebrity status, and model good looks (in certain instances) contributed to an arrogance that made these people believe that the same rules that apply to the rest of us do not apply to them.

Essentially, their inability to restrain their own unruly passions brought them down.  They were not victims of abuse, theft, or an unfortunate natural disaster.  They were victims of their own unrestrained arrogance in the college admissions process.

Ironically,  this is the thrust of what liberal education is actually about.  Liberal education relates to the phrase "liberal arts."  The word "liberal" here has nothing to do with political liberalism, nor is the word "art" related to art as we understand it today.  The term relates to the Christian tradition of original sin and the fallen and flawed nature of Man (Sewell Jr., 1980).  William Sewell, Jr. offered scholarship on the phrase, stating, "Art was not a matter of originality, inspiration, and genius but of rules, order and discipline" (p. 22).  Sewell also observed that the rules, order, and discipline emphasized moral and personal restraint:

In this scheme of things, art was a rule giving or legislative activity; art and its rules were the means of creating and maintaining order in human life generally, of subjecting our unruly passions to reason and directing them to orderly and useful ends of whatever kind. (pp. 22-23)

Man has unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints.  When the restraints on our passions and appetites are removed, there is nothing preventing us from becoming our own worst enemies.  This doctrine is derived from a belief in the flawed nature of man from original sin.

Another phrase used conjunctively with "liberal education" is the phrase "arts and letters."  We now understand where "arts" comes from, but "letters" also necessitate an explanation.  Letters is short for the phrase "humane letters."

Humane letters is the study of what it means to be a human being.  What about the human condition makes us different from the beasts?  Russell Kirk (1986) explained that the point of education in humane letters was "ethical."  "[T]he student comes to apprehend the differences between good and evil" (p.7).  Kirk further noted that the goal of an education in humane letters was "the study of the greatness and limitations of human nature" (p. 7).  Thus, humane letters are designed to "teach human beings their dignity and their duties."

To dovetail the two concepts of the liberal arts and humane letters is to fully comprehend the goal of liberal education.  In liberal education, we are taught that man has unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints, for when the restraints on those passions and appetites are removed, they run amok.  Liberal education is ultimately there to teach us what it means to be a human being.  Kirk knew that "[f]iction is truer than fact: I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain ... unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences" (p. 7).  We learn vicariously through the literature in the liberal arts curriculum what happens when we fail to exercise self-control.  We are supposed to take these lessons from the literature with us in the real world, so we can use these lessons as a frame of reference for any ethical conundrums we may face personally.

Through this scandal, we have a visual reminder of what happens when we fail to control our unruly passions and appetites: our vices cause our downfall.  To put it more poetically, as Edmund Burke, the first conservative, articulated: "Our passions forge our fetters" (1791).

I make no apologies for these people, nor will I attempt to rationalize the arrogance and wanton disregard for the law.  These people committed crimes and should be punished accordingly.  But before everyone indulges in schadenfreude over the arrogance of the rich and powerful forging their own fetters, stop and ask yourself a simple question: what does it mean to be a human being in this instance?

When it comes to our loved ones, who hasn't either thought of committing or actually committed a crime for their benefit?  What man hasn't thought of fighting, or even taking severe action against another man for harassing his wife?  Many wives have acted irrationally and some illegally when learning of a husband's affair.  Who hasn't seriously considered overdoing something — whether actually illegal, or something dangerously close to illegal — to give his children an advantage in life?

As the deeply troubling story of sexual assault in U.S. women's gymnastics unfolded, we saw a father-and-son duo attempt to attack the man, Dr. Larry Nassar, who sexually abused their loved one, in a court of law.  They were not charged for their crime.  Why?  Because who could blame them?

Essentially, all these instances concerning our family address a fundamental question of what it means to be a human being.  Being human can mean a willingness to do anything for our loved ones, often intentionally ignoring the consequences.  Being human also means understanding that there may come a time in our lives where we do things that create skeletons in the family closet.  Almost every family understands that life is a struggle, and sometimes, we must put our families ahead of the rules, consequences be damned.

These wealthy parents felt they were above the law as well as the rules that govern the rest of us.  Their arrogance forged their fetters — or, more accurately, their inability to control their arrogance was their undoing.  The truth here is undeniable: these people deserve to be punished.  But before we begin rejoicing in the schadenfreude generated by their comeuppance, ask yourself this: what does it mean to be a human being?  When it comes to your family, what are you willing to do?

References

Kirk, R. (1986). Introduction. In I. Babbitt, Literature and the American college (pp. 1-68). Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute.

Sewell, Jr., W. (1980). Work and revolution in France: the language of labor from the old regime to 1848. New York, NY: Cambridge University.

As the fallout from the admissions scandal at elite colleges and universities perpetrated by wealthy and elite-status parents unfolds, the reactions from media personalities and the general public via social media have been predictable.  The appropriate word to articulate the sentiment is a German word, "schadenfreude," which means taking pleasure in the pain of others.

Make no mistake about it: these parents committed serious crimes and should be punished.  The crimes revolved largely around bribery, fraud, racketeering, and obstruction of justice.

Truth be told, the real crime of the wealthy was arrogance.  Their wealth, power, celebrity status, and model good looks (in certain instances) contributed to an arrogance that made these people believe that the same rules that apply to the rest of us do not apply to them.

Essentially, their inability to restrain their own unruly passions brought them down.  They were not victims of abuse, theft, or an unfortunate natural disaster.  They were victims of their own unrestrained arrogance in the college admissions process.

Ironically,  this is the thrust of what liberal education is actually about.  Liberal education relates to the phrase "liberal arts."  The word "liberal" here has nothing to do with political liberalism, nor is the word "art" related to art as we understand it today.  The term relates to the Christian tradition of original sin and the fallen and flawed nature of Man (Sewell Jr., 1980).  William Sewell, Jr. offered scholarship on the phrase, stating, "Art was not a matter of originality, inspiration, and genius but of rules, order and discipline" (p. 22).  Sewell also observed that the rules, order, and discipline emphasized moral and personal restraint:

In this scheme of things, art was a rule giving or legislative activity; art and its rules were the means of creating and maintaining order in human life generally, of subjecting our unruly passions to reason and directing them to orderly and useful ends of whatever kind. (pp. 22-23)

Man has unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints.  When the restraints on our passions and appetites are removed, there is nothing preventing us from becoming our own worst enemies.  This doctrine is derived from a belief in the flawed nature of man from original sin.

Another phrase used conjunctively with "liberal education" is the phrase "arts and letters."  We now understand where "arts" comes from, but "letters" also necessitate an explanation.  Letters is short for the phrase "humane letters."

Humane letters is the study of what it means to be a human being.  What about the human condition makes us different from the beasts?  Russell Kirk (1986) explained that the point of education in humane letters was "ethical."  "[T]he student comes to apprehend the differences between good and evil" (p.7).  Kirk further noted that the goal of an education in humane letters was "the study of the greatness and limitations of human nature" (p. 7).  Thus, humane letters are designed to "teach human beings their dignity and their duties."

To dovetail the two concepts of the liberal arts and humane letters is to fully comprehend the goal of liberal education.  In liberal education, we are taught that man has unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints, for when the restraints on those passions and appetites are removed, they run amok.  Liberal education is ultimately there to teach us what it means to be a human being.  Kirk knew that "[f]iction is truer than fact: I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain ... unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences" (p. 7).  We learn vicariously through the literature in the liberal arts curriculum what happens when we fail to exercise self-control.  We are supposed to take these lessons from the literature with us in the real world, so we can use these lessons as a frame of reference for any ethical conundrums we may face personally.

Through this scandal, we have a visual reminder of what happens when we fail to control our unruly passions and appetites: our vices cause our downfall.  To put it more poetically, as Edmund Burke, the first conservative, articulated: "Our passions forge our fetters" (1791).

I make no apologies for these people, nor will I attempt to rationalize the arrogance and wanton disregard for the law.  These people committed crimes and should be punished accordingly.  But before everyone indulges in schadenfreude over the arrogance of the rich and powerful forging their own fetters, stop and ask yourself a simple question: what does it mean to be a human being in this instance?

When it comes to our loved ones, who hasn't either thought of committing or actually committed a crime for their benefit?  What man hasn't thought of fighting, or even taking severe action against another man for harassing his wife?  Many wives have acted irrationally and some illegally when learning of a husband's affair.  Who hasn't seriously considered overdoing something — whether actually illegal, or something dangerously close to illegal — to give his children an advantage in life?

As the deeply troubling story of sexual assault in U.S. women's gymnastics unfolded, we saw a father-and-son duo attempt to attack the man, Dr. Larry Nassar, who sexually abused their loved one, in a court of law.  They were not charged for their crime.  Why?  Because who could blame them?

Essentially, all these instances concerning our family address a fundamental question of what it means to be a human being.  Being human can mean a willingness to do anything for our loved ones, often intentionally ignoring the consequences.  Being human also means understanding that there may come a time in our lives where we do things that create skeletons in the family closet.  Almost every family understands that life is a struggle, and sometimes, we must put our families ahead of the rules, consequences be damned.

These wealthy parents felt they were above the law as well as the rules that govern the rest of us.  Their arrogance forged their fetters — or, more accurately, their inability to control their arrogance was their undoing.  The truth here is undeniable: these people deserve to be punished.  But before we begin rejoicing in the schadenfreude generated by their comeuppance, ask yourself this: what does it mean to be a human being?  When it comes to your family, what are you willing to do?

References

Kirk, R. (1986). Introduction. In I. Babbitt, Literature and the American college (pp. 1-68). Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute.

Sewell, Jr., W. (1980). Work and revolution in France: the language of labor from the old regime to 1848. New York, NY: Cambridge University.