Rethink Everything! (Except College)

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


The Great College Admissions Kerfuffle of 2019 involving Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin did more than uncover what The New York Times describes as “a massive SAT-fixing and college admission-rigging scheme.”

It revealed a host of social norms related to celebrity and shame; to entitlement and justice:: a full-on Normsapalooza.

But the norms that are screaming out, begging for the attention, are the ones at the center of this whole fix:: the norms of higher education in America.

So powerful are the expectations that our children must not only go to a traditional college or university after high school but to a darn good one that parents — famous and fabulously wealthy parents who have an awful lot to lose — are running the risk of jail time to make sure of it.

This sends a fascinating if perplexing message:: We are encouraged to rethink a lot these days, but one of the things we must not rethink, at least not rethink too much, is a traditional college education. Rather, a traditional college degree. That still is the measure and worth of who and what we are, regardless of how it was earned, regardless of what, if anything, was learned.

Optics are everything, in other words, as they are in so many facets in our social system; a system in which we are rewarded for how we seem — and for what boxes we’ve checked — not so much for who and what we are.

In this sense, it’s hard not to see this as a Matrix-like reality, or unreality if you prefer, that we’re all living in. Unlike in the movie “The Matrix,” we all seem to know it — we know the game, we certainly understand the power of optics, and the norms holding that power in place, and we don’t need a red pill to see things as they really are.

There are plenty of compelling stories about women and men who did not go to college, and who went on to do extraordinary — and extraordinarily good and great —  things.

Those stories, as inspirational as they are, cannot alone subvert the prevailing social expectations that college is — still— the only acceptable option for a high school graduate, even if it means doing something unacceptable — or illegal — to secure it because, for these parents, the penalties of violating that social norm clearly represent a fate far, far worse than prison.