Huffman/Loughlin college scandal: can we talk about our mania for credentials?

The story of rich parents buying their children’s way into the “best” schools is an opportunity to discuss how we value degrees over actual excellence.

The headlines are blaring about a maddening college admissions scandal, one that names celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and also touches on so many issues — class resentment, the trumping of credentials over real ability, educational unfairness.

The story even helps some way toward explaining the rise and rise of mediocrity in seemingly every craft and industry.

More than 40 people have been indicted in the scheme that allegedly involved students gaining entrance to schools including Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest University, UCLA and Yale as recruited athletes — regardless of their athletic ability.

Federal prosecutors in Boston say parents paid an admissions consultant $25 million from 2011 through February 2019 to bribe the coaches and administrators in order to help their kids get accepted.

Some of this is undoubtedly about the privileged classes enjoying their privileges, and t’was ever thus to ages upon ages.

But it’s also about the really outsized importance our culture has placed upon the piece of sheepskin that says our darlings have spent sufficient time in sufficient classes to be considered sufficiently educated about something. Sometimes the piece of paper is telling the truth, or even understating the capabilities of the degree-recipient. Often, it’s a pointless velum, and just as often the student knows it.

For those of us whose kids scored high on SAT’s thanks to nothing more than their own studious efforts (and who have watched or helped those students pay off their loans over decades) today’s scandal is irksome; it has us shaking our heads. But I hope we can do more; I hope we can finally have a serious national talk about how the over-emphasized import of a degree — from any school, not only the “great” ones — too often ignores the autodidact, and too frequently drags into college someone who may well have preferred a hands-on, blue collar job, or owning their own business.

Examples of bright people who managed to exceed their un-degreed expectations abound. For instance…

He has authored over a dozen books, written a syndicated newspaper column and countless essays and articles covering a broad range of subjects—sports, politics, mobsters, union thugs, cultural touchstones, booze, and blades of grass—all of it written in a smart, literate voice of the casual sophisticate who takes his subject, but not himself, seriously. And in the summer of 2010, Pete Hamill finally received an honorary graduate’s diploma from Regis High School, a Jesuit-run prep school from which he dropped out 59 years earlier. “It was the last period when you could do that and still have a life,” Hamill told the New York Times. “Try getting a job on a newspaper now without the résumé.”

True. We live in an era where a well-educated journalist can find the U.S. Constitution to be “difficult to understand” because it is “over a hundred years old” and remain credibly employed; it does seem that credentials matter more than ability. Demonstrating that one is able to conform to curricula currently trumps boldness; seat hours in the auditorium count more than audacity.

I wonder if that’s really good for America, though. To become educated is a marvelous thing; to have the opportunity to study is a privilege too many take for granted. But have we become a society that places too much weight on the attainment of a diploma, which sometimes indicates nothing more than an ability to keep to a schedule and follow a syllabus, and under-appreciates the ability to wonder, to strike out on an individual path, and to learn on one’s own?

When did non-conformists become so unromantic and undervalued?

Back in 2008, James Taranto, the puckish and observant editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Opinionjournal.com (later a member of that paper’s editorial board), noting the jeering of the credentials-obsessed media re Sarah Palin’s state university education, informed his readers that he possessed no college degree at all; “For the record,” he notes, “our high school diploma is a GED.”

Well, for nearly 60 years, a GED was more than Pete Hamill possessed. Or, for that matter, the late Peter Jennings, who managed to forge a distinguished journalistic career without a diploma. NBC’s Brian Williams attended several universities and never did complete his degree, but that didn’t stop him from crushing the ratings against then CBS News anchor (and noted University of Virginia graduate) Katie Couric, until they both imploded.

One of my sons graduated from a very good college at which he performed poorly. From his sophomore year forward, he hated college and seemed to work very hard at getting his parents to pull him out, but we were adamant about that degree. After graduating, he read non-stop — philosophy, economics, theology, mathematical theory; he reminded me of Winston Churchill, the famously poor student who asked his mother to send him books while he was stationed in India (in the cavalry because he was considered too stupid for infantry duty) and educated himself until he was the equal of any Oxford graduate, and then some.

It is a wonderful thing to sit in a classroom and grow in knowledge, if one is in fact doing that, but often it seems that degrees should be awarded in going through the motions; they come without a genuine expansion of thought, or an enlargement of wonder. And, to paraphrase Gregory of Nyssa, it’s the wondering that begets the knowing.

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter dropped out of Boston University to play guitar and became a founding member of Steely Dan and an occasional Doobie Brother. While he still accepts studio gigs, Baxter also chairs the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense and consults with the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and various defense manufacturers. His expertise in the area of missile defense systems and tactics is considerable, and he is self-taught. An interest in recording technology got him to wondering about military hardware, and things took off from there.

Perhaps the over-reliance upon credentials is connected to the undervaluing of faith in society. In the past, people of faith had the examples of holy men and women who managed to exhibit enormous wisdom through grace, whether they were exceedingly well educated, like St. Augustine, or not educated at all, like St. Catherine of Siena. Saints are full of wonder; it is their ability to wonder, in fact, that allows them to be open to grace, the gate of all of their theological and philosophical brilliance.

And when faith was common to kings and paupers, self-evident brightness and acumen were appreciated and acknowledged. People understood that there was more than one way to learn, or that ideas could be burnished and gifts could be nourished by sheer curiosity sustained on a pilot-light of passion, even without the consent and certification of an appointed body.

As recently as sixty years ago society was willing to take some things on faith, and that habit-of-faith allowed room for instinct to have a voice; it permitted one to try people out—to give a guy a chance to prove himself. Lacking faith, lacking a mindset that can trust in possibilities, there is nothing to fall back on but credentials.

And if credentials are all we value, we miss out on the Churchill, or the Baxter, or the Hamill, to our great detriment.

Education and certification, particularly in the hard sciences, is essential and good, and a broad education is life-enriching. But society needs a few people audacious enough to strike out, or to dare the system, if only to show us that it is still permissible to wonder.

Featured Image: Rocks with Degrees via Pixabay
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2019-03-12T14:03:33-05:00

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