Americans believe that our country is a meritocracy. Each person reaches the level in society that corresponds to their particular accomplishments. In a meritocracy no one gets ahead because they are rich, because their parents are famous, or because their relatives are wealthy and powerful. But along comes the college admissions scandal where people spent very large amounts of money to get their children into decent colleges even though the youngsters did not qualify to attend those institutions. College admissions are not a meritocracy.
These bribery cases have produced an enormous uproar because they show very clearly that those who believe that they live in a meritocracy are just fooling themselves. They are, of course, also denying the grim facts of American life where the color of your skin has a lot more to do with where you end up in society than your hard work and abilities. Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans and many other groups most definitely do not live in a meritocracy. Neither—the college admissions scandal shows—do whites.
It is important to repeat this well-known fact simply because so many people are taken in by the drumbeat of propaganda that claims that all it takes to succeed in America is hard work. That’s clearly false and this scandal is just one more piece of evidence.
But the scandal conveys other messages about our culture which deserve closer attention. Ask yourself: what were these parents trying to do? Their children seemed, on the whole, not interested in being educated. Their high school performance had been mediocre or worse. And they were apparently not interested in learning. Learning requires effort. Without effort and work a good education is out of reach. Getting into a good school will not provide you with a good education if you are not prepared to work in your classes. So what were the parents willing to spend half a million for? They were trying to build the brand of their hapless children, to burnish their façade and make them appear what in fact they were not. They were launching their offspring into a world where appearances counted for everything and reality was constantly asking to be reconstructed, reinterpreted and even reinvented.
“Meritocracy does not exist” these parents tell their children. To get ahead you need to have a record that appears impressive because, for instance, you went to Harvard or Stanford – and hopefully managed to graduate. The fact that you cheated your way into these schools when your parents paid bribes to the soccer coach is of no importance as long as it remains a secret. You do not need to be competent; you only need to have a record that suggests competence and that record is for sale. Integrity, trustworthiness are of no importance. No one cares, or should care about being honest and decent. The only thing that matters is the appearance you managed to create.
None of this would be of any importance if the dishonesty were the failure of a small number of people, the few bad apples in the large barrel of honorable and upstanding Americans. But that is unfortunately not what this scandal represents. Valuing appearances, what you look like more than what you really are, is a significant theme in our culture. Many politicians are quite shameless in presenting themselves as very different kinds of people to different groups of voters. If you write a letter to an elected official you are more likely than not to receive a reply protesting the officials’ total agreement with you regardless of what it is you had written.
Important persons in public life have someone who speaks for them. Their job is to make that employer look good and to increase their popularity. If in the course of this effort, the spokesperson misrepresents the truth, no one is surprised or outraged. The standing of persons in public life is not affected by their moral integrity or that of the people who speak for them.
Making one’s clients look good regardless of what kinds of persons they are is a lucrative profession in the United States. According to one of the associations of public relations practitioners “At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.” You can make a living in our country by making people appear competent who are not and make officials appear reliable who are actually quite dishonest. Looking good is what matters. Being good is much less important.
The college admissions scandal shows what that attitude leads to. Public life becomes an intricate game of deception. At issue is always how many people you can deceive into trusting , into believing that you have their interest at heart while, in fact, all you care about is getting elected to the next higher office, keeping your name in front of the public, promoting your brand.
Public life, politics, affects the quality of life of many citizens in so far as it provides, or takes away, their chance to get a decent education, to have good health care available, to keep a roof over their head, and food in their kitchens. In the interest of appearing as champions of law and order, politicians, for instance, neglect the prisons under their control and force prisoners to live under inhumane conditions. Children go hungry so that politicians can show that they value hard work and do not give away tax payers money to “welfare cheats.”
Playing the game of appearances, our leaders not only perpetuate immorality but they play cruel games with the lives of the citizens they pretend to value and care for. The college admissions scandal is a reminder of the pervasive corruption of public life.