By William Murchison
Lessons abound amid the stink and squalor of the college admissions scandal: the bribes-to-admit racket uncovered by the Justice Department. Hordes of the rich and famous in finance, Silicon Valley, and the entertainment industry saw nothing wrong and everything right about greasing palms to get their kids into prestigious colleges — never mind applicants squeezed out due to the disadvantages of less money and more rigorous moral standards.
One consequence of this lousy con game is sure to be the stoking of political anger, real or feigned, at an economic system that puts money in the hands of the unworthy. Yet another consequence is new and scary knowledge concerning what we know as the debasement of higher education.
We know more than ever before what our culture expects of a college diploma. It’s the passport to fame and fortune, and maybe a yacht, and three or four 10,000-foot homes in the Caribbean and near the ski slopes — and well, who knows what else can be wrung out of some good investments and, heh-heh, influence? That’s if you get in the right school. And maybe even if you don’t. But you gotta get in somehow or other. The end, as has been said, justifies the means.
Or so we hear. What would be funny, if it weren’t so downright unfunny, and so morally debilitating, is the idea of institutions formed to train the mind and the character converting themselves into success academies.
The arguments for a university education used to be underpinned by the belief that minds unoccupied at birth require, for the sake of civilization, to be filled with truth and wisdom, as handed down by the best minds of all time. Thus we learned; thus we grew. Aristotle, Socrates, Milton, Shakespeare became, ideally, familiars to be consulted, to be drawn upon consciously and unconsciously, perpetually welcome in our counsels.
A culture that sees late-night comedians as sources of priceless wisdom obviously has little use for what Cardinal Newman called ”the idea of a university.” Might as well, assuming we no longer care much for ideas of any particular kind, encourage universities to win at football and train the future elite in the hard-nosed techniques of success. Which supposition, unfortunately but logically, opens the door to major league corruption. As Jason Gay observes in The Wall Street Journal: “Hard work, integrity, truth…those are increasingly quaint values to an entitlement culture conditioned to get what it wants, and believe what it wants to believe.”
But, oh, in the meantime, how’s about them…insert the mascot of your favorite college team: a figure almost certainly more famous on campus than Dante Alighieri?
Ex malo bonum, those old dead Romans used to say: out of bad can come good, the good in our fresh moral turbulence being the opportunity to see more clearly than ever before how low the state of moral understanding has fallen. Our leaders of the higher learning might even want to suggest ways of doing something useful about it: no bribes asked or accepted.