What Can We Glean from the Recent College Admission Scandal?
In my February Principal’s Perspective I wrote about college admission and included my interview of Sue Rexford, Director of College Guidance. Near the end, I wrote the following: When we consider education to be a means of self-development and self-discovery, of broadening our perspectives and developing the confidence and the tools to tackle a myriad of life’s problems, then I believe we can rise above our culture’s prodding to somehow link our self-worth with the name of the college we attend. We gain the most from it (“it” being college) when we make the most of it, and there are ample colleges in our country that offer more opportunity than any of us could ever seize in the span of four years (or even five or six years).
I, too, live within our culture and understand that it’s not easy to overlook college name recognition and for parents to overcome concerns about not giving our children every opportunity to attend what are perceived as the “best” colleges. Now, potentially adding more anxiety, we are faced with the recent college admission scandal. The details, as outlined in a recent New York Times article, are more than disturbing. Parents paid large sums of money for high test scores on the SAT and ACT. College coaches were paid large sums of money to feign interest in students as athletic prospects. And students’ college applications were falsified.
Public reactions to the scandal are plentiful. In an email to the college guidance community, Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), shared this: “We recognize that the shameful behavior revealed in these high-profile indictments is not common. Most colleges work diligently to admit and serve the full range of applicants, and NACAC’s members remain committed to integrity within the admission process.” Personally, I believe Ms. Smith is right. I also like the suggestion offered in another email, this one from a university admission director, wherein he referred to the emergence of the scandal as a teachable moment. In that vein, let’s turn to Jewish tradition.
My knowledge of the Talmud is limited, but I understand it indicates six questions that will be asked of us at the gates of Heaven. One translation of the six questions, offered by Dr. Bruce Powell, retired Head of School (deToledo High School, in the Greater Los Angeles area) and consultant to Jewish day schools, is: Were you honest in business? Did you make a set time to study? Did you raise up community? Did you have hope? Did you act with wisdom? Did you understand a big thing from a small thing? (Talmud: Masechet Shabbat 31a).
The first question, naturally, cannot be answered in the affirmative by anyone involved with the recent college admission scandal. They did not act honestly. As for the remaining questions, to me, many of them speak to that which comes from a thorough education. An education that involves deep investment by the student. An education that is not a means to an end, but a source of enlightenment, broadening, realizing, and discovering. An education that refines the soul and remains with the student throughout her/his life. An education that is not, in my estimation, largely dependent on where the student attends college. Instead, I think it’s an education that depends mainly on what the student chooses to do when she/he is in college.
All of this is to say that I maintain what I wrote about college admission in February and I assert it even more strongly now, in light of the recent college admission scandal. At CESJDS, we teach more than academics--our Jewish values guide what we give over to our students each day. While we are not perfect, we strive to help our students to live according to higher principles. Sometimes this means standing in contrast to what our broader culture deems acceptable or preferred. This applies to behavior in general, and the college admission process in particular. Perhaps one question mentioned above from the Talmud is key to our discussion here: Did you understand a big thing from a small thing? The big thing in college education, to me, is the student and her or his multifaceted growth and development. It’s far more than a transcript or a name or an “in.” Frankly, I think those who manipulate the college admission process engage in a fool’s errand---in addition to being dishonest, they chase a goal that is at best misguided, and at worst harmful to the psyche and future of the child.
Despite cultural pressures, and despite the dishonesty and even criminal behavior of others, I am certain that CESJDS guides students to carve a path of integrity and success, wherever they may engage in their next steps of learning.