Thursday, March 14, 2019

Cheating Oligarchs

As a college undergraduate in the late 1960s, the institution I attended was the first free public college in the United States, founded in 1847 to provide access to free higher education based on academic merit to the children of New York’s poor immigrant and working-class families. And, for over a century, many second and third generation immigrant and working-class families made good use of this great opportunity  Because of its high academic standards, the school was sometimes even called “the proletarian Harvard” (a most revealing analogy). Unlike Harvard, however, and unlike so many other more socially desirable colleges and universities, mine was a commuter school. I regularly rode the IND "A" Express Train to 125th Street and, for the most part, cheerfully embraced the regular routine of walking to and from the subway, and waiting for and catching the right trains – the central routine of so much of New York City work and social life. Even though I missed the social side, the community context, of a residential school, mine was, on the whole, personally a great academic experience, and I got a good education - one which eventually even got me into graduate school at the sort of elite Ivy League institution I could never have even contemplated attending as an undergraduate.

Ivy League and other so-called "elite" universities offer a very good education (even better perhaps that the one I received, although mine was very good in its own way). They also offer the sort of social and community experience I craved but didn't have at my commuter school. But the thing they offer that most decisively defines the "elite" university experience and sets it apart so significantly from other otherwise fine educational institutions is access to a potentially life-long network of social standing, political power, and, of course, wealth. In the old days, there was no doubt that such institutions were of the ruling class, by the ruling class, and for the ruling class - a situation softened somewhat by an aristocratic noblesse oblige ethos, part myth, but also part reality, reflected in such mottoes as "Princeton in the Nation's Service," reflected also in the lives and public careers of figures like Franklin D. Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush.

But aristocracy, as the ancient political philosophers taught us and experience has regularly confirmed, can and does deteriorate into oligarchy - rule not by the best for the benefit of all but rule by the rich for the benefit of themselves. Oligarchy - not aristocracy - best describes our American ruling class today. And attendance at "elite" universities - and the interconnected economic, social, and political networks they provide students access to - is a valued key to full participation in our American oligarchy.

So it is hardly much of a surprise that rich people resort to all sorts of mechanisms to game the system to guarantee their heirs access to the institutions that help guarantee the perpetuation of their privilege. The only thing surprising about the recently revealed "scandal" is the resort to overtly illegal means, when there remain so many legal means to maintain privilege - among them "legacy" admissions and athletic admissions. And, of course, for the really rich there are always donations. Wasn't Jared Kushner, for example, accepted into Harvard shortly after his father donated $2.5 million?

Some have noted that many of those involved in the recently exposed cheating scandal were rich enough that their heirs would have done well anyway, regardless of the school they attended. Perhaps. but that only highlights the desperation so many parents presently feel that causes them to go to such great lengths to ensure their children's lifelong access to privilege.

Above all it highlights the American oligarchic elite's strong sense of entitlement, which is at the root of so much of the great gulf that divides our society today.

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