Thursday, March 14, 2019
Thursday, March 14, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, March 14, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Academic cheating in the news, but this time it’s by the parents, not the students: How human sinfulness inevitably shows itself in all institutions
Cheating scandals are no new development for higher education, but the news that broke in the last 48 hours is a new development and that is the fact that in this case, it's not the students who were cheating, it is their parents. The New York Times reported it this way in Wednesday's print edition, "A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million. A high school boy eager to enroll at the University of Southern California was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so he could take a standardized test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. Cost to his parents, at least $50,000.
"A student with no experience rowing won a spot on the USC Crew team after a photograph of another person in a boat was submitted as evidence of her prowess. Her parents wired $200,000 into a special account." And then the reporters Jennifer Medina, Katie Benner, and Kate Taylor tell us, "In a major college admission scandal that laid bare the elaborate links some wealthy parents will go to get their children into competitive American universities, federal prosecutors charged 50 people on Tuesday in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford, and other big name schools."
In my view, The New York Times wins the best introduction to this story, but The Wall Street Journal in yesterday's print edition got right to the point: "Federal Prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents, including prominent law and business figures, and two Hollywood actresses with using bribes, bogus entrance exam scores, and faked academic achievements to get their children admitted to elite colleges." The lead illustration used by The Wall Street Journal was this: "One New York law firm co-chairman allegedly paid $75,000 to an admissions consultant so his daughter could fly to Los Angeles and take the ACT in a private room last December, accompanied by a proctor who had been paid to correct her errors."
We're looking here at parents who paid somewhere between $50,000 and $1.2 million to get their privileged children into the most elite colleges and universities in the country. We're talking about huge prestige. We're talking about universities like Yale and Stanford, and the University of Southern California. We are talking about an indictment that includes prominent athletic coaches, university administrators, and more than anything else, parents; parents who are at the very center of the story, parents who sought to cheat, to bribe, to pay money, knowing that it would be used to game the system in order to gain admission to a prestigious university for their offspring.
The person in the firm to whom they paid the money was William Singer. His company was known as the Edge College & Career Network. It was sometimes informally known as The Key. As The New York Times says, "The authorities said Mr. Singer used the key and its non-profit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation, which is based in Newport Beach, California, to help students cheat on their standardized tests and to pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake academic credentials." The Times goes on to say that Singer used The Key as a front "allowing parents to funnel money into an account without having to pay any federal taxes."
Now, one little footnote into this is that that might be the cause of at least much of the federal investigation. This is an old pattern, it's an old story. Looking at how many major figures in American crime did not go to jail for the underlying criminality, rather because on top of it all, they tried to cheat on their taxes. That tends to get the attention of the federal government and it brings upon law enforcement investigations that often go far beyond what is believe at first to be the criminal activity. In this case, it's really doubtful that at the beginning the federal investigators had much of an idea of the scope and complexity of the criminality that they would uncover.
Who would've expected that at the center of the story would be parents, parents who are so absolutely determined to gain advantaged and prestige for their offspring by getting them into elite universities, that they would cheat, that they would hire cheaters, that they would pay between thousands and over a million dollars for the cheating, that they would find someone who was so adept at corrupting the system, someone who understood that learning disabilities could be fake and claimed so that students could take tests with extra time and under private considerations, which would allow someone to be in the room supposedly as a proctor but who would actually change the test answers, correcting them so that the student would get a higher score on the SAT, the ACT, and other standardized tests, by the way?
Some of the documentation in the indictment demonstrates that some of these students miraculously gained hundreds of points on the SAT simply by this particular form of cheating. In other cases, and this has the attention of perhaps even a greater number of people, the parents paid the cheater and the cheater paid coaches, coaches who got students into these elite universities on scholarships or at least under the auspices of their own athletic programs. But as The New York Times and others have pointed out, that's because in none of these cases was it a major headline making sport. It wasn't football. It wasn't basketball. It was crew, or it was another form of sport that was largely outside the primary glare of public attention.
Andrew Lelling, the United States attorney for the district of Massachusetts said, "The parents are the prime movers of this fraud." He went on to say that the parents used their financial means to create a separate and unfair admissions process for their own children. He said, "The real victims in this case are the hardworking students who were displaced in the admissions process by far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in." Now, let's think about that for just a moment. From a biblical worldview perspective, that's a very interesting understanding, and frankly, an accurate one. We're talking about the fact that the US attorney said that the real victims in this case were not so much the universities but rather the students who really did earn admission to elite universities but were displaced because of those who cheated or whose parents cheated in order to gain those admission slots, which are very few.
We are told that, for example, at Stanford University the admissions rate in any given year is less than 5% of those who apply. Writing in the front page of the sports section of The New York Times yesterday, Michael Powell reported the story this way, "The corruptions of American college sports and the status anxieties of the wealthy have achieved a spectacular co-mingling as a federal indictment on Tuesday charged that NCAA coaches were paid to fix admissions for rich children at elite colleges and universities like Georgetown, Yale, and USC." Powell went on to explain an entrepreneur devised this ingenious scam less than a decade ago, and it involved multiple fixes, a sort of corruption minuet. "Parents with cash to burn," he writes, "could pay to have a test taker sit in on the SAT or ACT in place of their teenagers, and if their children's grades were not up to snuff, they could bribe coaches to accept them as fake tennis, soccer, and lacrosse prodigies."
Later in the article, Powell gets to some very interesting moral dynamics. "The wealthy already engage in much so called 'acceptable board tilting.' Rich families routinely make contributions of millions of dollars to elite colleges in hopes of ensuring that admissions offices welcomed their children's applications. More recently, as this scandal makes clear, families tried to ensure that their sons and daughters would be psychologically evaluated in such a way that allowed them to receive many extra hours to complete high pressure admissions tests to high school and college. It was the genius," he writes, "of this scandal's mastermind that he found a way to combine that dodge with subterfuge that allowed ringers to actually take those tests."
One of the persons quoted said, "Most of these kids don't even have issues, but they're getting time. The tennis field's not fair." We're later told the FBI transcript revealed no parent who protested this accounting. And then Powell goes to the transcript that was offered by the FBI in the indictment that was handed down on Tuesday. Gordon R. Caplan, co-chairman of the top law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, talks of fixing his teenagers' test scores. "It's just, to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here." I repeat, his exact words, according to the indictment, "It's just, to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here."
Now, what that means in this context is that this parent said, "I'm going to do whatever it takes to get my child, my son or my daughter, in that elite university because I want them to be in that university and I will do whatever it takes to make this happen. I don't care if another student who actually earns that place in the university is displaced." It's an amazing statement caught on tape to have this parent, who is, again, as identified in this article, as an attorney who is co-chairman of a top New York law firm, he said brazenly, "Just to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here."
But of course by now, at least some of you have noted that I have not noted the most salacious aspect of this scandal, and that is the fact that amongst the indicted were two Hollywood actresses, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Adding Hollywood to the headline certainly brings further celebrity attention, but the underlying moral issue is not incidental here, even in referencing Hollywood. At the center of this story are parents who were trying to use corrupt means because of their own aspirations for their children, aspirations that centered in admission to elite private universities. Why would that matter? Well, it is because of a particular kind of aspiration, which is a cultural aspiration.
These parents wanted their children to be a part of the future American elite. And here's something really important: that elite is usually defined, at least in its own mind, as being a meritocracy. That is the American elites tell the country over and over again that they have this elite status because they have earned it, they deserve it, thus meritocracy. They merit it. And one of the way of gaining quick admission into the cultural elite is gaining admission to these universities, and these parents did so knowing that they were actually displacing students who merited admission for their own children who lacked that merit. If they had the merit, they wouldn't have needed to buy this particularly corrupt means of gaining admission.
The fact is, they didn't deserve admission, but they were admitted. That displaced students who did deserve to be admitted, and you are looking at the fact that these parents were so determined to push their children into the future American elite that they were willing to do just about anything, including breaking the law to bring that about. A few years ago, the author Daniel Golden wrote a book entitled "The Price of Admission," and he went to great lengths to demonstrate how families gamed the system to gain admission for their offspring. Frank Bruni points to the book in his column posted yesterday also in The New York Times entitled "The College Admissions Scam."
In his words, the bribery scandal is just the latest proof of an uneven playing field. There's something to that indictment, of course, the United States, any other culture for that matter, has never been the absolutely level playing field it often claims to be. Those who were born to parents with a great deal of wealth have advantages over those born to parents with far less in terms of financial means. You are looking at the fact that some people have opportunities that other people do not have. That's not a surprise. It's never been a surprise. If you were to look at the history of the Soviet Union, officially committed to the fact that every comrade was equal with every other, you'll discover that the children of the Soviet leadership miraculously managed to have admission to the major elite universities. They had opportunities. They had summer cottages. They had all kinds of advantages that others did not have.
As George Orwell famously said in his little novella, Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." The promise of a meritocracy, a genuine meritocracy, is that people can rise to the top by merit, by working hard, by the very dent of their work ethic, by their abilities, by harnessing their talents to a disciplined life in order to risk something, to do something, to get somewhere with their lives. That's the very hope that drove the students who were displaced, who did not gain admission, but did merit it, that's what drove them. It's also really interesting to consider the children of those who were indicted this week in the scandal because, according to the US attorney, many of these children did not know what their parents had done, which is to say they arrived on these campuses probably, somehow believing that they belonged there.
At the end of the day, Christians understand this to be yet another demonstration of Genesis 3, of human sinfulness, of how human depravity works its way through system after system. That's why we need checks and balances. That's why we need federal investigators. That's why we need courts. That's why we need juries. That's why we need indictments, such as were handed down this past Tuesday. And of course, Christians understand that it is never right to lie, to cheat, or to steal, and these indictments accuse these parents of doing all three: lying and cheating and stealing. But it's also true that Christians must understand that it's never right to cheat, and it's never right to cheat even for someone else.
These parents at least fooled themselves into thinking that they were cheating for their children. But as the logic of cultural aspiration makes very clear, they were really cheating for themselves. I do have to end on this story by going back to that statement that was made by the logger, a parent in this case, who said and was caught on tape saying, "It's just, to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here." Really, was it then? You have to wonder if he is now.
‘We must change almost everything in our current societies’: 16-year-old Swedish girl explodes onto world stage as climate change advocate
But next we're going to turn all to the way to Sweden for a story that decidedly didn't stay in Sweden. It has to do with a 16-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg who didn't receive much attention previously but is receiving a great deal of attention now. She received an entire laudatory editorial in yesterday's edition of The New York Times entitled "Grownups Get a Scolding on Climate." The editorial board begins this way, "The girl in long braids and lavender pants was in striking contrast to the rich and powerful adults gathered in Davos in January for the World Economic Forum, and her brief address lacked the usual niceties." She said, "Adults keep saying, 'We owe it to the young people to give them hope.' I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I don't want your hope," she said. "I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act."
We're told that the applause from the adults was tepid, but The New York Times goes on to say, "Hers was not a tone grownups welcomed from a 16-year-old, but Greta Thunberg is someone they should listen to, in fact, must listen to." They declare her to be a 16-year-old prophet of climate change, calling inactive governments to account, and we are told that grownups should listen because she knows what she's talking about. Now, here we see something really interesting. We are told that she knows what she's talking about because of the urgency with which she speaks, but we also have to reflect upon the fact that urgency does not mean expertise. But this is one of the issues favored by The New York Times and the cultural elite, so they are all for Greta Thunberg.
In a very interesting full-page print edition profile a few days ago in The Financial Times, that's a major London newspaper, Greta Thunberg described that all her life she has been the invisible girl. Well, she is not invisible anymore. Indeed, as The Financial Times said, "The Swedish teenager has emerged as the superstar activist of the climate change movement." The Times tells us that she has become the star because, several weeks ago, indeed almost 30 weeks ago, she began a school strike calling out governments for inaction on climate change, and now she has sparked a worldwide movement, or at least a movement that didn't stay in Sweden that spread across Europe and has now come to the United States in which teenagers are skipping school on Fridays in order to call governments out for their inaction to address climate change.
We are told that this coming Friday, there is going to be a big action along these lines here in the United States. Greta Thunberg, again, she's described as the superstar of the climate change movement. She's achieved such notoriety that, according to the Associated Press yesterday, three Norwegian lawmakers have nominated the 16-year-old who was unknown 30 weeks ago for the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize generally and customarily awarded to someone for something like a lifetime achievement that changed the course of the world. In The Financial Times' article, Thunberg tells of the fact that she experienced a tremendous depression when she was age 13. She lost 10 kilos, we are told, and her growth was stunted as a result. She became depressed and she stopped talking and she stopped going to school because she was so traumatized about what was going to happen to the earth because of climate change.
Later in the article, it is explain that she has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome on the autism spectrum, and she uses this, she says, "receiving it as a gift because," according to her diagnosis of the situation, Asperger's means that she sees everything in stark terms of black and white. No shades of gray, which turns out to be quite convenient for an activist along these lines. You cannot say that she is not bold, as The Financial Times says she is famous for her blunt speaking, including this quote, "We must change almost everything in our current societies."
Now just think about this for a moment. Here, you're looking at a 16-year-old girl who is now world famous, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, because of her urgency and her black and white approach to the issue of climate change. The fact is that she was not known and had no attention until between 25 and 30 weeks ago, she began a series of school strikes on Fridays that has now spread to the United States, and here she says, and The Financial Times in a full-page article, profiles her as saying, "We must change almost everything about our current societies."
Now just think about human history here. Think about Joan of Arc. Think about young people, whether young men or young women, boys or girls, who have gained international attention because they stood up and said, "We have to change everything about our societies. Right now." The Financial Times deserves credit for raising two issues. Number one: what is it exactly that Greta Thunberg wants government to do? Even in Sweden, famously liberal Scandinavian Sweden, the Swedish government has not yet figured out how to meet its own carbon emission goals and other goals related to climate change.
The New York Times editorial board lauds her for having the boldness to give a scolding to grownups, but it isn't particularly clear how the grownups would respond in any grownup way to exactly what she demands in such stark terms, not to mention the entire reordering of all of human society. The Financial Times, not a conservative newspaper, describes the situation this way: "The black and white logic she employs can gloss things over. The policy hurdle no one has really solved is how exactly to cut emissions that quickly and who will pay for it all. With today's technology, designing a world with 50% less carbon emissions would be very costly. Pulling the emergency brake, as Thunberg advocates, is easier said than done."
The other interesting thing that comes from The Financial Times is the recognition that Greta Thunberg's 16-year-old worldview is exceedingly dark. As the paper says, "Unlike most environmental speakers, she doesn't believe in offering teary prescriptions for change. The world she sees is a dark one, and she wants other people to feel the same way." Now, that word's not an accident. She wants other people to feel the same way. That's really what this story is about. It's about a social movement led by a 16-year-old that makes people feel urgent and feel serious because she feels urgent and she feels serious, but The Financial Times, in doing this full-page profile, had to come to the conclusion they're not so sure, seriously, how to pull off what troubles her so deeply.
The Financial Times has also pointed out that it seems somewhat incongruous that a 16-year-old adolescent could somehow create a worldwide movement out of a vacuum as they write, "There's been some controversy about whether Thunberg was put up to all of this by her parents, a charge," they go on to say, "that is often leveled at teenage activists." Paragraphs later The Times writes, "Some activists and politicians have suggested that Thunberg is not the ingénue she seems and is being used as a front for radical environmental groups. In Belgium, where the climate strike has been popular, one of the countries environmental ministers said that state intelligence had told her that striking students were a setup by environmental groups."
Now, this was denied by others, but you can see how there's a good deal of head scratching when it comes to this story. But here in the United States, the school strike movement is also getting some attention, although here it is going under the label of the Sunrise Movement. And again, we've been told, there's going to be a major school strike in the United States as a part of this movement this coming Friday. There is to be sure an ongoing public debate and conversation about climate change and what to do about it. That's a part of a mature society, but the interesting aspect of all of this is the fact that that discussion is not likely to be carried out in any kind of comprehensive and responsible way because it's been sparked by school strikes that were organized by a 16-year-old in Sweden, no matter how popular or winsome.
The vantage point of adolescent advocates of social issues: Why what is happening right now is often what youth consider to be the most critical event in history
This is not to say that children and teenagers should not be involved in public issues and cannot make an impact. It's just to say that when you have this kind of instantaneous celebrity activism, it hardly ever lasts or goes well. That point was made by Paul H. Tice in an opinion piece that ran yesterday in The Wall Street Journal. It was entitled, "On Climate, the Kids Are All Wrong." But he goes back to an historic marker, and it's very important for us. "In the summer of 1212," that's the 13th century, 1212, "thousands of divinely inspired young people from across Catholic France and Germany took off to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. None made it to the Holy Land. Many died along the way or were sold into slavery. As military campaigns go, the Children's Crusade was a disaster. Yet," he says, "environmental activists and politicians are adopting the same 'a child shall lead them' strategy to push their climate change agenda and its latest incarnation, The Green New Deal."
It also raises the issue of what some young activists are asserting, which is "intergenerational equity." The fact that it is unfair to their generation that previous generations had energy and other costly advantages that will not be available to them and other advantages that might be lost simply due to climate change. This is one of the arguments made, as Tice suggests, by a new generation of adolescent Saul Alinksys who have addressed themselves to several politicians, both Democratic and Republican, demanding once again a total reshaping of society.
It was very interesting, by the way, to see a liberal Democratic senator, Diane Feinstein of California accosted by young people in the Sunshine Movement, and she was addressed, even spoken down to by the young people who told her that she did not understand climate change. Senator Feinstein didn't appear to take it very well and she retorted to the young people, effectively, that they didn't know that they were talking about and they weren't being respectful.
But finally on this issue, one of the truths that we need to confront is the fact that every single one of us lives in a certain period of time. This is a part of what it means to be temporal, finite human beings, mortals. We live in a specific time and our experience is bound to that time. We tend to read all of reality through the lenses of our own experience, which is to say that Greta Thunberg and others might be forgiven the fact that they are looking at the world right now and seeing the issues that haunt them as being the most dramatic and dire ever to have confronted the human race.
But as you look at human history, just think of the 20th century, massive famine, infectious diseases, two horrifying World Wars that killed multiple tens of millions of people. Climate change is a serious issue, a serious issue that deserves to be addressed seriously by serious people. But a serious a consideration undertaken by serious people must also be conducted in a serious way, and that is not what is represented here.