Mere Utilitarianism: The Bigger College Scandal

Priorities

America has expressed shock over this month’s massive college admissions scandal. It shouldn’t have.

The scheme, in which fifty people were charged by the FBI with cheating to get unqualified students into some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, is merely the latest in a long line of similar incidents. According to The New York Times:

  • Between 1992 and 1996, several hundred people paid between $2,000 and $9,000 for the answers to tests used to gain admittance to graduate school. Expert test-takers in New York would memorize the answers and relay them via phone to testing sites in Chicago and Los Angeles, where the answers would be carved in code into pencils given to students.
  • From 2008 to 2011, twenty students from five schools on Long Island were paid $500 to $3,600 to take the SAT and ACT for other students. The scheme prompted the requirement that students provide a photo ID when signing up for tests.
  • The University of Illinois in 2009 was revealed to have a “clout list” of students who received special consideration because of their political connections. The Times noted “that 800 applicants won spots at the flagship Urbana-Champaign campus after intervention from state lawmakers and university trustees. The [Chicago Tribune, which broke the story,] said the students were admitted even though some did not meet the university’s admission standards.” The practice was so widespread that the university’s national rankings fell because it had admitted so many unqualified students.

Elsewhere on this site, John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera point out that the corruption in higher education goes far beyond the admissions process. The very meaning of a college degree has been twisted. No longer does a university education mean you have acquired the knowledge and wisdom necessary to become a better person. The good life has been redefined in materialistic terms—college is the ticket that gains you entrance into a life of high-paying jobs and accompanying wealth and influence. They quote T.S. Eliot, who said:

“The individual wants more education not as an aid to the acquisition of wisdom but in order to get on; the nation wants more in order to get the better of other nations, the class wants it to get the better of other classes, or at least to hold its own against them.”

We can certainly see this dynamic in the latest scandal, in which some parents paid as much as $75,000 for someone to take the ACT or SAT for their children—or to bribe test administrators to fix their answers. Apparently, they didn’t much care whether their kids could actually do the work or deserved to get into the school of their choice—and they certainly weren’t concerned about other young people who were elbowed out by their cheating. They were just helping their own to “get on,” no matter the cost, financially or morally.

How does a Christian Worldview address this grubby descent into mere utilitarianism? While there’s no doubt that a firm grasp of the gospel and the habits of thrift, industry, and generosity it encourages often leads to material prosperity—anyone remember the Protestant work ethic?—thoughtful Christians have known for centuries that education is not so much for making a living as making a life.

The Reformation highlights this truth in bold letters. On August 26, 1535, city electors voted unanimously to make Geneva a Reformed Protestant city. As integral to this identity, they sought to ensure that every person had an opportunity to decide for Christ, so they encouraged sustained, public proclamation of the gospel. No longer would anyone be assumed to be a real Christian just because he or she showed up at church.

To carry the Reformation forward at this strategic crossroads of Europe, John Calvin, author of the acclaimed Institutes of the Christian Religion, was brought in to be Geneva’s pastor-teacher. Calvin taught many topics that emerged from his understanding of the Scriptures, including financial principles, the dignity of work (including his famed work ethic), caring for the poor, and building strong families. Universal education was a critical component. According to Thomas A. Bloomer:

The citizens of Geneva had committed to educate their children as part of their decision to become a Protestant city. This commitment was the result of their theology that each person was created in the image of God and that each one could be in relationship with God directly and only needed to read the Bible to know how that was supposed to work. This was a real first in the history of the world—all children of a nation being taught to read, even the girls.

The Reformation was Word-centered, in that people must learn to read and reason from the Bible. Education was therefore a critical endeavor—and a holy one. It was a lesson carried over to the American colonies.

In 1620 the Pilgrims sailed west to North America, taking along the Geneva Bible, which provided marginal notes on civil government and other subjects written by the Protestant Reformers. During the next century and a half, most children in the colonies were home-schooled. They learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also were expected to develop Christian character. Later, Noah Webster wrote the first dictionary for the new nation, saying, “Education is useless without the Bible.”

Indeed. Elizabeth Youmans says, “As descendants of the European reformers, who highly valued a ‘virtuous education,’ the colonials believed the education of their children was a generational duty to form the future and its leadership upon the foundation of Christ and His Word.”

Harvard College, one of our nation’s elite schools, was founded in 1636 to train the next generation of Christian ministers. The school’s rules and precepts stated, “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).” The school’s motto adopted in 1692 was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae (Truth for Christ and the Church). Now the motto is simply Veritas.

So, I can’t imagine why our nation’s best schools—which have scrupulously scrubbed God and the Bible from their curricula in their lurch toward pragmatism—keep getting ensnared in scandal. Can you?

 

Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of God’s Story in 66 Verses.


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