Why You Shouldn’t Buy Your Child’s Place in University

I have been thinking a lot about John Rawls’ theory of justice, in part because I am working with a fourth-year student on her honor’s thesis, but also because I’ve been watching the college admissions scandal unfolding in the United States (a scandal I find at once fascinating and appalling).

My student is writing about John Rawls’s theory of justice and how his theoretical views might be used to evaluate federal government policies with respect to the SNC-Lavalin controversy, and Doug Ford’s provincial government policies with respect to the cancellation of both the guaranteed income pilot project and increases to the minimum wage.

Felicity Huffman and John Rawls

The Ethicist says the best way to understand the morality of the actions of parents like Felicity Huffman (left) is through the philosophy of John Rawls (right).

Rawls provides an ideal theoretical framework for examining actual policies and activities because he believed that all currently existing societies are unjust in a very particular way: they are unjust because they disproportionately reward some people and penalize others for characteristics beyond their control, and these rewards and punishments affect how their lives unfold in ways both big and small.

For example, children do nothing to deserve being born rich or poor; and yet, these chances of birth will disproportionately affect their lives, regardless of the effort they make. Children born into wealthy families will experience world travel, fancy houses and expensive private schools. Children born into comfortable families will be provided with books and piano lessons. Children born into poverty will likely end up with few options and bad teeth.

Similarly, no one deserves to succeed or fail on account of their gender; however, if the society into which they are born is sexist, the options open to them and the way they are treated will shaped by this fact, no matter how intelligent they are or how hard they work. The same is true if a society is racist or homophobic: peoples’ lives will be shaped in ways that have very little or nothing to do with their actual efforts and abilities if they happen to fall on the wrong side of whatever dividing line is used to determine who does and doesn’t belong.

 

To make these sorts of socially-based injustices clear to his readers, Rawls asks us to imagine that we meet together to plan out the institutions and policies and rules that will govern our society, and that, when we meet, we do so behind what he calls “the veil of ignorance.” The veil of ignorance is a situation in which we don’t know anything about ourselves, including things like our family background, our race, our gender, our intelligence, our physical abilities, our sexual orientation, and so-on.

If we designed an ideal society under these conditions of ignorance about who we are, Rawls argues, we would not design a society which allowed inherited wealth, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., to determine how our lives would unfold. Instead, everyone would be provided a package of the social goods necessary for an equal start in life (these social goods would arguably include everything from a free, high-quality education to free health and dental care), and the society we’d create would not privilege or penalize anyone on the basis of factors beyond their control.

John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance illustrated by Philosophyink [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance illustrated by Philosophyink, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Once this new society and its institutions are in place and are running properly, any differences between how people’s lives go would be primarily attributable to their own efforts. Moreover, a just society, understood in Rawlsian terms, would make provision for people who were mentally or physically unable to compete equally, and would provide the sorts of social supports necessary to ensure their lives are as good as a society can make them.

Desert, for moral and political philosophers, is a moral notion: what we deserve ought to be tied to things it is in our power to control – like how hard we work – not things over which we have no control – like our family background. Rawls’s argument is compelling, and his vision of a society that does what it can to ensure differences in people’s lives are tied not to luck or chance but to their own efforts, is inspiring.

Which brings us to that college admissions scandal.

In brief, the scandal is that wealthy parents (some of them celebrities) have been cheating the supposedly merit-based university admittance system to get their children into elite institutions of higher learning. They cheated in two ways.

First, they paid people involved in preparing students for university admittance to bend the rules around aptitude testing and to help their children with their applications – which, in practice, often meant writing those applications for them.

Second, they paid large sums of money to corrupt people within those elite institutions to accept children who – based on their marks, tests and extra-curricular activities – would not have got in. To add insult to injury, when their children were accepted as a result of this cheating, the parents boasted (sometimes on social media) about what great students their children were, citing as proof their acceptance into these elite universities.

Basically, they wanted to have their cake and eat it too: they wanted the universities to be the kind of elite institutions that take only the best students but they also wanted mediocre students like their children to get in, even though, over time, the entrance of mediocre students would undermine the reputations of the very institutions they wanted their children to attend.

 

Rawls’s philosophy provides us with a helpful way of getting at what is so wrong, so morally troubling, about this behavior.

First, acceptance to university, any university, whether we are talking about Harvard or Laurentian, is supposed to be based on merit and ability – on how hard a student has worked and whether they have the aptitude for higher education. How well students made it over the academic hurdles placed before them as they moved from elementary to middle to high school is a good indicator of merit. These hurdles are not meant to be roadblocks — they are intended to help students determine what sorts of education they are best suited for, as well as how hard they are willing to work to achieve their goals. You are supposed to get into university because you did well in terms of these hurdles, not because your parents had enough money to remove them.

Rejection letter from Harvard. (Source: Quora)

Rejection letter from Harvard. (Source: Quora)

Second, for every student whose parents bought their way in there is another student who worked harder and performed better, but didn’t come from a wealthy background and was kept out. This seems manifestly unfair.

Third, the level of entitlement on the part of the parents is astounding. To believe because you’re rich, your children deserve places in elite universities that they would never get on merit speaks to such an inflated sense of your – and your children’s – importance that I am really at a loss for words. To then boast about what great students your children are because they got into a great university as a result of your immoral and illegal efforts reveals either a disturbing level of hypocrisy or a confounding lack of self-awareness.

But the deeper and more ethically important problem with the behavior of these parents is this: education is one of the only mechanisms we have in our society to mitigate some of the contingencies of birth and background. A university education allows those not born into wealthy families to move up the social and economic ladder.

Moreover, the more elite the university you attend, the more likely your degree will translate into social and economic success, as employers will recognize the name and reputation of the school you attended, and because you will make social contacts that will help you in the future. For these parents and their enablers to so clearly detach access to education from merit and desert is to further entrench the very inequalities that education is, partially at least, meant to address.

Any parent who can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that their children will get into elite universities already has more resources than most to ensure their children good lives. To cheat the educational system to give them even more social advantages than they already possess is, if we think in Rawlsian terms, to compound your illegal and morally problematic acts with socially unjust behavior.

 

Marjorie Ingall, writing in Tablet Magazine, sums this element of injustice up well when she writes that when she attended Harvard, she was surprised at finding some (to put it mildly) not very bright students in her classes. When she mentioned this to some other (smarter) students, they laughed, and asked whether these inept students had the same last names as appeared on some of the university buildings — which they did. As she puts it, giving money to universities has long been a way for wealthy (and mainly white) people to get their not-so-smart children into prestigious universities, and she wonders why the parents caught up in the scandal didn’t take this legal and socially acceptable route:

Jeez, just buy a building, zillion-dollar fashion designer for Target!

University graduation ceremony, Ottawa. (Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze tfaustin [CC0] https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/cc0/ via Wikimedia Commons)

University graduation ceremony, Ottawa. (Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze tfaustin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ingall makes another important point in her piece which is worth sharing, namely, that these parents do their children no favors when they cheat the system, bribing university administrators with huge donations or corrupt coaches with large sums of cash. And while she chooses to:

…let other writers ponder the manifold ways in which privileged people work the system to try to increase their kids’ privilege while telling themselves the playing field is level.

Ingall focuses on:

…how shitty a parent you have to be to sell out your child, and to help create an even more corrupt world for everyone else’s children.

One can only imagine how devastated a student who genuinely believed they were attending university because of their own abilities and efforts would feel when they discovered the truth. One wonders whether they will ever be able to trust their parents again.

A final thought: this scandal, of course, took place in the United States, and it is unlikely that a similar one could take place in Canada. We don’t really have any “elite” universities in the American sense, and our tuition fees, while high, are not so high that most students whatever their background – perhaps with the help of loans – cannot receive a university education if they want one.

However, we should not be too complacent, as Rawls’s analysis of what makes all current societies unjust applies as much to Canada as it does to the US. More and more wealth is controlled by fewer and fewer Canadians; Canada is one of the few developed countries without a robust inheritance tax; and many Canadians live in poverty that could be alleviated by concrete measures on the part of government, such as a guaranteed annual income. This means that some Canadians (those born into wealthy families) will still live very different lives, and have very different opportunities, than those born into poor ones. Such structural injustices can only be fixed by structural changes, and we should demand that our politicians, from all parties, start making them.

Featured image: Poster from the 1999 movie Varsity Blues which gave its name to the US Department of Justice’s university admittance investigation (Operation Varsity Blues). 

Rachel Haliburton

 

 

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.

 

 

 

 

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