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College Admissions, Cheating, and Existential Anxiety

The recent cheating scandal in college admissions underscores the anxiety even the wealthiest, most famous parents feel about their children’s future – an anxiety aptly described and predicted by Reinhold Niebuhr, among other mid-twentieth-century theologians, and one whose effects we can and should mitigate by political means.

As nearly everyone in America knows by now, 33 wealthy parents of college-age children were charged with various forms of fraud on Tuesday for paying William Rick Singer various sums of money to cheat, bribe, and fake their kids’ way into selective colleges.

Much of the media attention has focused on the fact that two reasonably-well-known actors, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin (and presumably their husbands, though only Mossimo Giannulli was charged) were among those who paid Singer to give their children a fraudulent hand up. Many on my Twitter feed and in other places have noted the ironies of the situation: namely, that wealthy parents have many ways to game the system in their children’s favor that won’t get them arrested. For upper-middle-class parents, there are test prep courses, expensive sports for kids to join, extracurricular activities, and the numerous advantages that come with simply growing up in an affluent home. For the really rich among us, there’s the tried-and-true method of choosing an auspicious moment to donate to College X’s new building fund, perhaps the very moment that one’s child happens to be applying for admission to College X.

What is striking about this case, and really about many cases in which already-wealthy parents find ways to massage the system to get their children into elite institutions, is that the children of celebrities or wealthy executives are extremely likely to do just fine no matter what college they attend. Lori Loughlin’s daughters are already “Instagram influencers,” a status which – however much time and effort it no doubt requires – is certainly vastly easier to obtain for children of celebrities. Sons and daughters of highly-paid business, legal, or medical professionals already have the social networks that are so crucial for career success. They know how to act around professionals and wealthy people to make the most of those connections. If they do screw up, they nearly always have a safety net in the form of parents’ resources and support that will see them through at least the first few mistakes.

So why are celebrities and well-connected professionals so fearful that their children won’t get in to USC or Georgetown that they turn, not just to test-prep courses or expensive extracurriculars, but to bribery and fraud? We might understand the fervent prayers of a working-class parent for this one best chance that might land their child in a better-paying career, or even the solidly-middle-class parent who values a particular institution’s name on their child’s diploma to (partly) make up for their lack of high-powered connections. But Aunt Becky? What gives?

We can find one convincing answer in a place we may not expect: the work of certain theologians of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Decades ago, thinkers like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr described our human condition precisely as a condition of anxiety. For these theologians, the anxiety in which human beings live is fundamentally spiritual, but it expresses itself in any number of concrete, worldly actions – such as, oh, let’s just say, cheating to get ourselves or our children an unfair advantage.

Niebuhr’s take is especially interesting here. Reinhold Niebuhr, as many readers will know, is arguably the most famous American theologian of the mid-twentieth century and a major figure in contemporary Christian realist thought. In The Nature and Destiny of Man: Part Ihe argues that to be human is to have an infinite spirit and consciousness; human beings transcend our immediate moment (1-4). Through this consciousness, we also know ourselves; we perceive our own transcendence. But: to be human is also to be mortal. We will all die (3). What’s worse, we all know we will die. Our consciousness allows us to perceive what we are and what is to come; we know that we are “natural” beings who are vulnerable to illness, harm, and eventually death.

For Niebuhr, the contrast between this vulnerability and our transcendent, infinite spirit and consciousness leads to anxiety (182). We long for what is transcendent; but because we are mortal, our longings can never be fulfilled (in this world anyway) and we experience anxiety about our inability to overcome our impending death.

And what do we do about this unresolved anxiety and longing? Well, we try to make ourselves feel better by shoring up whatever certainties we can, generally at the expense of others (182). We hoard money and resources to stave off the uncertainty of having too little to eat or wear. We seek regard and a good reputation to solidify our social standing, even if it means painting someone else in a bad light. More broadly, we try to find stability in work, family, social life, political party, or country. Anything to alleviate the anxiety that can’t be fully tamed.

The fears that spark these actions are not entirely misguided, though already-privileged parents’ responses to them often are.

Some commenters have speculated that the parents who paid William Rick Stringer to commit bribery and fraud were primarily concerned with their own reputations – the pride of saying they were parents of a Yale student or a UCLA student. Others think it was more about setting their children up with the prestige and connections elite institutions provide. Most likely it was something of both. Either way, we see a desperate striving to ensure stability – of reputation, social class, earning ability – that is likely familiar to many parents. At their worst, such impulses lead people to commit outright fraud. And many who would never commit fraud or bribery are nevertheless guilty of shrugging their shoulders at the chance – the likelihood – that the stability they strive for comes at the expense of someone else.

College admissions were not always so fraught. What we see now is a deep, quaking fear, even among the wealthiest, that the next generation will fall behind – not simply that they might make less money or have fewer things than their parents, but that they will be kicked out of a social class of good, respected, productive professionals into a life of “mere” service work, or retail, or cobbling together gigs, or unemployment. They will be less valued, will be shamed, because they do not have the professional lives and social connections parents imagine they will get from attending an elite college.

The fears that spark these actions are not entirely misguided, though already-privileged parents’ responses to them often are. Perceptions do not always match reality, but it is the case that those who are not born into a privileged and fairly small social class, or who do not manage to stay in that class, face the precarity of low wages, poor or no benefits, cobbling together part-time or “gig” jobs, and, in general, lack or loss of the stability that contributes in so many ways to a good human life. It’s a vicious circle: anxiety about one’s (and especially one’s children’s) economic and social standing leads those who have power and resources to hoard their privileges, which makes everyone else’s insecurity and anxiety even worse. Many Americans are at least somewhat aware of this; Dream Hoarderswas a hot item for a reason.

But what to do? Niebuhr was a Christian writer, and his answer to the problem of anxiety involved religious conceptions of repentance and faith. But even if the most fundamental answer is a spiritual one, there are political ways to alleviate both our anxiety and our hoarding of pedigrees and social capital.

We will all die; that much is true. Better to organize our lives together so that we do not so acutely feel the need to scratch, claw, scheme, and step on the dreams and well-being of others, in the time we do have.

Understanding that anxiety creates this vicious circle makes it ever more pressing that, as a political community, Americans develop a better safety net, so that failure to find that ever-more-elusive “good” job does not mean penury. We need to promote social mobility, by paying workers decently and providing education and training that is accessible to all. We need both to perceive people as fully human, whatever their job or current state of (un)employment, and to treat them as fully human and worthy of respect by ensuring good working conditions, a minimal level of well-being and resources, and enough time off for normal activities outside of work.

Politicians and thinkers are saying many of these things, but whether and how we dismantle even some of the structures of inequality that increase both anxiety and the precarity of many people’s lives is still up for grabs. Niebuhr’s recognition that anxiety is a condition of all human life, and that we must take steps to address it politically, may help us better understand what the stakes are and how to address the problems the current scandal is highlighting.

If the consequences of not quite achieving your parents’ professional or celebrity status were not perceived as so dire – and if, for those without famous parents, they were not so often actually dire – then maybe we would all feel a bit more stable. We could all take a breath and help our children reach for their goals without the constant hovering, prodding, desperately encouraging, reprimanding – and, sometimes, cheating. Niebuhr and his colleagues may be right that human beings can never be entirely free from the anxiety that accompanies our mortality. But creating a world in which a person’s stability and minimal well-being are not so strongly tied to her college degree, and more generally to her social class, can go a long way.

We will all die; that much is true. Better to organize our lives together so that we do not so acutely feel the need to scratch, claw, scheme, and step on the dreams and well-being of others, in the time we do have.

One thought on “College Admissions, Cheating, and Existential Anxiety

  1. Laura…just so proud of your endeavors…your insight into our world at this time and place should be preached to the ones who now scream that they are entitled, or that only want to crawl behind the computer screens to hide from a world that demands more of an individual to “keep up.”

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