A college lesson in wealth and the myth of the American Dream, by John McGauley

If there is a story that offers something to anger everybody, no matter their age, politics, gender or anything else, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more delicious to sink your teeth into than the college

admissions bribery scandal.

In this time of divisive politics, the culture wars and what have you, it’s refreshing to have a story that everybody can agree upon is so spit-inducing offensive.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, the story reeks of wealth and privilege. If you went to college, it still stinks to high heaven. Think back to your own experience.

I recall trooping off to the St. Louis Public Library with my father, and sitting down at a long table in the badly-lit basement, situated next to a cheap metal bookshelf where all the college catalogues were lined up.

My father, dad to eight kids, was now dealing with the sixth in line, me. He selected a number of catalogues and, like pulling out a menu at a restaurant, read from right to left, the price was paramount. Now, this was many years ago, so the tuition numbers would seem miniscule by today’s standards, but everything’s relative, good yearly salaries then for the head of a household ran about $15,000 a year.

I had decent grades, but my SAT scores were a bit weird, having maxed out in the verbal part, so low in math that a counselor told me — and I’m not making this up — that I performed “about as well as a household appliance.” I was no athlete; I didn’t play in the band.

We plowed through about 20 of those catalogues and it was a depressing experience. I told my father that I didn’t even want to go to college and I’ll never forget his look, and what he said.

“Over my dead body.” He hadn’t the opportunity to attend college, what with the Great Depression and World War II so rudely interrupting his life.

I did attend college, as a commuter student, taking the city bus or hitchhiking daily to classes. It wasn’t a college experience with fraternity houses and football games and being away from parents for the first time. It was just classes.

Like I said, you’ve all had your own experience, college or not.

That’s why the tawdry, soiled story of bribing your kid’s way into the blue-blood schools is so repellent.

For one, it runs counter to a myth we’ve held about our country for more than a couple centuries; that we live in a culture where talent and pluck are rewarded. Calling it a myth doesn’t mean it’s not true, only that it’s a belief we have that sustains our collective thought about America.

Second, even though we admire and aspire to success and worship wealth, we abhor the rich gaming any system to leapfrog all the rest of us. It’s the equivalent of cutting in line, being seated ahead of everyone else at a fine restaurant, flying on a private jet when the rest of us shoeless louts are being patted down by TSA agents. During the Vietnam War it was using your influence to get your boy out of being drafted. It’s the ability to go scot-free from a DUI charge or even domestic assault because you hired the best legal team. You can dream up a million ways in which the wealthy have it hands down over you.

Third, and this is the sweetest icing on the cake, the poster children in these stories were stupid and entitled brats. A novelist could not have dreamed this story up, or the vignette that one of these kids, on the day the story broke, was enjoying spring break on the $100 million yacht of the chairman of the board of the University of Southern California, one of the schools involved in the scam.

A $100 million yacht, for heaven’s sake. Like I said, there’s something for everyone in this story.

And you know what this story is going to do? It’s going to be used over and over again in any number of ways. White privilege? Check. The 1-percenters? Check. Inequity in the capitalist system? Check. It crosses all political borders, it’s a scimitar that slashes all different ways.

It chips away at our national myth of being a “meritocracy.”

The untrue part of the myth is that we have a level playing field, when in fact it’s funhouse unlevel. Or, in another metaphor, imagine an oval racetrack with thousands of starting blocks placed randomly around the track. The starter pistol rings out and we scramble, but some have to come from 800 yards behind to get to the place where others started.

Strangely and contradictorily, we worship wealth and success while at the same time hating it when others possess it and use it to push their thumbs into our eye. We resent the “elites,” but we aspire to be them, too.

Unfortunately, this push-pull is always going to be with us, in one form or another. We’re born into the place where we’re born. The rich grow richer, and more entitled. In this country, and everywhere on earth, wealth buys access and favors, and you don’t have to be one of the “little people” who stand in line.

But maybe, maybe, this superb, perfect story of college bribery will stay with us for a couple of years, and make us aware of how inherently unfair some things are. And maybe level things out a little bit.

A $100 million yacht? That’s obscene and should never occur. And with a kid on board whose grossly-overpaid parents greased the skids to get her into USC? A pox on their houses!

Author and local radio talk show host John McGauley writes from Keene. He can be reached at mcgauleyink @gmail.com

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