College admissions: but if all the children are above average, what about the ones who are below average?

This piece by Frank Bruni is worse than I expected. Much worse. Foolishly, I guess, I assumed that he’d encourage Bougie to consider dropping out of the college admissions rat race because it’s become immoral, crazymaking, and deeply corrupt. Based just on my own experience with the college admissions process from 1999 to 2001, I know that American yuppies are at least a decade and a half overdue for a stern admonishment to simmer the fuck down about that horseshit right now. It’s shanda fur die poorim. Of course, the sorts of disingenuously self-dealing bourgeois supremacists who read the New York Times aren’t ones to consider, let alone give a rat’s ass, about how their behavior appears in the eyes of decent people at socioeconomic stations lower than their own.

One reason is that they’re intellectually cocooned by outlets like the Times and US News and World Report. They live in a positive feedback loop where no one really challenges their corruption. Ross Douthat is allowed to challenge cherished liberal social orthodoxies at the Grey Lady, but even he might get his meal ticket yanked if he lowered the boom on striver shitheads and the arms race that they’ve made of college admissions. It’s easy to imagine, but hard to confirm, editorial meetings at which the outlines of the reservation are delineated for columnists, along with the consequences of going off the reservation, including that living in truth will mean living in poverty. Douthat playing around with milquetoast populist tradcon principles at the salon doesn’t threaten anyone, but telling Bougie to shut up and be gracious about the opportunity to attend Rutgers is an attack on the home islands.

This is a huge fucking problem. Admission to any bachelor’s program indicates some degree of initiative or something. Maybe “something” is a munificent donation from honored parental alumni, but that kind of thing is the exception that proves the rule. Even poorly regarded bachelor’s programs reject some applicants. Students don’t usually get admitted even to fourth-rate schools if they were total fuckups in high school, spending the whole time with a thumb up the ass and a line up the nose. (Rob Ford: “I’m all about that ‘base, ’bout that ‘base–hell partner, I’m all about that rock, too.”) The handwringing bourgeois targets of Bruni’s piece have high standards for their precious snowflakes’ “safety schools,” admission to most of which is evidence of reasonably strong academic aptitude. (The very parlance of “safety” and “reach” schools is as barfworthy and poisonous as the haut bourgeois get. It should be buried. At Yucca Mountain.) Admission to SUNY Geneseo or Humboldt State is no critical failure. Shit, admission to some come-one-come-all community college isn’t a failure, either, if the matriculant maintains decent grades.

The problem with Bruni’s column is that he doesn’t tell parents to shut the fuck up on the basis that admission to any four-year program is a sign that their children aren’t totally lost. No, he has to tell them that these shitty safety schools are actually paths to premature greatness:

Jenna, 26, went through the college admissions process two years after he did. She, too, was applying from a charmed school: in her case, Phillips Exeter Academy. Her transcript was a mix of A’s and B’s, and she was active in so many Exeter organizations that when graduation rolled around, she received a prize given to a student who’d brought special distinction to the school.

But her math SAT score was in the low 600s. Perhaps because of that, she was turned down for early decision at her first choice, Claremont McKenna College.

For the general admission period, she applied to more than half a dozen schools. Georgetown, Emory, the University of Virginia and Pomona College all turned her down, leaving her to choose among the University of South Carolina, Pitzer College and Scripps College, a sister school of Claremont McKenna’s in Southern California.

“I felt so worthless,” she recalled.

She chose Scripps. And once she got there and saw how contentedly she fit in, she had a life-changing realization: Not only was a crushing chapter of her life in the past, it hadn’t crushed her. Rejection was fleeting — and survivable.

As a result, she said, “I applied for things fearlessly.”

She won a stipend to live in Tijuana, Mexico, for a summer and work with indigent children there. She prevailed in a contest to attend a special conference at the Carter Center in Georgia and to meet Jimmy Carter.

And she applied for a coveted spot with Teach for America, which she got. Later she landed a grant to develop a new charter school for low-income families in Phoenix, where she now lives. It opened last August, with Jenna and a colleague at the helm.

“I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” she told me. “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.”

Mao and Pol Pot weren’t totally wrong about the morally edifying effects of hard agricultural labor on bourgeois young people. Yes, I said it. Suck on it. A 26-year-old Teach for America alumna employed as the co-principal of a charter school is an incredibly neat encapsulation of what’s wrong with education in the United States today. Plus she got to volunteer for poor Mexicans and meet Jimmy Carter!

Bully for you, bitch. The evidence needed for the rest of us to demand systemic reform is hidden in plain sight in Bruni’s column. This chick has gone from teacher to school administrator at the age of 26, with no more than four years’ teaching experience. She’s too fucking young and callow. Demanding a bare minimum of, say, ten years’ teaching experience for appointment to positions in school administration would tend to elevate people who can at least tolerate teaching and have a good working idea of what goes on at schools. It would tend to screen out socially climbing careerists because they’d have to put up with children or teenagers on a daily basis for a decade or more, and they’d have to do so for a yeoman’s salary. Instead, we have this woman jumping from organization to organization every few years or months and being appointed co-principal of a charter school at the same age that Hertz would allow her to rent a car without a young driver’s risk premium.

It really is true, then, that community service has been hijacked by the haute bourgeoisie and perverted into a series of pro forma qualifications whose achievement is used to justify rent-seeking. The nominal purpose of Teach for America, for example, is a good one: the placement of teachers into short-term adjunct contracts at troubled schools in troubled neighborhoods. These schools tend to have high rates of teacher burnout and attrition, so a regular infusion of fresh blood is a good idea. The problem is that TfA placements are routinely used by those awarded them as a way to tell admissions committees at graduate and professional schools, “Hey, look at what an excellent altruist I am! Admit me!” It comes naturally; many of the social climbers thus angling for admission to law school have been engaged in curricular and extracurricular status-whoring since they started high school, some of them since middle school.

It’s fucking filthy. It’s shameful. It should be utterly mortifying for those engaged in it, but they exist in a moral plane that is beneath shame and mortification.

One of my high school classmates parlayed a Teach for America placement into law school admission immediately upon completion of her teaching gig. She’s now a Young Turk of some significance in DC legal circles (i.e., not a four-year veteran code monkey like my buddy on Mass Ave) and one half of a power couple on the rise. During our senior year of high school, her future husband tried to nominate me most likely to operate a bratwurst cart on a street in Germany, but the yearbook committed basically told him to get fucked. Such a thing could not be published because, as Coach Mac always said, “Everyone’s a wiener at the Day School.” (The only thing I didn’t like about the bratwurst cart idea was the prospect of being stuck in Germany, and hence in the Twilight Zone.)

I have the bad feeling that this lawyer classmate of mine sold has her soul, or leased it out long-term in any event. It’s a tragic prospect, because she’s whip-smart and I always knew her to be unusually well-mannered and morally grounded. On the other hand, I guess I can upgrade my estimate of the percent of Young Turks inside the Beltway who aren’t dog-ass shitheads from one percent to maybe five percent. And I’m only being sort of facetious. It’s no coincidence that so many people in Congress and the State Department look like they’re fit for an insane asylum, and not in a pleasant Lawrence Welk way, either. It’s a bad town with far too many Young Turks. It’s infested with Teach for America alumni.

One of Bruni’s other subjects is a fellow named Peter who ended up in something called the Boston Consulting Group by way of Indiana University, along with a high school classmate from New Trier, IL (bougie-ass Chicagoland), who got there by way of Yale. Nobody writing about people like these ever explains what the fuck consulting is. In I am Charlotte Simmons, Adam Gellin haphazardly tries to explain it to Charlotte as some sort of inscrutable bullshit artistry whose main benefit is hella frequent flier miles for the consultant. It’s never explained that the consultants in firms like McKinsey are consulting on anything in particular. It’s an intransitive verb. Even at the environmental consulting firm I burned out of after college, where I had no difficulty explaining the kind of work I did, I was called a “Staff Specialist I.” Well, what the fuck is that supposed to mean? I was an entry-level remediation project flunky reporting to professional geologists, and the company was too deep in the bullshit to describe that in plain English.

The intransitive sorts of consulting positions seem to be nothing more than opportunities for Young Turks to crash into other people’s offices and tell the lifers what to do. One of the big problems with American business is that the lifers don’t tell these callow little shits to piss off. No one has any duty of etiquette to be gracious to some fresh-faced little punk in a business suit who shows up and tells a group with two or three centuries’ collective industry experience that they’re doing it all wrong. Educational credentials be damned, it’s still some callow little punk.

You know what this looks like? A regression to the antediluvian tradition of giving all the local notables officer’s commissions because they’re good aristocrats, regardless of whether they know their ass from a hole in the ground. This shit is so backwards that Bismarck would need another stein to listen to it. Hell, it’s pre-Napoleonic.

This is the model to which Frank Bruni wants us and our children to aspire.

I don’t think Peter’s example is extraordinary: People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates. Nor is Jenna’s arc so unusual. For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.

So why do so many Americans — anxious parents, addled children — treat the period in late March and early April, when elite colleges deliver disappointing news to anywhere from 70 to 95 percent of their applicants, as if it’s precisely that?

Because they’re unhinged bourgeois supremacists, is why. And Bruni isn’t doing a thing to talk some damn sense and modesty into them. No amount of purple prose will do the trick if he won’t tell them to simmer the hell down and stop being grandiose.

I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college — any decent college — and on finding a way to help them pay for it. Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those that won’t leave them saddled with debt.

When I asked Alice Kleeman, the college adviser at Menlo-Atherton High School in the Bay Area of California, about the most significant changes in the admissions landscape over the last 20 years, she mentioned the fixation on getting into the most selective school possible only after noting that “more students are unable to attend their college of first choice because of money.”

Cool story. This minority is the Brahmin-of-the-Brahmins set that pays for the New York Times and can afford to live in motherfucking Menlo-Atherton. Bruni is looking for workaday chill-pill wisdom in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the Bay Area, let alone the country. It’s that awkward feeling when one cannot afford to send one’s precious snowflake to his first-choice school because one spent all of one’s money living in a proper SuperZIP. Oops.

In a way, the worst story Bruni tells is of a kid named Matt Levin. It’s like something out of the Canterbury Tales rewritten by Jonathan Franzen and a committee from Hallmark Cards, a heartwarming story of a young man who belatedly learned to love back the homely safety school who loved him all along and appreciate it, newly spellbound, for the ravishing beauty that he had hitherto found repulsive. There’s no making this shit up:

Matt, like many of his peers, was shooting for the Ivies: in his case, Yale, Princeton or Brown. He had laid the groundwork: high SAT scores; participation in sports and music; a special prize for junior-year students with the highest grade-point averages; membership in various honor societies; more than 100 hours of community service.

For Yale, Princeton and Brown, that wasn’t enough. All three turned him down.

This is the academic equivalent of funny hat game at a Toronto nightclub. A mature people would consider it utterly disgraceful to stoop to such a level.

His mother, Diana, told me that on the day he got that news, “He shut me out for the first time in 17 years. He barely looked at me. Said, ‘Don’t talk to me and don’t touch me.’ Then he disappeared to take a shower and literally drowned his sorrows for the next 45 minutes.”

This shit went down on Long Island. Why the hell did homeboy spend 45 minutes in the shower without a cute but trashy Italian chick? If the amateur girls weren’t interested, he could easily have found a loyal daughter of the Guyland to join him for a fee. Jewish-Italian would have worked, too. That there is a powerful crossbreed in the Mid-Atlantic.

The following morning, he rallied and left the house wearing a sweatshirt with the name of the school that had been his fourth choice and had accepted him: Lehigh University. By then he had read his parents’ letter, more than once. That they felt compelled to write it says as much about our society’s warped obsession with elite colleges as it does about the Levins’ warmth, wisdom and generosity.

That they felt compelled to write it actually speaks to their derangement. Get ready to get twee:

Dear Matt,

On the night before you receive your first college response, we wanted to let you know that we could not be any prouder of you than we are today. Whether or not you get accepted does not determine how proud we are of everything you have accomplished and the wonderful person you have become. That will not change based on what admissions officers decide about your future. We will celebrate with joy wherever you get accepted — and the happier you are with those responses, the happier we will be. But your worth as a person, a student and our son is not diminished or influenced in the least by what these colleges have decided.

If it does not go your way, you’ll take a different route to get where you want. There is not a single college in this country that would not be lucky to have you, and you are capable of succeeding at any of them.

We love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, all the way around the world and back again — and to wherever you are headed.

Mom and Dad 

As a schizophrenic on the outbound SEPTA 9 bus once said, “Dayyum! Sheeyut! [Unintelligible] Torresdale AVENUE!” If I understood him correctly, he used to have family on Torresdale, but there’s more self-respect to be had in muttering semi-intelligibly about Torresdale Avenue on the bus than in writing the incredibly precious sort of motivational letter to precious snowflake that Ma and Pa Levin wrote their boy.

How stunningly immature and insecure a people are we that parents feel the need to assuage their children with professions of overwhelming pride in them when they fail to accomplish their goals? Levin was 0 for 3 at his target Ivy undergraduate programs. In a binary scheme allowing either success or failure, this is 100% failure.

I’m just being descriptive here. Anyone who high-hats people for not getting into the Ivies could benefit from some farm labor: Go cut cane, O’Hara! You’re half a ton behind quota for the week! The problem is that Matt Levin had serious trouble coping with this series of minor failures to gain admission to highly selective universities. There would be a lot less of his sort of pained unrequited interest if people in his milieu didn’t aggressively fetishize the Ivies. Too much is riding on admission to one or more of these corrupt institutions.

This is a milieu in which people can’t, or won’t, distinguish parental love from parental pride. It’s a deranged and emotionally stunted worldview. I’m sure that my parents could be more proud of me than they are. They expected me to be a professor or some shit, and I’m living in residential motels and thinking about applying for a job on a geoduck farm. (It’s a sort of shellfish that looks like a big honkin’ schlong: truly one of the great South Sound traditions, like bridges that shake to pieces in the wind, murderous police chiefs, and neurosurgeons with thermos-to-the-head road rage. Gig Harbor represent!) Would Matt Levin’s parents love him any less if he ended up working as a pump jockey at a Sunoco on the Elizabeth waterfront? I’d certainly hope not. So why the maudlin letter insisting that he’d be a great catch for any university and will surely end up succeeding, by some tortuous path or other? Being a pump jockey in Elizabeth is not success, but there’s something badly wrong with any parents who are ashamed of a child who is able to hold down a steady job. Yes, any steady job, even a non-management track job at a gas station in the ass end of North Jersey.

There is way the fuck too much pressure for success in American bourgeois circles. God forbid one’s precious snowflake is only a teacher, not a school administrator, at the age of 26. Why the hell should I have to keep justifying to high-hat shitheads why I actually prefer to be in a subordinate position without managerial responsibilities? I like being on payroll with no long-term responsibilities and no workplace headaches following me home. How the fuck is there anything objectionable about that? This country has far too many people going into managerial positions for the status boner. It’s extremely destructive. The attitude encouraging it attracts all the wrong sorts of people into management. We end up being lorded over by narcissistic bullshit artists with chips on their shoulders. We end up with the same sorts of people infesting community and public service organizations.

The self-esteem horseshit in that letter to Matt Levin is worse than anything Mr. Rogers ever peddled. Mr. Rogers was always going on field trips to canneries and pencil factories and shit, like, hey kids, these might be cool places to work. He was always sending the trolley over for a visit with that letter carrier and his puppet friends. Mr. McFeely may have been absolutely fucking crazy, but at least he wasn’t some sort of low-status loser for being a lifer at the Postal Service.

The problem with Frank Bruni’s audience is that they can’t imagine a world in which their children are able to do tolerably well by settling into some menial but steady job. No. Nothing but the very best for their precious snowflakes, and let the dogs eat each other if that’s what it takes to achieve the best. These parochial concerns have some really ugly policy effects. For one thing, I have to figure that I’d have an easier time finding work if Americans weren’t shitheaded enough to prejudicially assume that stoop labor is fit only for Mexicans.

Garrison Keillor’s gentle earnestness about all the children being above average won’t shake Bougie from his moral stupor. It’s more likely that the bourgeois turn to him for absolution, assuming that he considers their social climbing nothing worse than a cute foible. No, nothing less than a Jeremiah Wright-style calling down of God’s damnation upon America will possibly get through their thick skulls.

But they’re secularists. Shit. Fred Rogers was a clergyman of strong morals, and a man called to children’s television, but he’s gone on to his reward. So what’s left at our recourse when some spurned shithead sends a counter-rejection letter to the admissions department at Duke University? I guess we’re down to handing out machetes and orders to cut some damn cane.

Chairman, shine your red light down upon us.


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