Bribe College Admissions Officers? My Parents Wouldn’t Pay for Driver’s Ed.

Branford College residence, Yale University, where the author lived as an undergrad.

By John Zmirak Published on March 13, 2019

Vice News reports:

Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin have been charged in a nationwide college-entrance cheating scam, according to federal court records unsealed on Tuesday.

Huffman, Loughlin, and 48 other individuals — including a slew of wealthy executives and attorneys — engaged in “large-scale, elaborate fraud” to create a “rigged system” at elite American universities like Yale, Stanford, USC, and UCLA, according to prosecutors. In some cases, they allegedly used imposters to stand in for the children at exams or bribed athletic recruiters to recruit their children, even if they didn’t end up playing that sport in college.

Federal prosecutors cited one example where parents paid a $400,000 bribe to Yale’s women’s soccer coach so that their daughter could attend the school. She didn’t play soccer.

My Quest for Just the Right College

Reading this brought back memories of my own hunt for a college. My father also faced the prospect of jail time as I went to interviews for Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, and NYU. No, not for anything to do with my college admission. A letter carrier, he faced federal charges for snagging packages from the Dead Letter Office. So that’s where he’d gotten those books he brought me home several times weekly. Which sparked my love of reading, so in a sense there’s a connection …

Did I worry that some of those students, whose families built our glorious Gothic gym, or our concert hall modeled on the chapel at Versailles, might not have scored as highly on the SATs as I had? Not at all. First of all, they proved to be uniformly pleasant, well-mannered people — I never met any snobs.

Bribe someone? My parents didn’t think to send me to an SAT prep class. Nor would they pay for Driver’s Ed. “Whaddaya gonna need that for?” my mother demanded between bites of cream cheese and jelly. “Just take the subway.” (Mom was distinctly unimpressed by academic prestige. Though I was the first member of my family ever to go to college, we virtually had to drag her to my Yale graduation. She didn’t like to leave Queens.)

What Not to Say at Your College Interview These Days

Dad didn’t go to jail (pled out to a misdemeanor) but I did get into Yale. Mainly on the strength of my interview. As I wrote long ago:

When the alumnus interviewing me … asked me what I’d done throughout high school, I truthfully answered: “Not much. Mostly, I just prosecuted my religion teachers for heresy.”

He chuckled. “No, seriously.” Then he saw the look on my face — and whipped out his note pad.

I recounted how I’d compiled a dossier on two of our religion teachers, who’d repaid my parents’ tuition by denying… pretty much everything which any martyr has ever died to affirm—from the virginity of Mary to the authority of the pope, from the bodily Resurrection to the Eucharist. I explained how I’d moved from confronting them in class, to notifying the principal, then the bishop, then at last the Papal Nuncio — the pope’s ambassador to the U.S.

“What did your school do?”

“They threatened to expel me. But I had my attorney draft a letter warning them we’d sue. They backed down after that.”

“Where’d you get an attorney?”

“My mother met him at one of her poker games. You know, at the church.” I told him how at that time in Queens, the diocese made up its deficits by holding all-night, high-stakes poker games at Catholic grammar schools. The Irish cops wouldn’t crack down on them, so the games metastasized, and soon filled up every parish in driving distance. And my mother attended so many, that to this day when I hear phrases like “St. Sebastian” “St. Rita,” “Most Precious Blood” and “Corpus Christi,” my first thought is: “Oh crap, another poker game. We’ll be eating Spam again this week.”

All this took place in the late days of the long-lived, much-loved, semi-retarded Bishop Francis Mugavero — who died in 1991 with a spotless record: He’d never turned down an annulment.

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I described how the cafeterias at schools from Astoria to Glendale filled up three nights per week—including Fridays in Lent. On one of these sacred evenings, when the priest who sold the chips started handing out bologna sandwiches, my mother rebuked him: “It’s bad enough you’re having this game two days before Palm Sunday,” she rasped. “And bad enough that I’m here. But now you’re serving us meat?” So the pastor stood up and gave every poker player in the room a “special dispensation” to eat his sandwiches. I described these lunchrooms filled with addicted housewives, compliant cops, and shady gents of Mediterranean background with pointy loafers. The middle-aged attorney was fascinated.

“Were they… Mafiosos?”

I shrugged. “Or wanna-bes. All I know is that whenever they used profanity, my mother would reprimand them: ‘Hey! Watch yer mouth! You’re in the presence of a lady.’

“They’d stare at her, swallow…then apologize. They realized what they were dealing with.”

He must have decided that I offered Yale something… distinctive.

Meeting the Legacy Kids Whose Names Were on the Buildings

I also think the fact that I was a first-generation student helped me get in. And the fact that I was the first person from my blue-collar Catholic high school even to apply to Yale. Maybe there was an element of class-based affirmative action entailed in letting me in. If so, I am grateful for it.

You know who else was I grateful for? Those kids from hard-working upper-middle class families that were paying much more tuition than I did. Or rather, their parents. They underwrote my ticket out of Palookaville.

Still more was I thrilled to meet the occasional “legacy” student, whose last name matched one of the magnificent, ivy-drenched buildings I was privileged to live and study in. A fact which probably helped some of them (shocking, isn’t it?) get into Yale. I actually went up and spoke to one, and thanked for her ancestor’s library. She smiled, but blushed.

Did I worry that some of those students, whose families built our glorious Gothic gym, or our concert hall modeled on the chapel at Versailles, might not have scored as highly on the SATs as I had? Not at all. First of all, they proved to be uniformly pleasant, well-mannered people — I never met any snobs.

The Demerits of Meritocracy

Also, early on in my college years, I had read T.S. Eliot’s attack on meritocracy in Christianity and Culture. He noted that colleges serve many other purposes than creaming off all the smart people from every class in the country. They also should serve a purpose of maintaining hereditary elites. Of collecting and grooming people with a sense of ownership and stewardship for the country. In other words, third and fourth generation Harvard or Yale families, whose money was old enough that they liked to give it away. That they became civic-minded, instead of just business-minded. That they volunteered for the military (as some boys from upper class families in the South still do).

Of course, the schools should also let in a large percentage of people based just on merit, if only to keep up their elite reputation. That can fade pretty quickly. (Ever heard of Union College in upstate New York? It’s where the fraternity system in America was invented. And it used to be considered the peer of Harvard and Princeton.) So a healthy mix of legacies, merit-based admissions, and ethnic or social affirmative action admittees is probably optimal. That’s why the Ivies got rid of their “Jewish quota,” lest New York’s City College completely eclipse them. It’s why keeping Asians out today is such a criminally stupid move.

Today’s ruling class have none, absolutely none, of the virtues, mores, and values that once marked off American elites. They think that they’ve earned all the leisure, prosperity, and ease that a market society offers them. That frees them up to toy with Utopian fantasies like the Green New Deal. Elite schools are eager to teach Barack Obama’s daughters that they are historic victims, who ought to resent the “privilege” of white coal miners in West Virginia.

You do want a blend of people. But I’d hate to see the “legacies” from old families left out.

I Showed Up Like a Visigoth in Rome

It was kind of cool studying with kids who lived in the Park Avenue building where my dad worked as a doorman. (The Post Office had sent him packing.) They also helped me polish off some of the rougher edges that came with my upbringing. As I recalled in another essay:

I cheerfully introduced my affable if liberal roommates — all very nicely brought up young men from presentable schools — to the catalog of unexamined attitudes I’d inherited, via my parents, from Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1940. In the course of my first semester, I had it patiently explained to me that:

  • It’s rarely polite to use the word “Jew” as a verb.
  • When someone asks you to perform a domestic task that he rightly ought to do himself, you should simply point that out, firmly but gently. It really isn’t necessary to ask, “What am I, three shades darker than you?” No, it really doesn’t matter that there aren’t any black people in earshot.
  • There are more courteous terms to indicate that someone is a Protestant than “heretic.”

I took such lessons to heart, as I did the little pointers in table manners I got from acquaintances who’d played lacrosse at Choate — for instance, that the chic way to eat French toast was to cut it first, instead of raising the entire slice to one’s mouth and taking out bites. You live, you learn.

There’s something profoundly healthy about mixing clever barbarians like me with more middling people from civilized backgrounds. This used to happen routinely in America, as Charles Murray pointed out in The Bell Curve. A leading doctor would marry a beautiful nurse, mixing his brainy genes with her leggy, buxom ones. Businessmen would marry some lovely girl from the typing pool. People had domestic servants instead of robots — often legal immigrants eager to assimilate. (Like my Croatian grandparents.)

The Virtues of Old Money Families

Old money families insisted that their children do hard, honest work, to build their characters. So you’d find (as you still find sometimes in Texas) the sons of oil barons working alongside ordinary rednecks and legal immigrants. My girlfriend knew the Hunt family, then the richest men on earth. Their sons drove the worst cars in Highland Park (real heaps of junk), and she used to watch them on summer days roofing houses along with blue-collar guys in the 100-degree heat. There’s a story about Calvin Coolidge’s son, who worked digging ditches on a farm one summer when a co-worker learned his background. The co-worker said, “If my father were the president, I wouldn’t be doing a job like this.” The young Coolidge answered, “If your father were my father, you would.”

As Murray pointed out (and Robert Franks documented in Richistan), none of this happens much anymore. And that is what irritates us about this current admissions scandal. The current elites in America want to pretend that they attained their position purely on merit. But they also want the perks and privileges of a hereditary aristocracy. They don’t want to debate opposing ideas. Instead, they wish to censor them. They won’t respect the outcome of a democratic election. See how they tried to annul our choice of Trump.

The Ark of the Covenant

Worst of all, they have none, absolutely none, of the virtues, mores, and values that once marked off American elites. They think that they’ve earned all the leisure, prosperity, and ease that a market society offers them. That frees them up to toy with Utopian fantasies like the Green New Deal. Elite schools are eager to teach Barack Obama’s daughters that they are historic victims, who ought to resent the “privilege” of white coal miners in West Virginia.

Huffman and Loughlin actually face felony charges. I was shocked by some of the vitriol directed at them online. But really, we shouldn’t be surprised. They and the other defendants let out America’s dirty secret. The illusion of meritocracy is the only pretext our current anti-elites have for wielding power over the rest of us. They can’t have it questioned. It is their Ark of the Covenant. Touch it and die.

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