A couple weeks ago a quintet of judges played the last licks of the Varsity Blues by suspending Gordon Caplan's law license. Caplan was the former co-chairman of the Big Law firm Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, who was busted in the Varsity Blues sting operation for paying $75,000 to have his daughter's college admission test scores upgraded by a bribed test proctor. He had already pled guilty to the criminal charge and served a month in jail.
In its decision, the court noted that Caplan
admitted that from the first phone conversation he understood the implications of Singer's proposal -- "[a]t that point I knew what he was talking about was cheating, [h]e was proposing cheating on the test." In subsequent phone calls [Caplan] told Singer "It's just, to be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here. I'm worried about the, if she's caught doing that, you know, she's finished" and "keep in mind I am a lawyer. So I'm sort of rules oriented."
The "Singer" referenced above was not BrokeAndBroker's esteemed publisher Bill Singer but a William "Rick" Singer, an independent college-admissions counsellor who pleaded guilty to fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. Or at least that's what Bill Singer insists that I note here.
"[I]t is clear," the Court noted, "that [Caplan's] focus at the time was not on the immorality and illegality of his actions but on not getting caught. . . ." https://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/appellate-division-first-department/2021/motion-no-2020-03510-case-no-2019-00252.html.
The 2-year suspension is already more than half served, but still leaves Caplan idle for most of the rest of this year. He'll have time to ponder the value of a college education. Not his daughter's, though. His own.
Varsity Blues has been, shall we say, an education. It exposed the long con that is the college ratings scam. See http://www.brokeandbroker.com/4485/aegis-frumento-varsity-blues/. It gave us fresh proof that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions. See http://www.brokeandbroker.com/4836/insecurities-aegis-frumento/. And now, in Caplan's candid description of himself as a "rules oriented" lawyer who was "not worried about the moral issue here," we see in full relief what's wrong with college altogether.
I say college rather than law school. Law schools have their own issues, but this isn't one of them. Law school taught Caplan to be rules oriented, well enough for him to rise to the top of the profession. But if you don't care to "worry about the moral issue" by the time you get to law school, you won't learn it there.
So let's turn back to college and ask, What's the point of it?
American colleges began as religious institutions. Harvard was formed by Puritans worried about the next generation of preachers, Yale by Harvard alums who thought Harvard wasn't Puritan enough, and so on. Until the Civil War, there were few colleges and all thought they had a religious mission. Inherent in that mission was an education in morals. Of course, the morals taught were those of the religious sect behind the college, but there was broad consensus about what was right and wrong, and what the point of living was.
After the Civil War, religious dominance fell away, as sectarianism gave way to secular humanism and the "small college on a hill" morphed into the monster research universities we know today. But for a century still, until the 1960s, the consensus held that the purpose of college was to provide a moral education for life and citizenship. It used to be assumed that college kids came to campus flawed. They still are, but today, writes former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis, "Because students -- and their parents -- struggle for flawlessness, we do not make them responsible for their mistakes. As a result, colleges now are holding students in childhood rather than helping them to grow up." As he explains in Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, "The College is more interested in making students happier than in making them better." If that is a college's primary goal, then challenging its importance is fair game. Lewis is more than a little bemused that his most gifted and successful student -- Bill Gates -- was a dropout.
Former Yale Law Dean Anthony Kronman adds his own indictment of modern colleges in his Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman urges colleges to return to an ideal of teaching the meaning of life rather than mere specialized knowledge. "Once upon a time," he writes, "and not all that long ago, many college and university teachers, especially in the humanities, believed they had a responsibility to lead their students in an organized examination of the question [of the meaning of life] and felt confident in their authority to do so." No more. The meaning of life -- which is to say the exploration of values -- is not susceptible to research like science is, so it is not considered a meaningful academic pursuit.
More succinctly still is Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco. In his College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, Delbanco posits that "the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter." You can't detect bullshit from others without a firm sense of what is right and true, for which you need well-considered values.
All three authors point to the humanities as the place where such values are preserved. Columbia still has a compulsory "Great Books" course requirement, and it's clear that Lewis and Kronman wish their schools had one too. Kronman teaches Yale's, but it's an elective kept small by design. The Great Books are a tried-and-true way to teach humanistic values, but I'm not prepared to say it's the only way. Still, I do agree with all of them, and with many others in the same vein, that a college that does not teach values and how to order them one against another is not a real college. It may be a useful educational institution, like a trade school, but not a college is the truest sense.
Gordon Caplan went to Cornell and schemed to have his daughter follow him there. Cornell was founded on Ezra Cornell's dream of "an institution in which any person can find instruction in any study," more a multiversity than a university. I have no idea what Caplan at Cornell was like, but it doesn't look like he picked up there that morals were worth worrying over. In his mea culpa, Caplan told the court that, "This was hubris. It was arrogant. It was about me, not about my child. That took a lot of self-realization. It was deep insecurity, I think. I frankly think a lot of people in my former profession have this notion of having to prove yourself all the time. It overwhelmed me and it destroyed my life. I destroyed my life."
One can feel for Gordon Caplan. And yet, the hubris, arrogance, and insecurity that caught him are just what a good college education should have preserved him from. Instead, without the moderating influence of a values-based curriculum, modern colleges feed those very pathologies, with their bullshit emphasis on a meritocracy based on dubious test scores and ginned up college ranks, all the while hiding the brute fact that an elite's place in the social order is arbitrary, an accident of birth and breeding, and not much to take credit for or to feel pressured by.
Caplan has to walk his lonesome valley by himself, as we all must now and again. The best that can be said of it is that he'll have time to think on what he's been through. But if he also wants to catch up on what he missed in college, Kronman's lecture notes appear to have found their way into a 1,000-page doorstopper, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. It, and the Great Books it discusses, may make the valley a little less lonely for him, and, as always, it's better late than never.