I just finished writing about rich people when current events and the cultural tectonic plates shifted, and here I am again. The ways of the rich are not ours, as the college admission scandal shows. Only those of extraordinary means can pay huge amounts of money facilitating a middleman who then bribes college officials to secure admission of undeserving children to the “right” schools.

We will leave the legal troubles and the details of these individual criminal cases to the experts. But the mere fact that people of incredible means are willing to put their liberty in jeopardy to “help” their children achieve some modicum of prestige and a leg up (as if they really needed it) tells us a lot about the educational industrial complex. And even though paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone who, in turn, bribes school officials to get an unqualified student enrolled in an elite institution on its face sounds illegal, is it all that different from a wealthy family legally “donating” a million dollars to a school and when enrollment time comes along, that family’s child makes the cut? 

I went to a Catholic high school when this cultural shift began in earnest. The advantage of being the last of 7 boys who went to the same high school is that I became a kind of petri dish for observing this transformation from Catholic with a capital “C” to a college prep school. My oldest brother started high school in the 1950s, I graduated in 1975 — so we’re talking about a very steep cultural upheaval bell curve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right — “The rich are different.” My brothers and I went to high school with rich kids. It didn’t matter to those who ran the school because their aim was to supply a Catholic education to as many boys as possible — rich or poor. In the 50s, 60s and early 70s of my older brothers’ high school universe there were always guys you knew were going to go on to college and guys you knew were going to get jobs in factories, lumber yards, and other ventures where they would all build lives. The school’s objective was to prepare them all so that they would be fully functioning Catholic men with Catholic lives, regardless of their station in life. That goal may have been rejected by many students in this school from the time of its opening, but that has no bearing on the nobility of the paradigm.

But the paradigm shifted in the mid-1970s. I may have been in the exact same classrooms my brothers sat in from the 50s, but the goal posts were being moved. The school I attended began touting itself as an educational beacon, an institution what would prepare young men for the finest higher educational institutions America had to offer.

Suddenly SAT scores, AP classes, and a host of other requisites to satisfy the educational industrial complex took precedence over everything else…except for football, of course. All Catholic high schools since have followed this path. My sons went to a different Catholic high school than I did, but the emphasis on getting into the right college was even more inflamed.      

I love education. I think people should try to educate themselves every day for the rest of their lives. But college has turned into an idol — a place to get a piece of paper that bestows some kind of imprimatur on you. It’s a high stakes game that even the wealthy risk jail time to play for the sake of their children.

And Catholic high schools playing this same game, of wanting to be seen more as college preparatory schools than Catholic schools, are part of the problem. Neither my brothers nor I could attend our alma mater today. Most of us did not have the grades, and none of us, meaning our parents, had the kind of money it now takes to attend these high schools. That’s a shame.

Catholic schools exist to pass on the Catholic faith and that should be every Catholic school’s primary function. If they succeed in that, not only will rich people save a lot of money in “donations” and lawyer’s fees, if the Catholic high school had inspired the Catholic faith, it wouldn’t matter if a high school graduate goes on to pre-med at Harvard or works in a lumber yard.

Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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