I can’t say that Frank Bruni draws the correct conclusion, but he observes something that is well worth noting.
If you are a high school student or if your children are high school students and they want to get admitted to the best colleges and universities, it is not enough to excel at math and language. It is not enough to have perfect SAT scores or a stellar GPA. It is not even enough to excel at extracurricular activities while holding down an after-school job.
No, siree. Today’s students must demonstrate a superior capacity for empathy. They must have spent some time building mud huts in Africa or cleaning latrines in Central America. They must have demonstrated compassion for the victims of Western capitalism.
Obviously, these are articles of faith in the Church of the Liberal Pieties. Their proponents fail, and they fail miserably, to note that what might really help the disadvantaged third-world peoples are factories and an opportunity to do some honest labor. Charity might provide a short-term fix. But it works primarily to soothe the conscience of wealthy Westerners.
Bruni doesn’t mention it, so I will. The vision of college students handing out toilet paper in Venezuela or harvesting pineapples in the 100 degree heat reminds one in particular of the Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, one of the greatest pogroms in human history.
During those heady and insane times teachers and bureaucrats were often murdered and humiliated. At times they were cannibalized. Those who were allowed to live were sent, by the Red Guards, to the countryside to clean up pig sties and to develop the proper Communist consciousness.
After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping put an end to these horrors by arresting the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, aka the gang of four. The leader of the gang was Mao’s wife. When Deng made his first trip to the United States a few years after taking over, he was told that other Chinese officials had told their American counterparts that shoveling pig excrement was an enlightening consciousness-raising experience. Deng replied: They lied!
In any event, Bruni notes that college admissions essays must recount some level of charitable work with the poor and downtrodden. He explains:
This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.
“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,” he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”
But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.
Bruni finds that the students who participate in these activities are somewhat cynical. They are going through the motions and do not really, really care about the victims of American capitalism.
In his words:
What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.
It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.
And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived.
In the case of drive-by charity work, the checked box can actually be counterproductive, because application readers see right through it.
OK, let’s be clear about this. American parents and their progeny have figured out how to game the system. They understand that college admissions officers, on purely ideological grounds, are trying to dumb down the country, to replace academic excellence with empathy and compassion. So they play along. They make it sound authentic. But they do not really care. And, why should they? If they buy into the politically correct dogmas they are learning in school they are likely to become less functional and less productive in the world.
The real problem is not that some students are gaming the system, but that not enough are.
Worse yet, the ideology that governs college admissions values qualities that are not going to help a student in the real world. Your prospective employers should be concerned with your achievements and accomplishments, academic and even athletic. They should care about whether you have ever held down a job, whether you work hard and conscientiously, not whether you feel the right kinds of empathy. Obviously, the new regime is trying to produce more diversity, but it is also recruiting more cult followers for the Church of the Liberal Pieties.