By now most of you have read about the latest of three related scandals to hit elite academic institutions this year. The latest involves a fixer, Rick Singer, masquerading as a college admissions counselor to the rich and famous. Working for these affluent parents, Singer claims to have helped more than 760 children of privilege change test scores, pretend to be elite athletes, and outright bribe their way into top universities.
The other scandals make for less interesting reading but are no less important. One involves an affirmative-action law suit against Harvard University in which Asian applicants claim to have been discriminated against. Another involves a high school in Louisiana that produced fraudulent transcripts to help less fortunate students get into Ivy League Schools.
I have curiously read every article and discussed the differences and similarities of these scandals with friends. Honestly, I am surprised by how many people with whom I have spoken to about the latest scandal expressed shock. This is about as shocking as when Captain Louis (Claude Rains) expresses shock that there is gambling at Rick’s American Cafe in Casablanca just as a worker in the casino hands him his winnings. However, it is not my intent to focus on the latest failures of American academic institutions in this post. For that I will refer to you former Harvard dean, Harry Lewis’ 2007 book, Excellence Without a Soul, in which the author “draws from his experience to explain how our great universities have abandoned their mission.”
For me these scandals along with other issues dominating the news of late represent the confused state of American values. In short, I’m not sure what America stands for anymore. We are a country built by immigrants, but we can’t seem to find common ground on immigration policy. We have the best standard of living in the world largely due to entrepreneurship, but we have candidates running for the 2020 Presidency who are trumpeting socialism and making villains of capitalists.
Just what are American values? Is it possible for 50 states to find common ground on a wide range of issues through reliance on a set of shared values or rules? Many years ago I stumbled upon a short statement titled, An American’s Creed. It was written by Dean Alfange and first published in 1952 in This Week Magazine. Alfange was an American politician who held nominations and appointments from a number of parties, including the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the American Labor Party, and the Liberal Party of New York, of which he was a founding member. He was born in Turkey to Greek parents and moved with his parents to the United States 1902. He held a variety of political offices, was a veteran of WW I, and was a member of several activist and ethnic organizations. He is best remembered for this short statement:
"I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon. I seek to develop whatever talents God gave me—not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me. I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any earthly master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly and say – ‘This, with God’s help, I have done.’ All this is what it means to be an American."
When I think about what it means to be an American, what we value most, this statement seems to capture the values that were prevalent in my youth. I’m not sure if a majority of Americans feel the same way today. Values are first taught at home, but institutions of all kinds play a major role reinforcing values. Institutions are imperfect, people are imperfect, democracy is imperfect. Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” Perhaps we are approaching another seminal moment in American history. One that may define our place in the world for the next millennium.
Democracy may appear to be self healing, but it isn’t. It is messy business that requires everyone’s involvement and sacrifice. The time has arrived to deal with major issues related to race, inequality, civility, immigration, education, healthcare, privacy, foreign policy to name a few. The scandals and various disagreements that fill the news are symptoms of a bigger problem. Now is the time for a national discussion and clarification of our values as American’s. What is the long term vision for the Republic? Can we be civil long enough to have this debate? “We Must All Hang Together, or Most Assuredly, We Will All Hang Separately.”