Perhaps the most surprising thing about the recent college admissions scandal is how simple it is. In a nutshell, wealthy people paid off other people so that their kids could get into elite colleges. On Tuesday, March 12, the Justice Department charged fifty people for a variety of crimes, including faking SAT scores, submitting falsified academic records, funneling money through fake charities and bribing coaches to admit their children as “athletes.” The individuals implicated—parents, coaches and officials—are facing felonies and possible jail time. The whole thing is reprehensible. But complicated? Not really. Powerful people leverage their power to get what they want. Tale as old as time.
If the scandal makes anything clear, it’s that the system is broken, although it’s tough to know who deserves the most blame. Is it the elitist universities making admission so challenging that parents actually have to bribe their way in? Or is it the parents who used their wealth to give their kids a leg up and, in so doing, snatch it away from someone more deserving? And what about the people who weren’t part of this scandal but were still able—through large donations, knowing the right people and wielding their influence—to get their children into Stanford or Harvard or any college of their choice? Are they in the wrong, too?
A lot has been written about all of this in the days since the story broke, but the one response that fascinated me came from playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. In an open letter, Mamet rushes to defend William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, two actors implicated in the scandal. He talks about how long he’s known both of them and how much he cares for and respects them. And then, in an attempt to justifying Huffman’s actions, Mamet writes this:
That a parent’s zeal for her children’s future may have overcome her better judgment for a moment is not only unfortunate, it is, I know we parents would agree, a universal phenomenon.
Essentially, Mamet’s saying that the whole thing comes from a place of love. After all, who wouldn’t do anything for their children? Sure, they broke the law, but you’d do the same thing if you were in their position. Because you love your kids. Right?
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Mamet; he goes on to say that this situation calls for the Texas Verdict: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.” However, I think he has a point. I do think that love, or something like it, is what allowed for this to happen. And that’s important. This scandal should cause us to question many things—the admissions process, racial divides, the 1%—but I think we also have a responsibility to consider our cultural conception of love, and potentially redefine it.
Mamet’s right about one thing: those parents believed they were doing something loving for their kids. You and I have done the same thing, I’m sure, if not for our kids then for other loved ones. We have gone the extra mile to protect or shield or make life easier for them. Why? Because we love them. That’s what love does.
Or does it? Is that actually loving? The best definition of love I’ve ever come across is found in M. Scott Peck’s seminal book, The Road Less Traveled. As Peck puts it, love, real love, is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but notice: the “purpose” of love is “spiritual growth,” for oneself or for another. In other words, to love someone is to help them become the best version of themselves. This may mean protecting, but it just as often may mean challenging and confronting. After all, as Peck asserts, the fundamental truth of existence is that “life is difficult.” Once we acknowledge that, we can grow. However, if we forever shield another person from life’s difficulty, we’re stunting their growth. We’re not really loving them.
So, could we call this “parent’s zeal” that Mamet talks about “love?” I don’t think so. And that’s not to call into question whether these parents care about their kids or want the best of them or will do anything for them. That’s obvious. But was this love? Going by Peck’s definition, no. In fact, it looks a lot more like “dependency,” which Peck describes as a kind of “anti-love.” While dependency “may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another,” it actually “nourishes infantilism rather than growth.”
By bribing their way into elite the colleges, these parents prevented the growth of their children. The children did not have to struggle or reckon with life’s difficulty. Instead, the parents perpetuated a cycle of dependency and, ultimately, infantilism. That is not love.
But here’s the thing: we do it, too. That’s what is so distressing—and important—about this scandal. If given the opportunity and means, we would probably do the same thing. It is, as Mamet writes, “a universal phenomenon.” But we can change. Perhaps the most spiritually beneficial thing we can do, for others and for ourselves, is learn how to love well. That might be the most loving thing anyone can do.