In a society that seems to grow coarser by the moment, word last week that a number of rich and famous people were being charged in a bribery and cheating scheme designed to get their children accepted into elite universities still caused quite a stir.
Code-named Operation Varsity Blues, the federal investigation corralled some 50 people accused of paying about $25 million in bribes to get their children into a wide array of prominent schools. Under the scheme, parents paid an admissions consultant to make their children look like star athletes, hire ringers to take the college entrance exams, and pay off proctors at testing sites to change exam scores.
While rich folks exerting their influence to get their progeny into elite schools is nothing new — the “old fashioned” way is to simply pay for a new campus building — the new criminal enterprise method is indicative of the win-at-all-costs, no compromise mentality infecting our nation.
We see the same disturbing trends in many aspects of our lives where absolutism reigns — where there is no room for compromise; no willingness to accept less than everything we want; and no recognition that not every person needs to fit into someone else’s view of who they should be and how they should get there. Which brings us back to the disturbing lessons of Operation Varsity Blues.
Narcissism is rising. Forty years after Christopher Lasch wrote “The Culture of Narcissism,” which chronicled the normalization of the phenomenon, self-importance increasingly is the greatest driving force for many people. We are witnessing a rising generation obsessed with selfies, social media and the Kardashians. Social media, in particular, is our new Tower of Babel.
In addition, the cult of celebrity seems stronger than ever. We place increasing emphasis on what celebrities say and do, without thinking whether these people — who are too often celebrated for their bad behavior — should really be influencing our society. Indeed, as observed years ago by NBA legend Charles Barkley, you’re not a role model just because you can dunk a basketball.
And that limitation of role model status isn’t limited to athletes. We have the same concerns about many politicians, popular musicians and actors, business titans and academic leaders. While each may have succeeded in a specialized area, that success is no guarantee of the moral character and inherent goodness we want to instill in our children. So what can be done about these disquieting trends?
It may sound cliché, but “tikkun olam,” acts of kindness performed to repair the world, seems to be a good place to start. Imagine the good the achievement-obsessed parents could have done with the $25 million spent on bribes, and how much more compelling their message and example would have been for their children.
As society continues its disturbing self-centered #MeFirst focus, we recommend taking the time to pause, to look inward, to focus on fundamental human and ethical values, and to act mindfully.