The Whiffenpoofs

I first became aware of “specialty” toy stores more than 30 years ago. Some of them were hybrids spun off from the school supply industry, referred to as parent-teacher stores or educational toy stores. Others were high-end chains with pedagogical-sounding names about wisdom, knowledge and learning.

What all those stores had in common was their intended clientele. It was not made up of children, but affluent, educated, concerned parents. Many of those parents were unsatisfied with the quality of education their kids were getting in school, and worried that the mindless nature of mass-market toys was only making the matter worse.

I felt as if I knew these people, because I grew up with them. We weren’t the Greatest Generation, that was our parents, but we were the largest (at around 80 million) and we were assertive, to put it nicely.

According to Christopher Pappas at learningindustry.com, the eight primary characteristics of baby boomers are their work ethic, self-assurance, competitiveness, goal orientation, resourcefulness, mental focus, team orientation and discipline. Such people are driven to succeed, and they drive their children to succeed.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that boomers looked at all that time kids were spending at play and saw an opportunity to accomplish something that seemed more constructive to them. So they set out to find science kits, math puzzles and word games. Had there been no educational toy stores, boomer parents would have invented them.

When boomers like me reflect on our own childhoods, we usually remember a much different experience. It’s not that our Depression-era parents didn’t care about education. On the contrary, they felt that education was the magic elixir that would ensure financial security, and nothing was made more clear to me on a regular basis.

But education meant school to them, and I never got the sense that they considered my play time to be part of it. Provided that my homework was done, I was simply expected to go play somewhere, preferably outdoors, with the firm understanding that I was to “stay out of their hair” and be home by dark.

In a way, kids were given a lot more responsibility back then. Even when it came to higher education, my parents never micromanaged me. That I would go to college was understood and nonnegotiable, but the details were up to me. Perhaps I would have benefitted from a little more direction, but I do have to admire their restraint.

You’ll notice that word is not on the list of baby-boomer characteristics. Given our competitiveness and goal-orientation, it’s not surprising that my generation got a little over involved in our kids’ leisure activities. We went to a lot more Little League games than our parents did, bought a lot more musical instruments, and, yes, brought home a lot more educational toys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I sometimes thought that the wrong people were making those choices.

I have often wondered how the parents who followed us would measure up in that regard. Would they let their kids figure out their own lives, or would they figure it out for them?

Over the years my observations have tended toward the latter. Modern parents don’t just attend Little League games, they attend practice. They don’t just enroll their kids in all sorts of activities that require expensive gear, they hire coaches and tutors to give their kids a leg up. The endgame, ultimately, is to get those kids into the “right” colleges.

Knowing all that, I guess I should not have been surprised by the news that came out in March, but somehow I was. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts unsealed indictments of 50 people for conspiring to rig the admissions process at a number of prestigious universities. Thirty-three of those people were the wealthy parents of students who were applying to, or attending the universities, which included Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.

The scheme, which had been going on for years, was stumbled upon by the FBI in April of 2018 as it was closing in on a crooked securities broker named Morrie Tobin. In order to avoid a long prison sentence, he told the feds that he could give them a tip on a much bigger fraud than the one he had committed.

Morrie happened to be a Yale alumnus, and told authorities that he had been approached by the Yale women’s soccer coach, Rudy Meredith, and asked for a bribe to get Tobin’s daughter into the school. Tobin then wore a wire in a meeting with Meredith, after which Meredith agreed to flip on the mastermind of the whole enterprise, Rick Singer.

Singer ran a company called The Edge College and Career Network, which was supposed to help high-school graduates get into the college of their choice. It did that all right, but its two most effective techniques were illegal.

One of those was the inflation of scores on college entrance exams. Singer would typically get permission for a student to change test sites based on a family problem or disability or whatever. Then he would pay a ringer to go take the test at a facility where he had bought off the administrator or the proctor.

The other was to bribe a coach, usually of a lesser sport like crew, volleyball or sailing, to request that a certain student receive special consideration from the admissions office. In many cases, the student in question had never even played that sport.

Singer, in turn, flipped on the parents who had paid for his service, along with the coaches and test givers he had bought off. The FBI then built a case against 50 people, but that may not be the end of the prosecutions. Singer has stated that he used unethical means to assist more than 750 families with college admissions.

The public outrage has been enormous. It seems as though Americans are willing to accept the fact that the wealthy have perfectly legal ways of gaining access to elite institutions. They can donate millions of dollars to a university, or hire tutors, or place their kids in prep schools, and no one raises an eyebrow.

When they cheat, however, and usurp the avenues of talent and hard work that are open to everyone, look out. A large majority of the public would like to see the privileged, arrogant parents involved in this scandal behind bars, and that wish may well be granted.

What strikes me about the whole thing is the widely reported assertion that most of the students didn’t know that anyone was cheating on their behalf. The daughter of a famous actress even said that she didn’t really care about going to school.

Maybe we could raise kids who could sort out their own college admission process. We could start with letting them choose their own toys.

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