Bad People

“I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community”… “I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” 

— Felicity Huffman

Are they bad people?For some reason, the question caught me off guard, even though the question had crossed my mind more than once. My son asked me this while we were watching the news recently and the college-admissions scandal was in full drama.

After years of working with families that struggle to prepare their kids for and to put their kids through college, this news story made me angrier than most of the headlines pinging on my phone. 

Not only has getting into college become harder than it was 20-30 years ago, when Gen Xers like me were going through this most popular American rite of passage, but because wages have not increased at the same rate as the cost of college, paying for it has become more of a struggle too (at least for the middle class). I think this may be why the story has pushed the buttons of so many people, like myself. 

People rarely think they are “bad” people, no matter what they do. People often do ethical and moral gymnastics to justify bad acts. If they can’t justify the act, they will attempt to say it was a moment of weakness. That as a whole, they are “good” people who just momentarily did a bad thing.

As I internally debated the question my son posed, a conversation I had the previously July 4th regarding how best to get out of a country in the event of a civil war, or something like it came to mind. I don’t remember the catalyst for such an odd conversation, but I think it was brought on by the struggles in Venezuela. After a couple of Nisswa craft brews, it does not take much for odd conversations to sprout. 

The reason I remember an otherwise forgettable conversation was this family member told me the story of a work friend that made the comment that he would do whatever it took to get his family out safely in a civil-war-type situation. Even though the story was told second-hand, the theme was clear. This particular person had no moral compass in a challenging environment. It was clear that the murder of innocent people was ok. This view angered me, and it stuck in my head. The mental image of him carjacking and killing a family that had done nothing wrong, brought me to the quick conclusion that he was a bad person. What angered me further was that the person credited with this view was a successful, well-thought of professional. There was little doubt in my mind that he considers himself a “good” person.

I am guessing this is the same thought process for many of the parents caught up in the college admission scandal. They justify bad acts by saying, “I have to because of the current education environment.” Like the person fleeing a war-torn country, they only did what they had to, to survive. Given they are doing it “for the kids” often makes them much more morally flexible. 

I still don’t know if the one college-admissions act was so egregious that we can call the parents bad people, but at the very least it brings their morality into question, even if they are a beloved 90’s TV stars. I think it is a reminder to all of us that we need to think long and hard before we sacrifice our morality because we think our environment dictates it. We also need to look at the environment we are creating in the name of helping our kids. Bad people will always exist, but we (Gen Xers and Baby Boomers) have created an education-admissions environment that is neither good for the parents nor the students. 

I tried to use the recent news as a teaching moment for my sons. Not only to highlight right from wrong, but to also prepare them for the unhealthy rankings, test-prep, and elite-school expectations they will experience in a few years. No matter where they go to college it is what they do with the degree that matters most. Kids should be prepared to face the world with the work ethic and moral compass to be the best versions of themselves. I am guessing that was not the goal of the scandal parents.