The New York Times exposé on the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School raised all manner of issues, from the education its students were denied to the false transcripts, recommendations, sad tales of racial woe, that got them into colleges desperately seeking diversity. One commenter to the story, a public school teacher, even found a way to twist the tale to be about her gored ox, the underfunding of public education, such that people felt compelled to seek alternatives if they were to go on to succeed.
And indeed, the story lends itself to so many of the problems and fears that reflect the effort to achieve identitarian outcomes despite the failure of process.
T.M. Landry has become a viral Cinderella story, a small school run by Michael Landry, a teacher and former salesman, and his wife, Ms. Landry, a nurse, whose predominantly black, working-class students have escaped the rural South for the nation’s most elite colleges. A video of a 16-year-old student opening his Harvard acceptance letter last year has been viewed more than eight million times. Other Landry students went on to Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Wesleyan.
It’s almost impossible to watch this video without feeling the joy.
Clearly, this young man can’t be faulted at all, having had no hand in Landry’s deceptions, and may very well deserve to be admitted to Harvard without regard to Landry. What he makes of this opportunity is up to him, and anyone with an iota of humanity will wish the best for him. Some Landry students have succeeded. Some have not. In fairness, that’s the same as with most other schools; there’s no guarantee that a student who did well in high school will do the same in college.
But what happened at Landry will feed the narratives that affirmative action is a fraud, that minority students don’t deserve admission and that colleges seeking diversity allowed themselves to become willing dupes of Landry’s deceit. For the more empathetic, it shows how minority students were denied the education they were due, they needed, to succeed so that a private prep school could make numbers that kept the money coming in.
And to some extent, the harm flowing from the fraud is real on all these levels, and yet it’s just one school, whereas there are thousands of high schools, students, who prove the opposite. That one school managed to get away with a scam for a while, until it was caught, proves less about the larger system than it does to reconfirm that there will always be someone, some entity, trying to beat the system. This time, it came at the expense of students who deserved better.
There is, however, another aspect to this story that hasn’t been given much consideration and which reflects on a larger issue. What about the students who didn’t go to Landry, who worked their butts off to do well in school, to succeed in extra-curricular activities, who chose not to go out and party with their friends but stay home and finish their homework, master calculus and physics?
Part of the fantasy of diversity and inclusion is that there is a seat for every deserving student. Indeed, there is a corner office and big paycheck awaiting them when they come out the other end. If they do things right, study hard, keep their noses clean, they will succeed. We pretend that the American Dream is a contract. You keep your end and we’ll keep ours.
But it’s not. For every Landry student who cheers in a video at his admission to Harvard, there is a student somewhere who clicks on the screen and sees only regret. There are winners. There are losers. There are students who did their part, played by the rules, suffered for their future, and nonetheless didn’t make the cut.
Unlike Landry, their high schools gave accurate transcripts, showing real coursework and earned grades. Their admission essays told of their real life; they didn’t have an alcoholic father and crack-addicted mother. They didn’t cure cancer. They didn’t feed the starving and clothe the homeless. They didn’t get into Harvard. But had Landry not lied, they might have.
Not everyone gets a corner office some day. Somebody will have to sweep the shop floor, which is a critical job, but not one that will bring big money and prestige. There’s no dishonor in doing the sweeping, but there’s no dishonor in running the company either. Success is a scarce resource, and like all scarce resources, it gets allocated. Some will achieve it. Most will not.
There is a debate about meritocracy in which both sides ignore reality. One says it’s a sham, that it’s just a matter of luck, even though those who achieve success pretend they earned it. And the other side insists they did earn it. The reality is that it’s both. People who work hard tend to be luckier, but without luck, hard work doesn’t assure success.
Some years ago, I asked a client, a soviet émigré with an Ivy League education, why he chose crime. He laughed at me. “You Americans are like children. You trust the government. You believe in fairness. There is no fairness in the world, just winners and losers.” Our naïveté exposed us to being taken advantage of, for the person willing to cheat, steal, game the system, to win because we prefer to believe in fairness.
It’s not for lack of sympathy for those students who went to Landry and were denied the education they deserved, or will be tainted as unworthy at Harvard because Landry gamed their admission, but what of the students who played by the rules and didn’t get the chance to wear crimson because their schools were honest? But my Russian client was convicted, and Landry has now been outed for its fraud, so maybe luck has a way of favoring the honest as well as the hard working?
Life is unfair, but trying to make it fairer by giving everyone the opportunity to succeed is still the right goal. Deserving people will still fail, but hopefully fewer than before.