The Lexwerks

Regarding Scholarships

When I was in eighth grade, the president of Lewis & Clark college bypassed the usual process of offer me admission to his institution.  I didn’t think much of it at the time; it seemed to me the joining of my gifted mind and their lax academic standards and subsequently I did not pursue my education at Lewis & Clark per the standing moratorium on joining clubs that would have me as a member.  But what I missed at that moment and would continue to miss while scrambling for scholarship funding from a motley assortment of mostly-anonymous committees was the underlying humane reason that a university president would eagerly ignore his admissions bureaucrats and people on corporate committees would offer me thousands of dollars worth of school subsidies based on a terse-but-happy paper asking for it.  The surface reasons of “lax academic standards” and “good public and employee relations” don’t really give sufficient force to move from the idea of helping some kid they’ve never met to executing the action of risking their university’s prestige or signing away thousands of dollars.

As for the university I did attend, I have to admit that I was almost put off by the admissions officer’s excessive exuberance because it came off as an impersonal desire that, for all I knew at the time, might have been sated by a mannequin with cash-stuffed pockets.  If the director of the debate program hadn’t personalized the desire to bring my specific skills into his program, I probably would’ve gone looking at other schools.  There’s a non-topical point in there, but Michael Lopp has a lovely post dedicated to attracting and retaining awesome people by making them feel Wanted.  I, however, am trying to go in the opposite direction: understanding what other people want for you.

In simplest terms, people want you and others like you to be awesome enough to entrust their world to when they’re too old to effectively tend to it anymore.

What this comes down to is that, for any scholarship you receive, for any college you gain admission to, for any salary you earn, the person who ultimately decides to favor you has effectively decided that you are most likely to create more value than you capture. That Tim O’Reilly post is a great one and should be read, but for today’s purposes it’s enough to wrap your head around the community affairs representative from the company giving you $500 for college is operating under the optimistic belief that you’ll put that $500 to more productive use than their corporation would.  And this is easily believed: yes, the corporation can match 401(k) retirement funds, but it can’t keep a steady hand on the economy to ensure those funds will be worth anything in 30 years.  That’s what they — the people who are employees and shareholders of the corporation — are wanting you to do.  They want you to be awesome enough that there’s a world they can retire in.  And as facilitation of that, they want for you to have the opportunity to become awesome.

It may take some effort to understand wanting for somebody.  The educational system does a piss-poor job of teaching capitalism — particularly division of labor and free trade — by deeming it to be cheating.  But as a capitalist, I can want for the lovely people at Sterling Coffee to enjoy roasting up an awesome batch of beans because then I can trade for some of those beans using money that I was paid doing a job that I ideally wanted for myself.  There are problems putting this theory into practice, but the current point is that the educational system disapproves of exchanging chemistry homework for trigonometry homework such that the most a typical student ever hopes for their peers is that their peers will only do almost as well as they will because their education is, first and foremost, a competition with possible prizes at the end.  The humane possibility of genuinely wanting a significant benefit for somebody else — much less an almost arbitrary juvenile stranger — is not native to the system, so it should be unsurprising that scholarships and their ilk are viewed as rewards for work already done rather than subsidy of forthcoming work from other humans that are already occupied doing — and looking forward to being done with — work of their own.

If you’ve read Hedges, Bageant or Blumenthal, you may get the wrong impression that your benefactors have some kind of liberal guilt complex and don’t want you to turn out like the people in those books (all of which are kind of depressing).  To the best of my existential knowledge, this is wrong.  You’re already too smart to turn out like those people — we’re much more worried about you turning up in a Taibbi book being one of the people who doesn’t care about the people Hedges or Bageant are writing about.  As Jiang Xueqin nicely summarizes:

There’s a major difference between the US aristocracy and the meritocracy though. Aristocrats like Henry Chauncey, bred at Saint Grottlesex boarding schools and the Ivy League, were conscious of their privilege and social responsibility, and focused on developing the character and leadership skills necessary for public service. Many of today’s meritocrats, in contrast, don’t believe it’s a rigged game in their favour, and commit themselves to winning it at all costs, which means stepping on everyone else. As a result, too many lack self-reflection or self-criticism skills, meaning even those who are grossly overpaid give themselves outrageous bonuses.

Let me be clear: scholarships are how we rig the game in your favor.  This is because you’re not supposed to merely win, but rather win with enough grace to benefit our society and civilization.  What we want for us is the benefit to our society and civilization.  What we want for you is to not develop a myopic, almost sociopathic, focus on merely winning.

At this point, you may be reviewing your educational background and doubting me in one of two obvious ways.  First, you may tap into the rugged individualism of our cultural narrative to say that you’re making it on your own.  Which will be great and I’ll accept after you pay me back for subsidizing your “free” public education.  Second, you may observe that the sheer volume of special education to prevent children from being left behind has prevented the game from being rigged in your favor.  As far as I know, that is a valid criticism and a primary cause of Xueqin’s concern, and I’ve said this before: ignoring the kids who are going to be successful anyway (oh hi!) disenfranchises them such that they are disinclined to allow future society to share in their success.  Put another way, our public education policy is teaching them (you) that they (you) don’t have to create more value than they (you) capture because it’s not going to be rationally invested in people as bright as them (you).  And while merit-based scholarships ought to counteract this particular pathology, they will utterly fail if the act of investing in a student’s future is reframed — usually by the student — as rewarding them for work they’ve already done.

Don’t mis-read the above paragraph.  From my point of view, morality insists that we try to mitigate the suffering of anybody, usually starting with those closest to us.  But rationality insists that we invest in people who are most likely to create more value than they capture such that there are more opportunities for everybody resulting in less suffering generally and a greater societal capacity for suffering-mitigation.  Having a broad public education program is a good thing, in my taxpaying opinion, in as much as it teaches people how to avoid suffering and helps to identify the people mostly likely to create surplus value to society in whom we ought to be investing more.

There’s an obvious Spiderman reference here in trying to get kids to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but the scene that stuck with me was early in the film when Willem Dafoe almost gracelesly snubs James Franco (playing his son) in favor of Tobey Maguire because he realizes that his son doesn’t have the cognitive edge or intellectual hunger necessary to carry on his pursuits.  Nepotism may be natural, but the enlightened capitalist will be looking for heirs that can think like them, not just look like them.

So that’s the reason why corporations (do or at least should) care about public education, and why they have committees to award scholarships to outstanding students.  It isn’t just to make headlines, or to reward a student for a job well done.  The point is to help elevate the student past thinking about college and the money paying for it so they can move on to the bigger social issues of making the world a better place to live regardless of whether or not what the student comes up with is in the charter of their corporate sponsor or not because underneath the logo and the bureaucracy, the corporation’s decisions get made by people who understand that they’ll be living in that world too.