In 1938, an underprivileged but intelligent Los Angelino transplant pondered his future. Ray Bradbury, who shared a living-room pullout couch with his brother into adulthood and graduated from Los Angeles High School in the suit still sporting the bullet hole from his uncle’s murder six years earlier, could not afford to attend college. In lieu of this formal education, he resolved to go to the public library three days a week for four years to read, and read, and read.
Eighty years later, some locals intent on sending their kids to the best schools allegedly used their economic privilege to compensate for impoverishing their children intellectually. The FBI arrested Lori Loughlin, who played John Stamos’s wife on Full House, and Felicity Huffman, of Transamerica and Desperate Housewives fame, in its Operation Varsity Blues sting this week.
The children of those embroiled in the criminal scandal illustrate why the parents resorted to such underhanded means (as their formations into superficial people mark their parents as precisely the types who would resort to bribery instead of, say, tutoring to gain admission for their children).
Smoking a blunt, Malcolm Abbott, whose parents allegedly paid a proctor to inflate their daughter’s test scores, told the New York Post, “I believe everyone has a right to go to college, man.” The degreeless Abbott, who goes by the nom de hip-hop Billa, informed the reporter, “Check out my CD, Cheese and Crackers.”
Laughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a YouTube celebrity whose parents allegedly bribed her way into USC, confessed on social media, “I don’t know how much school I’m going to attend. But I’m going to go in and talk to my deans and everyone and hope that I can try to balance it all. But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. I don’t really care about school.”
Bradbury, who boasted of graduating from the Los Angeles Public Library when asked about his academic CV and commuted to UCLA’s library to write a draft of Fahrenheit 451 on dime-operated typewriters for $9.80, cared deeply about education. “When I was a kid I was mad for Prince Valiant and Tarzan; they were two of my favorites and I collected them for years,” the master storyteller wrote to me in a 2010 interview for my book, Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. “I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact one of the first stories I ever wrote was a sequel to one of the John Carter of Mars stories. I also loved Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which my aunt, Neva, gave to me when I was about twelve. I loved reading those stories over and over again.”
The juxtaposition between that bookworm and these bibliophobes illustrates what infuriates the public about the current scandal. Intellectually deserving but financially-strapped kids struggle to go to college. Uninterested but privileged kids somehow find themselves at leading institutions. More so than the parents, the juxtaposition also indicts the diploma mills, which spend lavishly on health clubs and entertainers and sports teams and much else that appeals to the dim wealthy, that masquerade as educational institutions. Money, more so than grades or scores, now acts as the primary determinative factor in whether one matriculates at a top-tier university.
The we-give-you-this-paper-you-give-us-that-paper mindset corrupts education by turning it into transactional credentialism. This devalues diplomas even as it enriches endowments. When money becomes the currency of education, the lucre lust that represents one American Dream tramples the striver culture that represents another. People mistake college as a place where you increase your bottom line rather than a place where you enrich your mind and soul through liberal education.
Ray Bradbury certainly fell for this status-worship. As a pudgy, zit-faced outcast, he roller-skated around Hollywood aggressively cornering Judy Garland, Clark Cable, Marlene Dietrich, and other human opposites for autographs. He dumpster-dived for the discarded scripts of the Hollywood Hotel radio show. He swung upside-down on a tree outside of George Murphy’s home to win the actor’s attention. Such validation through association with the glamourous does not differ so greatly with current parental obsessions of attaching kids to prestigious universities.
But a teenaged Bradbury understood education better way back when than our society does all these years later. We value the diploma more than the learning. Ray Bradbury cared little about the piece of paper awarded at the end of four years and all about all that paper read during that time. We get it backwards. Bradbury got it right.
And we got, as a result of his unschooled education, “The Veldt,” “Zero Hour,” and other cautionary tales about the dangers of parental neglect. What does society gain from a celebrity heiress admitting “I don’t really care about school” attending a top university?