Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pro at Con: How the Case of Adam Wheeler Educates Us

Perfect SAT scores; all A's at one of the nation's best prep schools; several books authored; research; volunteering. Who could believe that an 18-year-old has accomplished all that? You'd better believe it, because that is common for Harvard undergraduates, so common that many students with such a record are turned away. And Harvard admissions officers believed it, except that in the case of Adam Wheeler, they shouldn't have, because Mr. Wheeler only claimed to have this record.

The young man who turned up on Monday in the nation's consciousness was a spectacular con man, who forged letters of recommendation from professors he had never met, somehow managed to send faked SAT scores with his transfer application, fabricated a transcript from a school he never attended, won literary prizes based on plagiarized (stolen) papers, nearly was nominated as one of Harvard's recommended Rhodes and Fulbright nominees, and once kicked out of Harvard kept doing it—at Harvard's own mental health hospital and then as he attempted to transfer into Yale and Brown.


Except that there is much to believe here. Some will claim--and they may very well be right--that Mr. Wheeler is a disturbed sociopath, one for whom social values hold no meaning. Some would wonder about how Harvard's admissions department could possibly have done so very little checking. On blogs I have read people congratulating him for "sticking it to Harvard"—Harvard’s tribulations are gloated over by many who resent its domination—or for learning Wall Street lessons so well that he is sure to find his way to a lucrative field where such cons are rewarded.

But I also think this case raises the opportunity to look broadly and critically at an educational system that has such a focus on credentials and resumes that someone with a disorder like this might be plausible. Many students have inflated high school records, often massaged and managed with the complicity of parents, teachers, administrators, and college admission counselors. Many of our highest-achieving students, such as those chronicled by Alexandra Robbins’ shocking book The Overachievers, claim membership in clubs they never attend, spend years on activities that are meaningless to them, calculate which courses to take that will yield grade-point-averages above perfect. Students learn how to butter up their teachers, how to master test-taking, how to create an image of success that shows that they have mastered, in David Labaree's terms, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning.

Success is what Mr. Wheeler portrayed, and success breeds success. Harvard and other highly (insanely) competitive schools are all about success. A credential from Harvard can set a person on a lifelong upward trajectory. If a person is to aim high, why not the highest? It is risky, but the risks are worth it, if what one seeks is the appearance of success. Such high-stakes competitions, from China’s millennial-long civil service examination to today’s SAT and pre-med courses, invite clever schemas to be one of the winners.

But it seems to me—okay, call me "idealistic"—that education is supposed to be about more than mere credentials and the appearance of success. To be sure, many students indeed learn, change, grow, mature at every level of schooling, but learning, content, growth, meaning are never part of our public discussion of education. When all around us we hear about graduation rates, the level of educational attainment, opportunities for combining high school and college credit (double credit!), grades, and other extrinsic measures, we have an environment that can easily grow a fraud. How can we tell the difference between a fraud and someone who similarly masters the image of success to impress? Impression management, performance, acting like a winner—these are some of the lessons our best schools inculcate, and students learn these lessons well.

But isn't there something else we want our students to learn? How can we set up an educational system that values the CONTENT of our learning, rather than a rush to get through the lessons? What do we want from all the schooling that costs us so much? The case of Adam Wheeler, con man extraordinaire, gives us a chance to learn something valuable. And that’s educational.