The Cult of What

Brennan Dignan
March 26, 2019
I think I should disclose from the outset that I do not believe this is a college problem. It’s bigger than that. This is a problem generated by the Cult of What. Let me start there.

(Note: all enrollment data is from the National Center for Education Statistics.)

With the recent revelations regarding the nefarious underbelly of highly selective college admissions practices, I thought it might be pertinent to take a closer look. I’ve read through a number of responses and do feel like there are some additional takeaways that haven’t necessarily been investigated. For me, there were three moments that stood out as significant, and that I will get to later, but I think I should disclose from the outset that I do not believe this is a college problem. It’s bigger than that. This is a problem generated by the Cult of What. Let me start there.

What = the collection of objects that are assigned value by our culture. These objects can be material, something that can be touched; or conceptual, something that is purely an object in the mind. There are definitely gradations as any material object will have a conceptual component and vice versa. As an example, if we were at a cocktail party, someone might ask, “what college did you attend,” or, “what kind of car do you drive?” The college is a more conceptual object and the car is a more material object.

The value of the what in our culture closely correlates to its availability. The more scarce the what, the higher its value. As in the above example, if you attended Harvard and own a Tesla, it positions you differently than if you went to the University of Idaho and own a Buick. The more one is able to accumulate scarce whats, the higher social status and privilege they receive. In fact, wealth is essentially access to scarce whats, and in a weird way, the more scarce whats one accumulates, a gravitational force seems to develop which pulls more scarce whats into its orbit.

How = a process. The how can be object oriented, like how one goes about accumulating whats; and it can be subject oriented, like how one treats other people or themselves. How two people interact with each other will determine the quality of their relationship. How someone goes about getting a what will determine how they come to view and feel about that what. Another way to say this is that quality hows lead to quality whats. Maybe another way to express this concept is that hows are more internally focused and whats are more externally focused.

Collectively, we are a what obsessed culture. It is so pervasive that it is very rarely questioned or noticed. There are reminders everywhere about the lack of whats we have in our lives (phones, cars, sexy bodies, white teeth, it’s all fair game). Public transportation is now subsidized by advertisement for whats. There is a what reinforcement device in our pocket that we spend countless hours on each day. It not only reinforces our own what (ego), but delivers a constant stream of whats for our consideration according to what our browsing history is like.

How you get to what is given littler consideration and has virtually no space in the larger cultural conversation. It’s basically an afterthought. That is why I don’t see the current admissions scandal as a college problem. It’s a cultural one. College hasn’t become commodified. Everything has.

On the college side we ask, what is your GPA, what is your test score, what is your high school ranking, what is your rigor? Rarely do we ask how did you get to that GPA, test score, ranking, or rigor (Bennington does have a very how focused application in addition to being test optional, but students very rarely take advantage of it). On the student side they ask what is your ROI (return on investment), what is your college’s ranking, what is your acceptance rate (is it not ironic that we celebrate those institutions that deny their education to the most)? The more you deny, the more you are wanted.

Rarely do students ask how our alumni are manifesting in the world other than the degree of their whatness, never their howness. Rarely do students ask how current students are treated on campus or how they approach the world or how they approach their work. These factors have caused some colleges to enlist questionable how strategies to climb the rankings, and as this recent scandal has demonstrated, parents and students are not immune.

#1 Did he just say that?

We just met with (our older daughter’s) college counselor this am. I’d like to maybe sit with you after your session with the girls as I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to (our daughter) and getting her into a school other than ASU!” — Mossimo Giannulli

The above excerpt is from an email that was scooped up in the recent investigation. On the surface level, this says a lot, but it also points to something much deeper which gets to the heart of the Cult of What.

If you don’t already know who Michael Crowe is, he is the President of Arizona State University and author of, Designing the New American University. Although he is a somewhat controversial figure, the one thing he has done is to dramatically increase ASU’s educational offerings to a significant number of traditional and non-traditional students, reaching 100,000 students in total enrollment in 2017. With multiple campuses and a robust online infrastructure, ASU is able to deliver education to more and more people.

For Mossimo, he couldn’t imagine his daughter attending a university admitting 84% of their applicants, a university that was working to be more and more inclusive, not more and more exclusive. Mossimo’s daughter, Olivia Jade, was already a social media star with 1.9 million YouTube subscribers. In terms of building her brand (i.e. her what), she needed a what school. The Cult of What demands scarcity at the expense of everything else. Mossimo and his wife were willing to spend $500,000 in bribes to ensure this exclusivity. Therefore, an institution like ASU, whose mission is to increase access, unconsciously threatens the very foundation on which the Cult of What rests, and was a perfect target for Mossimo’s jab. In contrast, USC has increasingly become more and more exclusive. Consider the following, the admit rate fell from 25% to 16% between 2007 and 2017, and this past year, they only accepted 13% of their applicants. Scarce whats attract more scarce whats.

#2 Re-defining winners and losers.

We need to rethink the winners and losers narrative. One of the common threads I have seen over the last few weeks points out the discrepancy between winners and losers in education and the privileged who are disproportionately granted access. Those who have wealth (extreme what collectors), attend the best schools, hire outside college counselors, spend thousands on test-prep coaches, etc., which then sets their children up for a lifetime of success. Those who don’t have wealth are at an unfair disadvantage as a result of them being unable to access those same resources. Shouldn’t we level the playing field and offer more access to the best-of-the-best to those students coming from the least?

While on the surface this logic seems sound, but I think it depends on our definition of best-of-the-best and what it means to win. If you are at all familiar with Palo Alto and Henry Gunn High Schools, you will know that they are in the same neighborhood as Stanford, consistently ranked as some of the best public high schools in the country, and who send their students to some of the best colleges. If we look through the what lens, they are the best of the best. But did you know that they are also famous for their suicide clusters? What would happen if we looked at the schools through the how lens? How do students perceive themselves? How do they treat their peers? How do they achieve their top what status? It seems to me that there is a correlation between culturally defined “great” schools and hows that produce unhealthy psychological pathologies. Why is it when we think of “winners” we only think of whats and rarely of hows?

To illustrate this point, I googled “best US public high schools” and found this list on From there, I searched for articles online relating to mental health issues at those schools. I was able to quickly (first page search result) find articles for three of the first four on that list (Walter Payton College Prep, #3, passed my test).

From the’s website - “ranking is based on rigorous analysis of key statistics and millions of reviews from students and parents using data from the U.S. Department of Education. Ranking factors include state test scores, college readiness, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, teacher quality, and high school ratings.” Below are the school’s rank with a link to the article about their mental health challenges.

#1 Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy — A quiet crisis. A conversation on mental health, suicides on campus. The Daily Illini.

#2 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — I survived college mania at America’s most stressed out high school. CNN Money.

#4 Stuyvesant High School — Confronting mental health issues at Suyvesant. Voices of NY.

If all of these schools are the best-of-the-best and collectively produce what we considered winners, I would seriously challenge the idea that we need to expose more students to this kind of education. They are totally what focused whose how have the inconvenient byproduct of producing serious mental health challenges for hordes of young people. I do recognize there are real inequities in the system that need to be addressed, but I see very few how winners in our current model and don’t believe that this is necessarily the place to try and address those inequities.

Related to this is the misguided attempts to address these problems on campuses by trying to use social emotional learning techniques, or progressive tokenism, to mitigate the effects of the Cult of What. That is to say, instead of addressing the underlying issue, which is systemic, we throw GRIT at the problem, we throw MINDFULNESS at the problem, we throw GENIUS HOUR at the problem. We are “what’ing” how techniques in an attempt to offset the detrimental effects of our what approach. We are not looking to change the underlying how. That’s like trying to cure lung cancer by starting to run 5K once a week while continuing to smoke.

3. What about collegiate athletics?

It is possible that I missed this so please forgive my oversight if I did, but it seems to me that people are upset because someone posed as a potential student athlete being recruited by a coach and then a coach subsequently took a bribe to corroborate the lie, not that athletic recruits get preferential treatment in the admissions process. I am not, nor have I ever been, involved with a college or university with sports teams so my knowledge is limited. There could be a compelling reason that I am missing here, but from where I sit it seems the only reason to give athletes preferential treatment is to increase the institutional visibility through the potential accumulation of rare sports whats, which collectively adds to the what of the institution, leading to more applications, leading to more exclusivity, leading to more whats…ad infinitum.

To take an extreme example, let’s look at the University of Alabama. When Nick Saban took over as the football coach in 2007, they received 14,313 applications and enrolled 25,544 students. Ten years later (2017), total applications had reached 38,129 and total enrollment was 38,563. They increased their applications by 166% and enrollment by 51% in ten years! 63% were admitted in 2007 (9,017 admitted and 5,295 denied) and then 53% were admitted ten years later (20,208 admitted and 17,920 denied). SIDE NOTE: Yield on admitted students did drop from 49% to 36%.

In those ten years, the Alabama football team won five national championships. It is an indictment of our culture, and how that informs many student’s college process, that there is a correlation between astronomical application and enrollment growth and a successful athletics program. It’s an indictment in the sense that we are conditioning students to generate their self-worth extrinsically (i.e. whats) in the deployment of our standards based, extrinsically focused educational approach; where policy makers, in their what wisdom, are turning all of the people downstream into whats. How this manifests in the college process is that students all over the country want to associate themselves with an institution’s whatness rather than their howness.

While most colleges won’t ever have the profile of a national football championship, fielding a competitive athletic team that collects trophies does increase your what, whether you are division III or division I. So much so, that coaches have unnecessarily gotten involved in the admissions process. It was an easy loophole for a few “bad actors” to take advantage of. However, the long term solution isn’t to fix the loophole, it’s to dismantle the Cult of What.

Admittedly, I am unsure of how to propose any meaningful solutions without an overhaul of the dominant what focused paradigm we are all living in. And in full disclosure, I am not immune to or above the Cult of What. I do my best to be conscious of it, but am not always successful. I do know the following: Critical pedagogy is a how approach. Teacher autonomy is a how approach. Narrative evaluations are a how approach. Self-direction is a how approach. Voice and choice is a how approach. Project-based-learning is a how approach. Recognizing the inherent dignity in all human beings is a how approach. It is my fundamental belief that focusing on a quality how will lead to a quality what, where human beings are intrinsically motivated and manifesting positively in the world. Progressive education is a how paradigm.

Perhaps education could be a place to start, where infusing young people with a how approach will be the seeds that bear fruit for the larger how revolution to take place. In the interim, I guess I would ask of myself and my community the following: MORE HOW. LESS WHAT.

Brennan Dignan
As a college counselor at a progressive international school in Hong Kong, Brennan's work attempts to infuse the post-graduation planning process with meaning and purpose as defined by the individual.
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