The psychologist Abraham Maslow was a great believer in human potential. In the course of uncovering the reasons that motivate human behavior, he developed five stages of human need — now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — to describe the levels of achievement required to reach our maximum capabilities.
When federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents with counts of fraud and bribery to win their underachieving kids a place in the best colleges and universities, Tuesday, it called to mind that climbing Maslow’s pyramid is much harder in real life.
Maslow’s first two levels include our basic needs —food, water, shelter, clothing, health, safety, and financial security. It is safe to say that the celebrities and well-off have those levels sufficiently covered. From that point on, the alleged schemers really struggled.
The next two levels of behavior leading to full potential are social needs, which include love and a sense of belonging, plus being accepted and valued by others.
The college admissions scandal is Maslow 3 and 4 run amok.
When news broke of bribing college admissions officials, imposters taking tests, sham admissions recommendations, student faces being photoshopped over bodies of actual athletes, and coaches being bribed to offer scholarships, our reaction was from the maddening, to the bizarre, to the laughable.
The outcry was an immediate indictment of the super-rich and the privileged. It’s no wonder that people are outraged. Once again money has trumped the idyllic notion that hard work and one’s own accomplishments are the pathway to a successful and fulfilling life.
However, there is something deeper going on here. After all, the people ACCEPTING the bribes are surely not celebrities, nor likely ultra-rich. I’m sure they are paid well for the work they do, but evidently the enticement was too much to ignore.
No, this scandal is more about the goodness of character, and what we are willing to do to be loved and adored by those around us.
The absurdness of this national scandal masks a general breakdown in parental integrity everywhere. Parents who purchase designer clothes so their children will fit in at school participate in a similar fraud. Parents who let kids join in multiple extracurricular activities at school in detriment to academics and sleep do, too.
And how about those families who spend thousands to have their kids join “travel” sports teams in the summer just to get a leg up on the competition for future college scholarships? Cheerleader camps? Music competitions? Beauty pageants?
Isn’t this the same kind of peer pressure that the admissions scandal exposed?
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with pursuing the very best for our children as long as it truly challenges our kids to be their best for their own sakes, and not for ours.
Because in the true climb to reach full potential, Maslow needed one more level in his hierarchy — the ability to look ourselves in the eye.
John O. Marlowe is a reporter, sports writer and award-winning columnist for The Paper.