Missing the Point

So, I bought the dead-tree version of the NY Times today and came across this column by Judith Warner. Unfortunately, I left the paper on the bus, so I don’t have it in front of me, and I don’t have Times Select, so you’ll just have to trust me when I relay the basic point.

Warner starts the column with a little domestic scene, with she and her younger daughter watching Maid in Manhattan. This leads into musing about how someone like the senator played by Ralph Fiennes is statistically unlikely to marry someone like Jennifer Lopez’s maid, but though it was ever thus (hence the fairy tale fantasy), it’s now the case for the first time that the social strata are based less on birth than on accomplishment for both parties.

Which, of course, makes a lot of sense: quite a number of couples in my class at law school met there, and when you’re spending overnights at the office, the appeal of your coworkers is obvious. You do see a lot of (usually male) associate and (usually female) paralegal dating at a big firm, moreso than, say, associates and secretaries. Partly because of the gulf in education and ambition, but also, I’d say, because the secretaries get to go home at 5:30. You date who you spend time around, and people who have high-powered careers tend to hang out at the same places, whether work or bars.

But here’s where I think there was a big flaw in the column: Warner raises concerns, expressed by several people she quotes in the column, that this kind of concentration of highly-educated people is going to create some kind of brain-power gap as the more-educated breed smarter children and, presumably, the less-educated breed dumber ones.

Huh?

I think we’ve clearly seen over and over again that a degree from a top school does not necessarily mean that one is the very best and brightest. The idea that only the very cream of the nation’s brains go to Harvard ignores that a large percentage of Harvard students are there because they’re legacies, not because they’re the smartest. It also ignores the fact that there are a HELL of a lot of very smart kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to Harvard, because they were stuck in underfunded and underperforming schools; or because they lacked the kind of support system that would get them to college at all, let alone Harvard; or because they’re girls, and their parents don’t believe in educating girls; or even just because college tuition is out of control.

The assumption that education equals intelligence and that the Harvard grads are going to be breeding a race of superchildren is, quite frankly, toxic. While undoubtedly you do have to be smart to succeed in college, it’s not the only measure of intelligence, and given legacy admissions, it’s more a reflection of the lack of real class mobility in this country than it is an indicator of who’s the best and the brightest. Particularly since the “best and the brightest” always seem to be white and middle-to-upper class.

73 comments for “Missing the Point

  1. March 11, 2007 at 12:05 am

    One other matter to consider is the possibility that the law firm itself is imposing a class hierarchy on its staff’s interactions. Right after graduating college, I went to work for a law firm in Center City Philadelphia as general helpdesk and database admin. I quickly struck up a (platonic) friendship with one of the associates, and we started hanging out frequently, including the occasional trip out to lunch with one of her other friends: one of the partners. Shortly before I was let go, I learned that the other partners were using the HR department (one woman with a penchant for bullying the secretaries and paralegals) to enforce a strict separation of class: The lawyers were only barely tolerated to condescend to the paralegals, and forming friendships with secretaries and the like (me) were verboten. Of course, it’s easier to fire a secretary than a lawyer, soooo… well, there you have it. She went on to bigger and better things and frankly so did I, but it always amazes me that this sort of caste bullshit happened in 21st Century America and not 19th Century England.

  2. QueenFrostine
    March 11, 2007 at 12:12 am

    She also seems to ignore a social science basic: regression to the mean. Even ignoring how incredibly unlikely this scenario this, if all of the extremely intelligent people in the US bred exclusively with each other and vice versa with the “undesireables,” you still wouldn’t get a bimodal curve, you’d get a bunch of really smart people with slightly-less-smart-overall kids and a bunch of dumber people with slightly-smarter-overall kids.
    /end run-on.

  3. Tara
    March 11, 2007 at 12:44 am

    I excerpted part of the column below. The piece starts out with several paragraphs, to which zuzu alluded, of the columnist (author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety) describing how her daughter and significant other engaged with the film Maid in Manhattan. Then, after explaining that this fantasy (of a highly successful man running off with a main) is “pretty well dead,” Warner introduces the concept, “assortive mating,” which has been identified in social science research: Now, “like marrying like” means people marry based on notions of career achievement, as opposed to marrying based on mutual racial, ethnical, and/or class identification.

    Below are the next few paragraphs:

    The coming together of equally well-educated and successful people can be very good, particularly when worldly ambition doesn’t fly to extremes and the partnership translates into more equal task-sharing and co-parenting. But the mating of like-wired colleagues and college pals is raising some questions as well.

    Some economists worry that the concentration of income in high-achieving two-earner homes is aggravating the wealth gap. Some evolutionary psychologists say that pumping up certain kids’ genes for intelligence will increase the achievement gap (by creating supersmart kids with an even more unfair advantage than their smart parents had).

    In Britain, Simon Baron-Cohen, the Autism Research Center director at the University of Cambridge, postulates that assortative mating among people with great skills in understanding and building systems, like engineers and economists, may be linked to the greater numbers of autistic children. Similar hypotheses have been floated around to explain the increased and earlier incidence of bipolar disorder and anorexia (too many perfectionists marrying perfectionists, too little ”hybrid vigor”).

    This is all speculation. For our family, though, the message is clear: if Emilie persists in her declared career path of being ”a artist,” she isn’t likely to be swept off her feet by an investment banker and to spend her life working within the velvet bondage of having him pay her Bergdorf’s bills. She’s more likely to marry a guy she meets in art school, whose economic prospects will be as dim as her own.).

    You’re right: The column is overloaded with assumptions — many of which are very offensive — and simplifications.

  4. ilyka
    March 11, 2007 at 12:47 am

    Warner raises concerns, expressed by several people she quotes in the column, that this kind of concentration of highly-educated people is going to create some kind of brain-power gap as the more-educated breed smarter children and, presumably, the less-educated breed dumber ones.

    Oh, good, now I don’t have to write a review of Idiocracy. Of course, it’s one thing to make that the premise of a comedy and another to propose it as a real-world possibility.

    What Mighty Ponygirl said about an enforced caste system was true at one of the software companies I worked for, too. I started there as an assistant to the VP, but only after I was promoted to junior developer did I start getting asked out to lunch or socialized with in any way. One of the other developers finally explained to me that the company’s owner discouraged fraternization with underlings on the grounds that you never knew when one of those crazy low-wage workers was just looking for an opportunity to cry harassment or discrimination, and sue. Keeping the development staff segregated from them outside the office cut down on the odds of that happening.

    Nice, huh?

  5. March 11, 2007 at 12:51 am

    This was what bugged me about the movie Idiocracy, to tell you the truth.

  6. mythago
    March 11, 2007 at 12:58 am

    Simon Baron-Cohen has a number of craptastic theories. This is just another one of them.

  7. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 1:05 am

    Is he the brother or cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen?

  8. March 11, 2007 at 1:20 am

    Journalists probably shouldn’t breed with journalists either. Just look at what media inbreeding has done so far.

  9. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 1:22 am

    Thanks for the transcript, Tara.

  10. Nobody
    March 11, 2007 at 1:34 am

    Herrnstein and Murray wrote this book twenty years ago. It’s still impossible to measure (or even define) intelligence. And artificial intelligence will mootify the entire problem soon enough. Still; always good to have something to worry about.

  11. Nobody
    March 11, 2007 at 1:37 am

    It does bear pointing out, though, that legacy admits make up something like thirteen percent of top school admissions. Some of them are very likely unqualified, but probably not most. I think it may overstate the case to assume that legacy admissions are what’s preventing the rule of intellectual overlords.

  12. March 11, 2007 at 1:38 am

    Glad I’m not the only person’s who’s response was “Was she watching Maid in Manhatten or Idiocracy?”

    Look, I tend to be told that I’m fairly bright. I don’t always apply myself as much as I should, but I did quite well on my SAT’s and near-missed an Ivy League school thanks to a very competive year. Still ended up in an honors program at a highly competitive university where I continued to not really apply myself but still managed to maintain a reputation for being smart inspite of my GPA. And, sure enough, I’m dating someone who is demonstrably smarter than me, but who also continues to suggest I’m pretty bright so I guess there must something to it.

    Now, my Ivy League PhD. Girlfriend is the daughter of two PhD’s, one a researcher at an Ivy, the other a college president. I guess she proves the brain gap. But wait! My dad’s dropped out of high school to join the Navy and my mom never went past high school. Are they stupid? Am I a fluke?

    No. Of course not. My parents were part of a culture where class meant more than achievement back in the oh so distant 60’s. They came from a lower class background, so the educational system of the time wanted little more to do with them. But what have the accomplished? Well, my mom raised 3 incredibly bright and creative children. She’s a very accomplished household craftsman, too boot, who has shown a strong apptitude at picking up any number of skills, from plumbing, painting, health care, and veteranary care and has done all well. We did okay, but her financial management allowed us to live quite well on just my father’s salary. And yeah, my dad. He did drop out of high school. It was to join the Navy. Managed to do so while he was too young to enlist, even. No small feat, I’m sure. And lets take notice of this. My dad dropped out to join the NAVY. In the late 1960’s. So, instead of being infantry fodder, my dad served on a battleship which only twice even glimpsed enemy ships. Pretty damn smart of him, I’d say. He ended up in a field where he worked his way up from a grunt-type worker to a unit supervisor, a position which would ordinarily require advanced engineering degrees. My dad did get college level certification, but in classes where he already knew the material. He’s been working with computers long before they were commonly accepted, both at his job and at home. He provided my family with a personnal computer as early as 1984. Surely a strong part in why my siblings and I would do so well in academics.

    So let me be a personnal example that for all the expectation that our society is now fully open for opportunity for all people, it just isn’t. My parents had to work hard to earn their way through life, and accomplishment or talent was rarely a factor. Growing up in a lower-middle class neighborhood, I saw that it still goes on. Kids who were really bright just stopped trying. White kids, black kids, latino kids. Didn’t matter. It kept happening. Kids who were every bit as bright as I was eventually just stopped trying because there wasn’t a support system for them. Kids who got through high school competing at the highest levels settling for community college because that’s all they could afford. There are a lot of bright minds that go untapped in our society, and a lot of good genes to go around.

  13. March 11, 2007 at 1:45 am

    I swale, the “Haves” are getting positively Louis the French King-esque.

    They don’t even know who the rest of us ARE anymore! The very idea that wealth and opportunity = intellectual superiority is so stupid, it proves by it’s very positing the opposite.

    Is there any remembrance that practically all Americans (including today’s elite) are the children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren of malnourished stunted illiterate immigrants?

  14. Dr. William Dyer
    March 11, 2007 at 2:10 am

    Well this reporter seems to be overlooking that whole thing were Lamarckism’s ideas of heritability through acquired characteristics were found to be wrong. Some guy named Charlie Darwin posited something that made Lamarckism seem lacing.

  15. Dr. William Dyer
    March 11, 2007 at 2:13 am

    sorry, correction:
    Darwin showed Lamarckism as lacking not lacing

  16. March 11, 2007 at 2:37 am

    Wow. You know you’re reading either the NYT or Slate when you can annihilate the article’s thesis by mentioning that Lamarck’s theories are no longer in play.

  17. Marksman2000
    March 11, 2007 at 4:37 am

    and people who have high-powered careers tend to hang out at the same places, whether work or bars.

    Please quit. You’re killing me with this “high-powered career” shit.

  18. Margaret
    March 11, 2007 at 8:47 am

    I absolutely agree with the main point of this post, but Nobody in number 11 is right. People tend to exaggerate the ease with which “legacies” are admitted to places like Harvard. I am the daughter of a Harvard alum but I was denied admission to Harvard and a number of my peers in the same boat (including a girl who descended from Harvard alums going back 200 years) didn’t get in. The legacies I knew who got in were all super super qualified.

    My understanding is that being a legacy helps you only if you are on the borderline for admission. If they aren’t sure about you, being a legacy can help tip you over the edge.

    The treatment of legacies has probably changed over the last few decades. (Otherwise, I don’t know how to explain George W. Bush’s admission to Yale.) But these days college admissions are extremely competitive no matter who you are.

    That having been said, privileges still help. Privileges help you to afford private tutoring and SAT classes. Privileges help you to afford college application enhancing activities like language immersion classes overseas. Privileges mean you go to a school that offers AP classes. Also, people who aren’t born privileged often don’t even think about going to Harvard or think about what hoops they should be jumping in high school to gain admission.

  19. Margaret
    March 11, 2007 at 8:49 am

    According to Wikipedia, Simon Baron-Cohen and Sacha Baron-Cohen are first cousins!

  20. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 9:25 am

    Please quit. You’re killing me with this “high-powered career” shit.

    Why won’t you die, then?

  21. March 11, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Hey, didn’t Bush go to Harvard? We all know he’s one of the dumbest people, so education clearly doesn’t mean intelligence.

  22. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 9:36 am

    And Yale.

    Where he was — wait for it — a legacy.

  23. NeilC
    March 11, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Well, at the paper I work at, we had a writer who allegedly went to Yale. He was a horrible writer and once alphabetized a list of names by first name for an article. We figure we misinterpreted and he went to someplace called Yale Community College.

  24. RKMK
    March 11, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I attended a guest lecture at the school I work (graduate business school at large Canadian university) with a Harvard professor who was discussing why economic growth is an important issue for liberals, and in the course of his lecture, he mentioned strategic policies that both helped the less-fortunate and contributed to overall growth. Specifically he mentioned was that, at Harvard, if you met the Admissions criteria but your parents made equal to or less than the median American income, the expected parental contribution to tuition was $0; as in, the official Harvard policy was that Americans who qualified for admission but whose families made significant amounts of financial aid.

    The general gist I got was that Harvard, for all of its exclusivity and hoity-toityness, has been actively trying to reduce both legacies and the ill-effects of generational wealth/privilege, and become more egalitarian and accessible to those who otherwise meet Harvard criteria. I can’t speak to Yale, or other Ivy League institutions, however.

  25. RKMK
    March 11, 2007 at 11:42 am

    My comment currently in moderation somehow got screwed up with tags: the rest sentence of the first paragraph should finish with: “as in, the official Harvard policy was that Americans who qualified for Admission but whose families made

  26. RKMK
    March 11, 2007 at 11:44 am

    and… again? Apparently this board doesn’t like mathy short-forms…

  27. Hubris
    March 11, 2007 at 11:55 am

    While I agree with the proposition that “a degree from a top school does not necessarily mean that one is the very best and brightest,” I (a non-legacy back in pre-historical times, i.e., the early ’90s) feel compelled to note that the legacy system doesn’t aid legacies alone. While legacy students in the Ivy League typically make up less than 15% of the student population, alumni giving seems to be greatly enhanced by the presence of a legacy system. The gifts of alumni helped allow me to attend Harvard with a generous financial aid package after growing up in a trailer in West Virginia.

    Harvard does a great job of addressing the out-of-control-tuition issue for those in need.

  28. mk
    March 11, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    I actually had a Harvard professor suggest superintelligent coupling is, for some reason, producing more children with birth defects and developmental challenges–a trend he says is pushing many of his alumni to marry not so bright women.

  29. FashionablyEvil
    March 11, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I think Warner’s problem is that she’s conflating education with social capital. College is as much about meeting people who will be useful to you in your future professional life as it is about arguing the finer points of Marx and Co.

  30. kali
    March 11, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    Yeah, this worry makes no sense at all from a genetic perspective. Regression to the mean and all that, even if there were a perfect meritocracy in place right now, which, as the post points out, there really isn’t. But the prospect of the assortative mating trend causing power and wealth and privilege to concentrate, resulting in an increasingly stratified class system where the gap isn’t a gap in brain power but a gap in opportunity: well, that seems like a completely valid worrry to me, although I kind of think (as zuzu also kind-of indicated in the post), that the assortative mating is more an effect than a cause of such stratification, and certainly handwringing about people’s marriage choices doesn’t seem a useful way to address the actual problem.

    So why the hell bring genes into it? Is it just the the writer is of the elite and wants to think it’s her superior genes that got her there? Or is it that taboo to note the existence of unearned, unmerited privilege?

  31. Andy
    March 11, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    As the son of a high school graduate redneck daddy and a college grad mom who frankly has no common sense, I somehow ended up with a hundred and fifty three IQ. Note the lack of ANY Haavaad degrees in my credentials. I wonder if Judith considered that we’re all a product of people from the dark ages and somehow we survived with our intelligence intact.

  32. Don
    March 11, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Apparently Warner has independently discovered how to “mismeasure man.” Her fact checkers missed her convergence upon the theories of William Shockley (check him out on the Wikipedia). Too bad Steve Gould isn’t still with us

  33. entlord
    March 11, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Judith Warner thinks education is genetic? Must be from breathing too many toxic fumes. I guess she has not had a car repaired (I know, she is in NYC so what is a car?) or an AC to go out on her or any number of other things she does not know how to do.
    Plumbers, electricians, auto repairmen, any number of other trades are becoming more valuable because the more educated the country becomes, the dumber it becomes. Knowing the probate laws is nifty but changing your car’s oil is a more frequent task and I find most people are challenged just fueling up. Some of us out here can still change the oil or even rebuild a motor or wire a light fixture but I find most professionals are hopelessly inept and incapable of learning. Learning with 120v as a teacher is a sure attention getter.
    Judith has an intellectual snobbery and no reason for it; she had best be on her knees praying her daughter is a lunchpail toter so Judith and her hubby don’t end up on the dole in old age.

  34. arsenic
    March 11, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    zuzu,

    Granted, education dos not equal intelligence, but don’t highly educated people breed less often and smaller families than say, high school dropouts. I thought that was so well established that it was now a meme. Or is it a myth? If the former, there is nothing to worry about with respect to a super-race. If the latter will the last smart person on the plenet turn out the lights please?

  35. March 11, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Is he the brother or cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen?

    Cousin.

    The people defending legacies are really reaching. If legacies didn’t make a whit of real difference, would colleges keep them? Would alumni give all that money if it turned out their kids weren’t helped by legacies after all? And whether or not legacies are “super super qualified” is beside the point–it’s that “super super qualified” people are losing out to somebody who may not be as wonderful, but was lucky enough to have a daddy who went to that school.

  36. DAS
    March 11, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    I actually had a Harvard professor suggest superintelligent coupling is, for some reason, producing more children with birth defects and developmental challenges – mk

    Could the professor be refering to recent research that suggests cariers of many, e.g., lipid storage disease genes, are more intelligent on average and that heterozygosity of those genes may somehow result in increased intelligence?

  37. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    And whether or not legacies are “super super qualified” is beside the point–it’s that “super super qualified” people are losing out to somebody who may not be as wonderful, but was lucky enough to have a daddy who went to that school.

    Which always seems to cause a huge uproar when the criteria is race or gender rather than legacy status. Funny that.

  38. report from the heartland
    March 11, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    this column was pretty weird– I was readying myself for some 3rd-wave-feminist interpretation of showing regressive movies to girls. But I have read about and personally experienced the growing incidence of autism. One of the theories (not sure it was Borat’s cousin’s) is that qualities that make scientists (whatever those might be) might be magnified by having two scientists make babies and bingo, autistic spectrum kids. Apparently there is a truly extraordinary rate of autism in silicon valley.

  39. Georgiana
    March 11, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    If Judith Warner’s argumentation and science skills are what passes for well-educated, there really isn’t much need to worry about the appearance of the ubermench. Yeesh. You’d think one quick look at European aristocracies would be enough to illustrate that wealth opens doors and opportunities, but doesn’t guarantee smarts. How many of them are known for Nobel Prizes and oh writing awards?

    Besides if her artist daughter were clever (and clearly dexterious), she might want to become a mechanic herself to fund her art. My mechanic has a very nice multiple six-figure income and works part-time at this point. Something to do with all those professionals who don’t know how to maintain a car and don’t have time, but are willing to pay someone else a lot to do.

  40. David Derbes
    March 11, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Legacy status ain’t what it used to be. Legacies applying early seem to have an advantage, but in the regular process, it doesn’t seem to help at all. All the Ivies are cutting way, way back on the advantages given to legacies because, to be really blunt, they haven’t got the space. More than twenty thousand are applying to Harvard this year, for perhaps 1750 offers (and 1300 places). The vast majority of those twenty thousand have 1500+ boards, AP’s out the wazoo, fabulous extracurriculars, demonstrated commitment to community service, and probably musical or athletic talent (maybe both.)

    There are far more qualified, smart and really quite wonderful kids applying than all of the Ivies, plus MIT, Stanford and another six or seven top schools can take. That’s just the way it is. I teach at one of the very best schools in Chicago, and I could tell you horror stories that would curl your hair. It’s bad luck if you are a senior in 2007 or 2008; the demographics and the fear driving kids to the prestigious schools is just horrible.

    The good news is that a lot of “second-tier” schools (say, in the second twenty or thirty of your favorite dumb list of top schools–and they’re all dumb lists) are going to get the best students they’ve ever seen. Again, it’s a lousy metric, but for decades the Rhodes have been dominated by six or seven schools (Harvard is way out in front); in the next four years you will see fewer and fewer from the Ivies, and more and more from the likes of Carleton, Pomona, Washington U in St. Louis, Reed, Swarthmore, Michigan, U of Illinois, Rice, and so on. Two years ago Harvard had count ’em none. (Last year, three or four; but wait till next year…)

  41. March 11, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    All the Ivies are cutting way, way back on the advantages given to legacies because, to be really blunt, they haven’t got the space.

    You don’t understand how legacies work, clearly. It’s not a matter of holding open X slots for legacies; being a legacy gives you a boost to your chances of getting admitted at all. Being a legacy won’t help a C student get into Yale, but it will help a super-qualified student get an edge over other super-qualified students precisely because the margin is so thin.

    Which always seems to cause a huge uproar when the criteria is race or gender rather than legacy status. Funny that.

    But see, that’s DIFFERENT. Giving away admissions to try to help underprivileged students, or to achieve a diverse student body, is a Bad Thing. Whoring out admissions to alumni by promising to give their kids special favors is a Good Thing. (See post #27.)

    And let’s not forget William F. Buckley’s impassioned speech about the horrors that would follow if graduates of P.S. 238 were allowed to rub shoulders with graduates of Andover.

  42. Dan
    March 11, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Undergraduate admission processes to top undergraduate schools are not necessarily scientific, and not really meritocratic, since the SAT is not necessarily designed to make fine distinctions among the most qualified students, particularly since colleges only see an applicant’s highest score, and high school transcripts are difficult to compare.

    Top undergrads tend to favor heavily favor certain prep schools that the admissions offices are familiar with, and that puts students who are outside of certain geographic regions, or who attended schools that weren’t well-connected at a disadvantage, even if they have stellar qualifications.

    It’s possible for a legacy admit whose qualifications don’t keep up with the pack to get in, but not unless that person was a celebrity or a the child of a very large donor (for example George W. Bush). If they gave legacies the same boost to admissions numbers as they gave to minority applicants through affirmative action policies, then the gap in admissions numbers between admitted whites and admitted minorities would vanish, as high-scoring whites were displaced by lower scoring legacies.

    “Legacy” status was historically given more used to squeeze out Jews and Asians who bested the WASPs in very high numbers in academic measures, but as discrimination against those groups in academic admissions fell out of favor, legacy policies seem to have been de-emphasized to the point where they are now just a non-decisive subjective consideration for use when weighing objectively indistinguishable applicants.

    And any argument for affirmative action policies that invokes legacy admissions is implicitly self-damaging because the legacy policies were historically employed for purposes of discriminating against academically successful minorities.

    Jews and Asians, who generally skew left politically, tend to oppose affirmative action, incidentally, and Asian American groups briefed against the Michigan policy in the Grutter case. If you can look at a college class and say there are “not enough” blacks or hispanics because they are proportionally fewer than their social representation, it must necessarily follow that there are “too many” Jews and Asians, because there are represented in selective academic settings in much larger percentages than they are in society at large.

  43. sally
    March 11, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Folks, to deny there is a real link between Parent’s intelligence and the intelligence of their children is just facile. Of course it does not mean that in order to be really smart your parents need to be smart, or that smart people can’t have dumb babies, but that is the random factor.

    Genetics matter, and trying to politicize science, albeit for altruistic purposes, is only going to discredit the left when the scientific consensus is formed. Think of how the right wing looks in the face of the evidence on climate change…

  44. zuzu
    March 11, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    sally, nobody’s denying a link between parental intelligence and child intelligence. What we’re saying is that education is not a proxy for intelligence, and that the pool of top college graduates is not coterminous with the pool of intelligence.

  45. March 11, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    “Legacy” status was historically given more used to squeeze out Jews and Asians who bested the WASPs in very high numbers in academic measures, but as discrimination against those groups in academic admissions fell out of favor, legacy policies seem to have been de-emphasized to the point where they are now just a non-decisive subjective consideration for use when weighing objectively indistinguishable applicants.

    If it’s “non-decisive” then it wouldn’t be used to weigh applicants at all, would it?

    Legacies have not been de-emphasized at all. The “de-emphasis” came about when Jews, Catholics and blacks* started actually getting into those institutions anyway, thus enabling their children to benefit from legacies. Now legacies are simply part of the calculations schools make in deciding who to admit–alumni dollars, not race, being the driving factor.

    *I assume you put “Jews and Asians” because it fits neatly into your argument about the University of Michigan lawsuits. Michigan is one of the view institutions where the legacy preference system has been dragged into the light–they simply grant legacies (parent attended/sibling attends) an extra number of points on their rating scale.

  46. Dan
    March 11, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    sally, nobody’s denying a link between parental intelligence and child intelligence. What we’re saying is that education is not a proxy for intelligence, and that the pool of top college graduates is not coterminous with the pool of intelligence.

    Nobody seriously argues that it is. The number of students with very high academic indicators demonstrably exceeds the capacity of the top private universities, and every state flagship has significant numbers of students with academic accomplishments objectively similar to those of the students at top colleges. Top universities have neither the ability nor the desire to secure a monopoly on top talent. But they do accomplish a higher concentration of it than other institutions

    Scholarship programs make this a given. Top private undergraduate schools are only a clear choice for the very rich, for whom the cost of education is not significant, and for the very poor, who are eligible for almost full tuition scholarships. The cost of those schools is still very significant for affluent but not spectacularly wealthy families, who are expected to contribute a great deal of that high private university tuition, and other very strong schools offer very attractive scholarship packages to these students.

    Of course, as you move down to lower tier public schools, you’re going to find a lot fewer people of that calibur. And as you get down to the community college level, anybody there who could get a 1500 on the SAT will probably have a very sad story to tll.

  47. texaschica
    March 11, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I really do think there’s so much in the preparation – the exposure to, the hints in the ear, the pressures to build a resume while still a child – that cannot be denied. Some parents know the tricks of preparation; others do not. For those entering this world with a circle of support that is privy to what is required, or for the quick-witted who benefit from an accident of exposure to what is required, all that remains is a bit of discipline. That’s what floats around the upper castes, not sheer intelligence. And do we really think we choose mates by default?

  48. Kat
    March 11, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    assortative mating among people with great skills in understanding and building systems, like engineers and economists, may be linked to the greater numbers of autistic children.

    I have an autistic child. Upon first read, I thought this is bunk (there are some crazy theories out there for autism). But then it occurred to me that I come from a long line of engineer/analytical types. And while no one in his family had ever earned a college degree, my son’s dad joined the military and qualified for the submarine force (which requires a certain level of intelligence). He always had the intellectual ability to get a degree, just never the access, money or support. But once those factors fell into place, he earned a MS in Info Systems. In any case, I find this theory somewhat intriguing now.

  49. Renee
    March 11, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    So..the best humankind has to offer, generated only by breeding in the USA, by those who attend specific learning institutions is…(DRUM ROLL) The BUSH TWINS! YIPPIE AH_CA_YAHH (that is a cowboy howl by the way)

    I can’t wait to see what Bush Dynasty II bestows on the planet…surely Plato, Galileo and Einstien are eagerly awaiting these two have to offer.

    Of course this is a serious discussion, requiring a serious response…Pllllppppppppphhhhhhhhhhhtttttttt

    Hey, in the 1970’s I sat in classroom where the teacher challenged us to recall even ONE female in history who made a difference in math or science or art…the proof, that we couldn’t, was of course that women are inferior.

    Yes, women are inferior. We are breeders only. Well, that at least might explain why, mercifully, Bush’s genes end here and now with his insipid daughters.

  50. Blue Jean
    March 11, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Damn. Nobody mentioned Hypatia? Or Ada Byron?

    (There are more, but it’s late and I’m tired)

  51. tzs
    March 11, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Well, if the autistic–engineer link is true, they should look at those of us from MIT who married other MIT alums. And had children. Higher incidence of autism among the kids? Don’t think anyone has done any of the statistics yet….

  52. Donna Darko
    March 11, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    mythago is right about legacies. There are so many applicants these days and all legacies are are qualified and given extra points.

  53. Klein's tiny left nut
    March 11, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    I think the psuedo science in this column completely undermined what could have been a half decent point about social mobility.

    The notion that IQ is the prime determinant in economic success is reductivist bullshit. I went to a large public high school in a very economically mixed old suburb. I had friends who did quite well in school, appeared to have rather substantial IQs, yet did not go on to college due to a lack of money, as well as accompanying social and cultural factors. I had less or comparably talented friends who either had money or who had parents with a fierce commitment to education and they all went on to college, and quite a few after that to graduate school. Raw intelligence, IQ, or whatever else you want to call it had virtually nothing to do with the divergent paths that these friends and acquaintances of mine took. It came down to family means, sensibilities, expectations, etc.

    I also think the claim of a pure genetic transmission of IQ is a gross oversimplification of something complex, which, again, is not in and of itself the reason for success in this society.

    What I do think the column was trying to discuss in some incoherent fashion is the idea that we appear to be facing declining social mobility in this country and that, in some respects, the advent of the two career professional couple may exacerbate that trend. This is not because male lawyers are no longer marrying maids, but because the economic and cultural advantages that children in such couples receive is a significant boost to their prospects. Knowing how to play the college admissions game, being able to take interesting but unpaid internships in lieu of paid work, access to tutoring and SAT prep courses, attending elite public or private high schools — all of these advantages disproportionately accrure to the children of the professional class. In an increasingly stratified society, this would seem to be a substantial advantage.

    The only solace I take in this (and I’m part of one of these damned overachiveving couples) is that life and children are more mysterious than we allow for — kids have a way of determining their own paths (ungrateful little bastards) and defying expectations. Moreover, a lot of late bloomers and alleged misfits find a path to success in life that is neither predictable or linear, but beautiful to see.

    The only public policy concern should be to make sure avenues of mobility remain available to all chldren, regardles of class, to the maximum extent that the society can do so. We’ve got a long way to go on that score.

  54. Rockit
    March 11, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    Read an article about this kind of thing a little while ago where it was pointed out that one of the main drawbacks to the meriotcratic system was not only that it still benefitted the upper class disproportionately due to educational advantages, but that it pushed the working classes down further in morale terms. Those with wealthy families still dominate the high-end positions in prominent professions, but now it’s also easier for them to point to those who never had their advantages in schooling or contacts and blame their ‘laziness’ or ‘stupidity’ for their eventual inferior station in life.

  55. Donna Darko
    March 11, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Alumni giving seems to be greatly enhanced by the presence of a legacy system. The gifts of alumni helped allow me to attend Harvard with a generous financial aid package after growing up in a trailer in West Virginia. Harvard does a great job of addressing the out-of-control-tuition issue for those in need.

    Poor people should know that Harvard is
    free for children from families making $40,000 or less. Parents making $40,000 to $60,000 only have to pay $2,250 a year. They even waive application fees. Yale and Stanford are free for students from families making $45,000 or less. However, students need to go to high schools with plenty of AP classes.

  56. March 11, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    On autism, a lot of the increase is probably just better diagnosis. Twenty years ago, oddballs were just called oddballs, not evaluated for Asperger’s, and the idea that girls might actually have autism-spectrum disorders was unheard of. Psychology is finally starting to grasp the notion that a diagnosis of an autism or autism-spectrum disorder doesn’t require a mechanical aptitude and a penis.

  57. Hubris
    March 12, 2007 at 6:36 am

    But see, that’s DIFFERENT. Giving away admissions to try to help underprivileged students, or to achieve a diverse student body, is a Bad Thing. Whoring out admissions to alumni by promising to give their kids special favors is a Good Thing. (See post #27.)

    Actually, they’re both good things.

  58. Hubris
    March 12, 2007 at 6:38 am

    I left out the quote tag on that first paragraph, my apologies.

  59. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 10:01 am

    Hey, hey, hey mythago (36) and zuzu (38) — I ain’t defending the legacy system, so cut it out. I only said (up in comment 18) that legacies are not admitted with as much ease these days as in the past and that people tend to exaggerate how easy it is for a legacy to be admitted to a place like Harvard. That is not the same as saying that giving advantages to legacy kids in the admissions process is okay. Sheesh.

  60. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 10:26 am

    The idea that only the very cream of the nation’s brains go to Harvard ignores that a large percentage of Harvard students are there because they’re legacies, not because they’re the smartest. It also ignores the fact that there are a HELL of a lot of very smart kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to Harvard, because they were stuck in underfunded and underperforming schools; or because they lacked the kind of support system that would get them to college at all, let alone Harvard; or because they’re girls, and their parents don’t believe in educating girls; or even just because college tuition is out of control.

    There are also masses of smart people out there who don’t even think about going to Harvard or any 4 year liberal arts college because they assume (rightly or wrongly) that it is completely out of their reach, or that it impractical to get a liberal arts degree. After all, to many people, getting a degree in comparative literature is a pure luxury that seems unlikely to lead to lucrative employment. (Of course, that perception is not entirely correct if one attends a really prestigious school, but a lot of people don’t know that.)

  61. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 10:46 am

    I’ll shut up soon — but this was such an interesting and thought provoking post that I can’t help but leave one more comment.

    The other issue that Judith Warner ignores is the issue of what she means by “intelligence” and whether “intelligence” is really that important. Intelligence is a pretty tough quality to define and quantify. My own (admittedly) unscientific take on it is that most people have enough native intelligence to become (with adequate education) doctors, lawyers, politicians, executives, etc. etc. etc.

    Also, achievement does not necessarily depend on intelligence. It depends more on self-discipline and good work habits, as well as the opportunities that come with privilege. Assuming all things are equal, hard work will carry the day before intelligence will. So this whole discussion of a more intelligent master class being created by breeding Ivy League graduates together is a red herring, because we don’t know what is meant by “intelligence,” nor do we know that intelligence is necessarily the key quality for getting ahead in life.

  62. sarcon
    March 12, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Warner mentioned in her March 6 column having seen Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Maybe she thought she was watching a documentary.

    this is offensive on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start:

    if Emilie persists in her declared career path of being ‘’a artist,’’ she isn’t likely to be swept off her feet by an investment banker and to spend her life working within the velvet bondage of having him pay her Bergdorf’s bills. She’s more likely to marry a guy she meets in art school, whose economic prospects will be as dim as her own.

    These reflect neanderthal attitudes about gender roles and the social value of the arts and arts education. I feel sorry for Emilie and lucky my own mom was more enlightened.

  63. Angela Larson
    March 12, 2007 at 11:55 am

    A perfect example of how the best and the brightest don’t necessarily get turned out of ivy league schools is our dear leader and I would be willing to bet his daughters are not super-intellects, either. History is full of examples of self-educated people who go on to achieve greatness.

  64. March 12, 2007 at 11:59 am

    1) There was an excellent article in Wired back in ’02 about the upswing in Autism and Asperger’s in Silicon Valley because of nerds marrying nerds and spawning. It may not be as dire as Simon Baron-Cohen says, but it’s definitely a noticible situation.

    2) I have an essay bubbling about race and class relations, and how learning to play the game can have incredible effects on a person’s success. There’s an English play from the 1950s called “Live Like Pigs” that resonates eerily with a lot of problems we still have today. Race issues are important, but I think a lot of them can be addressed by answering financial issues first. Education is an incredible tool, and should be available to everyone. And if it’s not, make extra sure that it IS.

  65. Eva
    March 12, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    or because they lacked the kind of support system that would get them to college at all, let alone Harvard; or because they’re girls, and their parents don’t believe in educating girls

    I do not think that’s too common in the developed world.

  66. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Eva, I assume that you are referring to the notion of parents who don’t believe in educating girls. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that those kinds of parents are uncommon in the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

    I don’t have any hard numbers but consider that the ranks of Christian Reconstructionists (who don’t even believe in daughters leaving the home until marriage) are growing. Consider the questions being raised in our own op-ed pages as to whether girls should be going to places like Yale if they are just going to “opt out” of the professions in the long run. Consider the many subtle biases that may be harbored by western parents regarding girls’ abilities in fields like math and science, or suitability for the professions. Consider that the numbers of immigrants from other countries where girls’ education is more blatantly devalued and whose daughters might fluorish in the Ivy League if only encouraged and permitted to go for it.

  67. Frumious B
    March 12, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    a trend he says is pushing many of his alumni to marry not so bright women.

    Funny how that trend isn’t pushing his alum to marry not so bright men.

    Re: intelligence and autism:

    there’s a hypothesis which gets a lot of press that personality aspects which accompany geekitude are in fact low level autism. when geeks breed with each other, they produce autistic children. the evidence? a high incidence of autism cases in Northern California.

    there are several questions to be asked, like, if we define geekitude to be apptitude in computer programming, does the diagnosis trend hold for programmers nationwide? or, if we define geekitude to consist of some collection of social behaviors, does the diagnosis trend hold across careers? or, is the rash of diagnoses in NoCal even real? (that one might be a yes, but I’m not sure.)

    re: legacies:

    the upperclassmen advisor at my undergrad university once said “One dumb, rich guy can pay for three smart, poor guys.” I don’t know if that’s really how the economics work out, but it’s funny.

  68. March 12, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    I only said (up in comment 18) that legacies are not admitted with as much ease these days as in the past and that people tend to exaggerate how easy it is for a legacy to be admitted to a place like Harvard

    So what? They’re still a vestige of a system designed to keep Jews and Catholics out of higher education, and they’re still a pointless exercise in whoring out college slots based on money and nepotism, not merit.

  69. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Mythago asks, “So what?” Well, it seems to me that if we want to address the problem of unearned privilege in college admissions, we should have a sense of how unearned privilege actually operates. What are the main factors that give a student unearned privilege? Is it legacy admissions? Yeah, I think that’s a factor, but I tend to think that people (not zuzu in the post, but people in general) emphasize legacy admissions at the expense of looking at the other ways in which privilege operates to keep certain people in the “in club” and others out.

    In some ways, I think the exaggerated popular belief in legacy admissions is perhaps another factor that sometimes keeps less privileged student out. If you think, “I’ve got no shot at Yale because everyone in my family went to community college,” then you may not bother applying even though you may actually be very bright. The truth is that vast swathes of bright but unprivileged high school kids are not attending the most prestigious colleges for a variety of reasons, of which legacy admissions are only one factor.

    And no, I am not defending legacy admissions. Just trying to work through the issues raised in the post.

  70. zuzu
    March 12, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Margaret, did you happen to read the Malcom Gladwell article from a year or so ago about the Ivies’ admissions policies? It’s unfortunately not on the New Yorker website (I have yet to figure out their policies), but if you can find it, it’s an eye-opening examination about how very different the admissions process for the Ivies is than the remainder of the colleges in the US.

  71. March 12, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Yeah, I think that’s a factor, but I tend to think that people (not zuzu in the post, but people in general) emphasize legacy admissions at the expense of looking at the other ways in which privilege operates to keep certain people in the “in club” and others out.

    Please explain how paying attention to an unjustifiable, anti-merit admissions practice with its roots in bigotry actually detracts from looking at how privilege operates in other ways.

  72. Margaret
    March 12, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Zuzu, I missed that article but will look for it. I am not an expert at all on admissions– but find it a fascinating topic generally, so am always interested in learning more.

    Please explain how paying attention to an unjustifiable, anti-merit admissions practice with its roots in bigotry actually detracts from looking at how privilege operates in other ways.

    It doesn’t. I suppose that’s my point.

  73. MDtoMN
    March 12, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    Previously I’ve tended to comment when I disagreed with you. On this, I say “Right On!” Honestly,I hear this sort of thing way too often – for lawyers, from Ivy Leaguers, from members of specific ethnic groups, etc. It’s so disgusting, it makes me want to vomit. And so ignorant. The fact that a newspaper will publish this but not curse words really tells us something.

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