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.
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.