The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Ace of Spades Gets It

Posted on | May 22, 2011 | 21 Comments

The New Aristocracy isn’t made by blood but by credentials,” Ace writes, commenting on a Mark Steyn column about the Strauss-Kahn sex scandal.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the controversy that enveloped The Bell Curve is that, by affixing the “racism” label to Murray and Herrnstein’s book, liberals discouraged people from acquainting themselves with the very valuable points the book makes about the structure of the modern elite. (This constitutes Part I: “The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite”; Chapter 1, “Cognitive Class and Education, 1900-1990,” is especially relevant.) While everyone was slinging around accusations that Murray and Herrnstein were advocating Nazi eugenics, or at least “social Darwinism,” they overlooked the book’s important examination of how standardized testing and democratization of educational opportunity have re-shaped our society.

Most Americans over 50 were raised to think that, if levels of education were any indication of social class, they divided people into two rather large classes — college graduates and everybody else. If you got your bachelor’s degree, you were about as qualified for success as anyone else. Graduates of elite schools like Yale or Harvard might enjoy some advantage, and those who pursued post-graduate education were obviously qualified for specific prestige professions like law or medicine, but anyone who possessed a bachelor’s degree was in some sense “elite.” Or so Americans generally believed, 40 or 50 years ago.

Yet as Murray and Herrnstein document, this understanding was gradually overtaken by events. Whereas in 1960, 19% of U.S. 23-year-olds were college graduates, by 1990, that percentage had increased to 34% — which is a 79% increase in the relative size of the college-educated population. Or, to look at it another way: If you were an American born in 1937, there was a 1-in-5 chance you would later get a bachelor’s degree, whereas the chance was 1-in-3 for those born in 1967.

As college education thus became less useful for purposes of defining the elite, then, the greater the advantages accruing to those with genuinely elite credentials — defined either as diplomas from elite schools or as advanced degrees.

Furthermore, as Murray and Herrnstein document, there was during the same period an increasing correlation between elite credentials and IQ. This was mainly due to (a) the greater prevalance of standardized testing, and (b) the decision of elite schools to begin recruiting top students on a nationwide basis.

Prior to the 1960s, Ivy League schools had mainly been insitutions for the education of upper-class students in the Northeast, admission to these schools has since become the ambition of top students everywhere. The valedictorian at LaGrange (Ga.) High School may be unlikely to be admitted to Princeton or Cornell, but will certainly apply to at least one such school, just on the off-chance that he or she will get that coveted acceptance letter.

Trends like these matter, as Murray and Herrnstein explain, because they have a homogenizing effect on the life-experiences of the elite. The effect they call “cognitive sorting” mean that, beginning in grade school — or even earlier — those who eventually graduate from elite institutions associate almost entirely with others like themselves.

A few years ago, I began noticing articles about upper-class parents in New York City who were desperate to get their 3- and 4-year-old children into the “right” pre-school. As absurd as this may seem to those of us in Flyover Country, in fact these Manhattan parents are entirely rational in their concerns, for the path to admission at a top school now begins at a precociously early age.

I’ve sometimes recounted my unpleasant experiences with an early effort at “gifted education” in my Georgia elementary school when I was in sixth grade. The only reward to being “gifted” in 1971 was to stay after school and do extra work for no credit. When I was again invited to participate in the “gifted” program in seventh grade, I turned it down.

By the time I became editor of a weekly “youth and education” newspaper supplement in the 1990s, the nature of “gifted” programs had changed, so that now the little geniuses were given a special once-a-day “enrichment” class during the school day. And such is the prestige of such programs that parents relentlessly push their kids toward participation. School administrators tell tales of parental pressure to include children who didn’t quite make the cut-off score on tests. No parent today could imagine that any child eligible for “gifted” class would decline to participate, as I did four decades ago.

One of the horrible consequences of the trends that Murray and Herrnstein chronicled is that the New Aristocracy think they possess a monopoly on intelligence. And because the homogenity of their experience includes matriculation at liberal-dominated elite institutions, members of the New Aristocracy also often believe that everyone who isn’t liberal is demonstrably stupid.

Why should they believe otherwise? When have the graduates of Harvard or Yale ever encountered anyone whose opinion they were required to respect who wasn’t a liberal? Surveys of college faculty members indicate that liberals outnumber conservatives at least 4-to-1 in the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts.

Resisting the pretensions of the New Aristocracy requires a stubbornly skeptical view toward the credentialism by which they assert their supposed superiority. Above all, we must resist the urge to feed our children into the machinery by which they enforce homogeneity. Let the elite look down their noses at those who attend state universities — even the ones who graduate summa cum laude.

We fight the revolution one free mind at a time.


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