America may be the land of opportunity but it helps to have a head start in the rat race.
Stacy McCain, who along with myself is among the most notable graduates of Jacksonville State University*, laments the sense of superiority that comes with the increasingly meritocratic nature of American higher education. Essentially, because the Ivy Leagues are now more open to the most intellectually gifted students, its graduates believe they must therefore be the best and the brightest and are therefore entitled to everything they get.
This view amounts to a repeal of the American founding. If the graduates of elite institutions are exclusively qualified to govern, then most citizens are thereby adjudged incapable of the self-governance which was the ideal of the Founders.
Stacy ascribes this view to Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks and the Sarah Palin controversy but it’s actually quite widespread. See, for example, this week’s bizarre dustup between Jack Cafferty and Alec Baldwin in which the former asserts that, while Baldwin isn’t qualified to run for Congress because he’s a mere actor, Al Franken is qualified to be a United States Senator on account of “He’s Harvard educated.” Baldwin doesn’t so much dismiss the absurdity of that argument as point out he himself went to NYU.
Regardless, Stacy notes, while many of our brightest kids go to the Ivies, many do not.
Not every kid who scores well on standardized tests decides to orient his life toward graduating at the top of his high school class and attending an elite university. Those who elect to follow that treadmill of “gifted” programs and honors classes, who grind for an all-A average and organize their extra-curricular activities with an eye toward how it will look on their applications to Harvard, can be said to differ from other children (including children of equal or greater intelligence) in terms of temperament.
The Sully-Brooks “meritocratic” theory ignores the influence of temperament in the operation of the cognitive partition system. Our public education system, after all, is not operated by geniuses. As The Bell Curve points out, education majors are, on average, the stupidest category of college graduates.
Despite the special pleading (I have it on good authority — Stacy himself — that he was less than a model student) and irony of decrying a meritocracy of IQ while engaging in a different form of it, this is certainly true. Not every very bright kid is good at sitting quietly in a classroom in his youth. Certainly, I wasn’t; I routinely got A’s in my academic subjects and C’s in deportment well into junior high.
Stacy is also right that many academically talented students prefer to spend their time fixing cars, playing sports, chasing girls, and otherwise diverted from doing the things necessary to get into Harvard. This is especially true of boys, for whom academic excellence is not necessarily the path to social popularity. The quarterback on my high school football team, for example, went from being a grade school honor student to a rather mediocre student afterwards because of an accurate assessment of the short-term rewards. (He went on to do well enough in college — Jax State, in fact — to wind up teaching and coaching at our high school.)
This, though, is even more important:
This, of course, doesn’t even begin to confront the “meritocratic” myth that socioeconomic class no longer presents obstacles to the bright-but-poor student’s admission to elite schools. Legacy admissions afford an important advantage to the children of alumni, and there is no point in a student applying for admission to a school that he could never afford to attend. (My own daughter was offered scholarships we couldn’t afford for her to accept.)
For all the talk of “diversity” at elite schools, their student bodies are overhwelmingly composed of young people from affluent backgrounds whose adolescence was consumed by a single-minded devotion to the goal of being admitted to a top university. It is their affluence and precocious ambition, rather than intelligence per se, that distinguishes them. Having excelled in bookish ambition, members of this elite then congratulate themselves on the proof of their superiority to others: Je suis un meritocrat!
I made decisions about both college and graduate school with affordability very much near the top of the list. Beyond that, while I understood that Harvard and Yale and Princeton and MIT were great schools and graduating from one of them was beneficial, I had no clue how much difference it made. Nor did I have any idea the degree to which there’s a pecking order below that. (Something that’s even more true now than it was then. The infamous US News ranking system, for example, started in 1983, the year I was applying for college.)
My college application process, then, was limited by issues of finances and a lack of cultural awareness of what mattered. MIT is the only big time university I considered but I didn’t bother to apply because it was expensive to take all the tests and submit the various applications required. (In hindsight, it was just as well as my math SATs weren’t competitive; I could likely have gotten into one of the lesser Ivies but not the world’s top engineering school.) The schools to which I applied, then, were: West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, the Coast Guard Academy, Alabama, and Jax State. I got accepted at West Point, Alabama, and Jax State (with full scholarships at all three) and waitlisted at USCGA. I also had Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC scholarships that would have paid tuition and books anywhere I got in but the costs of living were not covered.
West Point was my first choice and I eagerly accepted but, alas, I didn’t fit in for a variety of reasons. (Long story short, it was a jock school whose students were also exceptionally bright and I adjusted to the challenges too slowly, prioritized the wrong things, and ultimately couldn’t maintain the juggling act.) When I left after three semesters with a 2.08 GPA, my scholarships were no longer available and I wound up at my safety school where, through a combination of ROTC and the Army Reserves, I was able to pay for tuition, books and incidentals while living with my parents a few miles away.
After four years in the Army, I wanted to get my PhD and applied to exactly one school: Alabama. I was accepted but my going was contingent on getting a graduate assistantship that paid for tuition and books and provided a monthly stipend in exchange for working 20 hours a week. Fortunately, I got one. The combination of that and the GI Bill allowed me to graduate debt free three years later.
Had I known what I would just a few years later, I’d have applied to more schools. But I reasonably figured that I wasn’t going to get into one of the great schools with a degree from Jax State and a mediocre GPA (owing to having transferred in all those credits from USMA) and had no understanding at all that there was a difference in attractiveness to hiring committees between, say, Alabama and Georgia, let alone between Alabama and North Carolina or Ohio State.
Money also matters at other points in the process, especially in the elite professions. Many jobs in media and public policy, for example, require an entry level apprenticeship in DC or New York for little or no pay. It never seriously occurred to me to apply for any internships or to take a job making next to nothing in a big city when a real paycheck was a ready alternative. It’s not surprising, then, that kids with wealthier parents to supplement their earnings, predominate in these jobs. And, considering that these same kids are more likely have gone to the right schools and be attractive to the selection committees, it’s a two-fer. (This is a fascinating subject. See “Unpaid Internships? No Such Thing,” “The Internship Racket,” “Progressive Non-Profit Work Only for the Privileged,” “Unpaid Interns Slaves to the System,” and “Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?” for a variety of views.)
I don’t have any complaints about any of this, really. I’ve been more fortunate than most, have been able to do the kind of work I enjoy doing for years, and have made a pretty good living. But it’s undeniable that growing up in an elite household confers enormous advantages in preparation, connection, and understanding of the impact various choices have on the available paths later on.
My wife went to college at Southern Connecticut State, within walking distance of Yale, and has also done quite well for herself. But she’d no doubt have been better off with a degree from Yale, provided she maintained the same work ethic.
Our daughter is only six months old, so we’re a little ways off from worrying about what college she’ll attend. But chances are good that she’ll be able to go to the best school she can get into and that she’ll have a pretty good idea of the implications of various choices she faces.
*I was going to make this joke before realizing we were both actually on the Wikipedia page, which makes it funnier. I hasten to add that hundreds of JSU graduates of whom even fewer people have heard of than Stacy and myself include physicians, nurses, teachers, and military officers who have gone on to do far more important things in quiet obscurity.