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Elites Close Ranks Around Ivy League Intermarriage

The first rule of the meritocratic elite is: you don’t talk about the meritocratic elite.

In a recent letter in the daily Princeton, Susan Patton, a Princeton mother, argued that women should use their time on campus to find a husband. For various reasons, the piece angered or annoyed many pundits across the blogosphere (we discussed it here). In this Sunday’s New York Times, there’s a particularly interesting response by Ross Douthat.

He suggests the hostility towards Patton’s letter had as much to do with meritocracy as marriage. He suggests that “the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.” Top colleges are essential institutions in the elite’s efforts to preserve itself, and students there encounter all sorts of mechanisms designed to further elite self-interest:

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

Read Douthat’s whole piece. Today’s blue meritocracy, the degenerate descendant of the upper middle class Progressives of the early 20th century, has a problem: it is formally committed to ideas like equality, social justice and an open society, but what it really wants to do is to protect its own power and privilege. The Ivy League system of elite colleges is a key element in the system of exclusion and privilege that helps perpetuate both the power of the American elite and its comforting delusion that because elite status is based on ‘merit’ it is therefore legitimate. 

At Via Meadia, we strongly believe that this elite needs its wings clipped and that America needs to become a more open society with more power at the grass roots and less concentrated among a small group of smug narcissists from the “right” schools with the “right” ideas. We think some kind of “national bac”, a set of exams that could allow students from all over the country to compete on the basis of what they actually know as opposed to which admissions officers they were able to impress at age 17, would help reduce the Ivy League bias that is poisoning American society. The kid who goes to Princeton and “networks” for four years sucking up to famous professors and polishing the “right ideas” and making the “right” friends currently has an almost infinite advantage over the poor schmuck who goes to Ohio State and studies hard; there ought to be a way that the Princeton kid can be exposed as an empty polo shirt and the Ohio State kid get recognized as a serious person.

Exams are more democratic than membership in elite clubs as the basis for a meritocratic society; what we have now is a kind of bastardized version of the British class system and it produces the same kind of establishmentarian group-think that gave the world Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Ted Heath. It is the road to ruin, and with the best intentions in the world that is where our current pseudo-meritocracy is taking us.

Our elite is broken and our system of recruiting and training elites is broken. If something doesn’t change, the ruin will spread.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Associative mating doesn’t just apply to the Ivy League, but to society at large (check the link above). The phenomenon referred to is surely a result of the larger number of women in the Ivy League pool, and it’s hardly surprising that having two people with similar backgrounds and education in a marriage is more productive than one. The meritocratic elite is thus simply an unintended consequence of sexual equality. A more interesting question might be the relative stability of associative and dissassociative marriages.

    • Kavanna

      I think the numbers are pretty clear that associative marriages are more stable generally, although not always. Similarity of background (not Ivy necessarily) is a powerful predictor of success, as is age at marriage.

  • foobarista

    Elites find ways to perpetuate themselves. Anyone who’s looked at the 1300 year history of the Chinese civil service examination system would see this clearly; it was both “open”, so a few studious peasants would pass the test occasionally (to great fanfare), and “closed” in important ways in that elite families could more easily afford the large investment in time and tutoring needed to pass the exams, as well as the exams themselves being a form of self-indoctrination.

    I’m not sure if adopting the Gao Kao (Big Central Admissions Test) system in the US would improve things all that much, as high-stakes exams have their own problems. China uses the Gao Kao system and many Chinese regard it as hugely problematic.

    Sometimes I think we should embrace randomness: elite universities should set minimum objective criteria for admissions, and then select students by lottery. This would make admissions far more open than the current approach, which rewards kids born to wealthy tiger parents who know how to pad resumes.

    • Jim Luebke

      I’m actually looking forward to the University system losing its grip on US elites altogether. It’s rotten to the core with Political Correctness; the sooner it comes down the better.

      • Kavanna

        Amen to that — it’s one of the great bamboozlings of our time: convincing everyone that everyone has to go to college, at great expense, even when it’s clearly not right for everyone.

  • Nikita Yakubovich

    Via Meadia painted excessively grim picture of immobility of America elite.. Ivy League graduates do not dominate the top 50 Fortune 500 not even close.

    • Jim Luebke

      Doesn’t that paint a grim picture of the disconnect between our governing elite and our commercial elite, though?

      Although that leaves the interesting question of whether money in politics (non-Ivy elites dominating Ivy elites) is a good thing or a bad thing. I can’t tell whether cynicism or optimism is the proper response, there.

  • Anthony

    Professor’s Mead’s post leaves out some critical things. First, he wants to create yet another test, yet the meritocratic system that he is trying to reform is already based on a test – the SAT, a monstrosity that many students spend countless soul sucking hours studying for. Second, there is nothing that prevents a student at Ohio State from going onto Harvard Law if he can get int the 99% on the LSAT. Alan Dershowitz, for example, got into Yale Law – where he graduated at the top of his class – after attending Brooklyn College. Furthermore, a students at, say Ohio State Law School can get a job at a prestigious law firm, or transfer to an elite school, if s/he is near the top of the class at the end of the crucial first year.

    The problem is not with the schools; it is with employers. When there are more applicants than positions, employers will tend to use school prestige as a filter because this is a cost effective way of sorting resumes.

    Professor Mead makes a lot of hay about the problems of groupthink among the meritocratic elite. I’m not sure why. Professor Mead should read Ross Douthat’s book about his time at Harvard. Douthat is clear that the overwhelming majority of Harvard students believe in social liberalism and free market economics. This is basically what this web site advocates. And contrary to popular opinion, Douthat says that far left elements on campus – the kind of people you’d find the occupy wall street protests – are not very popular.

    When Professor Mead mocks “the right ideas,” it’s pretty clear that he is referring ideas associated with the Democrats, since he never seems to mock the GOP. Yet, the GOP also seems to be quite enamored with meritocratic sorting. All of the GOP appointees to the Supreme Court went to Harvard or Yale.

    “I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may
    not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?” – Antonin Scalia.

    As Professor Mead has said before, it is more important what you study than where you study. I have seen graduates of Caribbean medical schools who are now cardiac surgeons, and many American ceos have engineering degrees from state schools. In law and finance, however, it is very hard to get to the the top without the elite credential.

    • Renault

      Unlike undergrad admissions, law school admissions are almost purely meritocratic (LSAT and GPA).

      • Kavanna

        That’s correct. WRM is talking about undergrad admission, which at the Ivies has never been as meritocratic as it is at the top public schools or graduate/professional schools. In the last generation, it’s gotten quite a bit less open, in the sense of being open to students outside the self-defined elite. It was more open as late as the 1980s.

        What’s weird is the obsessive “progressive” politics of this self-defined elite. Look at the Boomer presidents: Clinton and Obama definitely fit the picture. Bush Jr. doesn’t fit quite as well, but in terms of his family’s relationship to Yale and his later embrace of big guvmint, he does fit.

        Even more dramatic is the narrowing of the courts, especially the Supreme Court. They used to have people with a variety of backgrounds, including some judges who weren’t even lawyers. The federal courts today are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Ivy law schools.

        • easteast

          While agreeing with much of the above post, I think the final idea of non-lawyers on the Supreme Court is a complete non-starter, as I believe the court needs a far higher level of dispassionate technical analysis, for which legal training is a necessary (but, admittedly, very often insufficient) prerequisite.

  • easteast

    How many of the commenters on the NYT comments page hilariously illustrated Douthat’s point about progressives who unreflectively believe that their avid pursuit of an elite education, assortative mating, &c does not give the lie to their professed egalitarianism! I found it easy to agree with them that it is perfectly human and ethically acceptable to want the best for oneself and one’s children, but quite a bit harder to see how that can be squared with the notion that their relative success doesn’t inevitably correlate with relative non-success of other people.

    It was also piquant how many of the commentators scoffed at the idea that assortative mating is a strong component of mating behaviour in general instead of trumpeting their usual sociobiological meme that The Science tells us that all of human behaviour (not just mating behaviour) is merely an expression of our genes’ efforts to propagate themselves successfully.

    • Andrew Allison

      Of course relative success implies relative non-success. Only in Lake Wobegon are all the children (and their parents) above average!

  • Anthony

    “Top colleges are essential institutions in the elite’s effort to preserve itself….”

    WRM, forthright analysis and excellent precis of Dothat’s argument: th gist of Susan Patton’s position is encapsulated in behavior that follows increased resources and independence from others – generally a prioritizing of self interest (definitely human trait). Some have called what you, Douthat, and Patton are discussing “cognitive capture” and elite Universities reinforce the intergenerational desire of high social mobility. The question is how does an inclusive (theorectically) society prevent itself from becoming more stratified by class.

    • Andrew Allison

      How does an inclusive (theorectically) society prevent itself from becoming more stratified by class? Name a single example of any society which has done so.

      • Anthony

        It is not the duty of the critic to suggest ways of improving a bad show. After he has pronounced upon it his job is finished (theorectically inclusive society). However, a wide public thinks otherwise and believes it stymies a critic when it ways: name a single example…. The presumption is that this would be difficult or impossible to do. Yet, my response to WRM’s topic was not comparative but inquisitive. Nevertheless, if I recall from an old classical history class in the 14th. century such an inclusive sociey existed (among elites) in Venice before the Libro D’ Oro. My dates may be off by a few decades (its been a long time) but check it out yourself. And thanks.

  • BlueSunday

    “Exams are more democratic than membership in elite clubs as the basis for a meritocratic society” Quite right, and that was what the SAT was presumably for, but we all know the problem with the SAT – black people don’t do so well on it, so it’s deemed racist. Exactly the same thing would happen with a national content test.

  • Robert Schwartz

    Replace the Ivy league admissions charade with a truly fair method. A lottery. Anyone who gets a minimum grade in the SAT say 1200 and maintains a 3.0 average in high school, can put his name in the hat for admission to whichever school strikes his fancy. If your name gets pulled out you are in. That would shake things up.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Boy did I miss the point. My grandfather went to Columbia but was a rummy and DNFed (did not finish). My Parents met in the third grade. My mother graduated Barnard in ’34, My father Columbia in ’35. He was repelled by the ethics of the NY business world and decided to go farming. That’s where I grew up under a strong injunction to go to Columbia. I did and graduated in 1964 and never had the slightest idea of how to take advantage of any social advantages an elite education might confer. I still don’t get it – I’m a social moron. I was repelled by the very idea of fraternities or ending up living in some pile in Scarsdale. What a waste – some kid with genuine social climbing motivation and skills could have done a lot more with the opportunity than I did. What I got was exposure to the great minds of the Western tradition taught by excellent professors. As a result I can usually figure out when I am being an idiot as well as when others are having the same sort of difficulty. That helped me recognize that there was something wrong with the Blue left/liberal politics of our time and thus further excluded myself from the dominant elite. I never learn and generally prefer the company of cows and dogs to people.

  • Daniel Nylen

    I disagree that the assortive mating is limited to the mere Ivy Leagues. As a top graduate of the US Naval Academy and with offspring who are graduates of UVa and Virginia Tech, I see that top graduates of good schools (the 2-4 dozen that exist) all intermix. What I see is that competence at a profession where there is a way to measure excellence (engineering, hard science, sometimes finance and consulting etc.) allows soritng by merit and Murray bubble and super-zips take care of the rest.

    As a side comment, the Greek disease, where the elites isolate and find reasons not to reproduce, seems alive and well and tearing at our elites.

  • bob jones

    The post above is interesting, but the author does not understand the entry to the Ivy League is already largely based on high grades and test scores coupled with demonstrating an outstanding extra-curricular achievement or two (lacrosse captain, starting a business). Those on the outside think it is a rigged system, but it is not; a high-achieving Ohio high school student can be admitted, but they have to have the grades. It is a meritocracy already. You can’t “buy” your way in, or if so, that is very rare. Not every student’s parents donated a library. If the author thinks the problem is that Princeton is rated higher than Ohio State, well, it is, as it is a superior school, as every ranking, and the job market, shows.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      3 points:
      1. Princeton is very expensive, and scholarships rare. Parents of moderate (and even above moderate) means have to consider if it is worth while paying ~250K for a 4 year degree compared to, say, in-state of 60K.

      2. Due to diversity initiatives, the “meritocracy” part is far from flat

      3. The author specifically emphasizes that what should count is not where people are when they get accepted into college, but where they are when the come out, relative to each other.

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