Friday, November 05, 2010

Meritocracy, mediocrity

The story of meritocracy usually goes as follows: the brilliant but not especially well-born prove themselves in school and end up successful. They, in turn, meet spouses in the course of their elite educations, producing a new generation even higher-IQ, even more well-rounded, than the previous. Soon enough, there are only the few rare ascents - the elite has become self-perpetuating, "school" just a mask. The Charles Murray argument: "The New Elite marry each other, combining their large incomes and genius genes, and then produce offspring who get the benefit of both." And, more to the point: "An elite that passes only money to the next generation is evanescent [...] An elite that also passes on ability is more tenacious, and the chasm between it and the rest of society widens."

What Murray ignores is that regression to the mean applies plenty to an elite formed through education. In a meritocracy, even a not-fully-successful one such as ours, all the test-prep in the world doesn't guarantee results, even for a kid whose genes and history of being read to at bedtime ought to make him a Rhodes Scholar. This is something today's elites know full well anecdotally, but it's a shameful secret. Highly educated, socially-awkward parents often produce socially-adept but academically apathetic offspring. See this Motherlode post. See anything Michael Winerip has written about his twin sons. See also any reference to how it's "honorable" to have a particular blue-collar job. I mean, it is honorable to do anything productive, but when someone's going out of their way to call a particular job "honorable," it's a safe bet someone with a white-collar career is either being patronizing or, if referring to their own kid, wistful.

Because if you believe society is unjust, and you've been screwed over by fact of birth, that your own kids aren't clerking for the Supreme Court justice of your choice, or able to pull a B+ in pre-algebra, is just something to accept. But if you believe meritocracy is a fair system - and if you've benefitted from it, whatever you say about test-score bias or the system's various imperfections, you probably, on some level, do - the idea that your own children have failed at school is evidence that they have failed at life. Even if a particular beneficiary of meritocracy is extremely committed to fighting the system's flaws, the fact remains that their own children have had all the benefits a person can have in a meritocracy. Add to this the fact that "holistic" college admissions claim to judge students as people, rather than as applicants, and that Yale rejection leaves no room for doubt.

Meritocracy makes ascents extra-visible and descents too dreadful to admit. This is why those who have done no better or perhaps worse than their parents have to create revisionist histories of their own childhoods, to compare themselves to the slightly-more-privileged. But mostly, we just don't hear from the lighthearted, popular offspring of the super-serious. They're not writing introspective articles in the New York Times. They're not publishing novels. (The novel about mediocrity is inevitably written by someone whose bio lists awards, previous novels published. Sure, they never turned out to be the lawyer their parents had hoped for, but their "slacking" was of the sort that pays off.) The shame of their situation, combined with their lack of writing skills, keeps them from telling their story. We hear lots - as well we should - about the external factors preventing worthy students from making it to four-year colleges. But the fact that we don't hear about the set who've had every meritocratic advantage, yet who can't make it off the couch. (I distinguish this set from those who've had every financial advantage - if your family really is that wealthy, they'll buy the school a wing and you'll remain fancy and schmancy regardless.)

This interests me on some level because, despite having well-educated parents, I wasn't really a school person until 12th grade. Like the clichéd former awkward kid who never quite sees himself as the not-awkward adult he became, I do still see myself as kind of eh in the intellectual department, despite proven non-ineptitude in a literature PhD program. (Not an earth-shattering achievement, but the sort of thing that makes it tougher to claim utter academic hopelessness.) But mostly, I'm still harping on the Murray article. How can the "New Elite" be self-perpetuating if so many of its children can barely make it to college? Do I just happen to know of a lot of isolated cases of great ascents and descents, when 99.99999% of people are in precisely the same fields as their parents?

18 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I've always thought this was a weird statistical trick--as with height, it's true that on average, higher IQ parents have higher IQ children. However, it's not true that the population as a whole gets smarter (or taller) through assortative mating. Why not? Either something about the definition of an average mitigates against it, or the gains are so small on the positive side of the curve as to be unnoticeable in real life.

I have long thought that the push for things like holistic evaluation of students for academic tasks (like college, where prior track team participation has little bearing on your subsequent ability to parse Greek or perform linear algebra) and ideas like "multiple intelligences" came from an impetus similar to that of high-achieving parents of mediocre children--people who find that their desire to further their own children's life chances is suddenly in conflict with their belief in the fairness of a meritocracy, and so are forced to expand the boundaries of merit to include the talents they or their children happen to possess.

Phoebe said...

Re: your first point, I'd suspect that for every C student born to A students, an A student is born to C students. Again, I'm working with anecdotal evidence, but that would explain the stability overall.

Re: the second, that makes perfect sense. It doesn't explain how well-roundedness began (that, as has been reported to death, was Everybody Hates the Jews), but it explains why booklined-Upper-West-Side parents today think junior's soccer-team membership should make up for an inability to add or an unwillingness to do math homework.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think my theory harmonizes with everyone hating the Jews pretty well. Jews (and, now, Asians) pose a threat by being more meritorious than the children of the previous generations of the merit establishment, and to compensate for that, new conceptions of non- or extra-academic merit must be put forward.

Phoebe said...

I think that was true - my own parents were of the 'what do you need team sports for?' variety when I was in high school - but it's becoming less so, certainly of Jews. There may be an extra generation of immigrant-style drive in certain cultures, but in time, but the self-esteem-promoting, 'my-child-is-smart-in-his-own-way' attitude was already popular among whites, Jewish and otherwise, in NY when I was growing up. It's possible that, for the time being, some Jews might promote well-roundedness out of fear of some Asians, but next up will be the same groups of Asians promoting well-roundedness to protect themselves from the threat of whichever other group seems to have an unmatchable work ethic.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe:

1) Why do you think Murray ignores the possibility of regression to the norm? Google "Charles Murray" and "regression to the mean", and the first two results are works by him that address the concept. I strongly doubt he forgot it since. Since his statement is a statistical one, relating to a population as a whole, I think he would say that it means little that the meritocracy has its own left hand of the bell curve. He would probably want to know how many of the stupid kids of meritocrats marry within the meritocratic population, and how many marry out of it; if they leave the meritocratic marriage pool, that would reinforce his point. I would also want to know how many of these "academically apathetic offspring" are still significantly smarter than the average of the population as a whole. "So many of its children can barely make it to college"--i.e., the stupidest 1% of the meritocrat children are in the top half of the population, which makes Murray's point for him.

MSI:

2) See "Flynn Effect" and "Renorming of IQs." Also go over to the Steve Sailor blog and look up the various studies on how IQ may have been progressing in the last 100K years.

3) As noted, "character," of course, was the first dodge by which insufficient Gentiles tried to keep out meritocratic Jews. Since the alumni and the admissions personnel are no longer united, "holism" does not appear to be simply a successor of "character"--it's meant to help out other children's mediocrities at least as much as your own. "Far more", I would say. To say that meritocrats want to give an institutional hand up to their mediocre children requires them to recognize, in some fashion, that their children are mediocre; which may be difficult. I grant "holism" can function as self-deception, but only so far.

Britta said...

Yeah, I know plenty of bright but not stellar children of super over achievers from my high school and college. (Probably the clearest example is a friend I had whose father was a Westinghouse finalist, went to Harvard, and was chief of neurology at the top teaching hospital in the area. Her grandmother on her mother's side studied under Sigmund Freud and ran the Vienna School of Psychoanalysis. She struggled to get As and Bs, and ended up at Colorado College, and just got an MPH from BU. Obviously not in any way a failure, but also not exactly filling her parents' footsteps.) Downward mobility is all relative, so that the less successful offspring of highly successful people can still be pretty successful by any objective measure.

There's also the issue of the prestige/money gap, in that some careers we might think of as equally prestigious come with vasty different incomes, like lawyer or doctor vs. professor. If your parents are earning in the mid/high six figures, even if you do go to a fancy school, there are few careers you can go into where you even have a chance of earning the same amount as your parents. Thus if your parents are i-bankers and you go to Harvard but decide to become a librarian, in many ways you are choosing to be downwardly mobile, even though in other ways you aren't.

Britta said...

(Oh, that's vastly, not vasty)

Withywindle said...

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”

“Why, so can I, or so can any man;. But will they come when you do call for them?”

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

First off, I will repeat that I know who Charles Murray is. Does he know what "regression to the mean" means? I wouldn't be surprised if he'd coined the term (and I'm sure Google could offer a definitive answer either way), but I'm not sure where the views for which he is known were in that latest article. What he once knew or thought is irrelevant if it can't be judged from this article. And in it, he gave no evidence of being aware that many children with every intellectual advantage in the world emerge average. "if they leave the meritocratic marriage pool, that would reinforce his point" - I don't see how, if he's arguing that the New Elites, for all their posturing as open-to-all, are a closed and hereditary caste. Again, it all comes down to whether we think, on the level of the population, there's much movement in either direction. I don't think it's important whether there's an intermediary step or two along the way for upward or downward mobility. My anecdotal evidence puts the figure at well over 1%, and is if anything skewed low because of where I went to high school. (The meritocracy's downwardly-mobile aren't at schools with SAT-like entrance exams, where connections, well-roundedness, and wing-donation aren't factors.)

Which gets us to what Britta said - downward mobility in a meritocracy, the first step at least, isn't going to look terribly "low" in general terms. I.e. the kid will probably still go to college, but with lots of parental pushing and holistic application-padding. Graduating from a four-year school, whether or not in just four years, still puts a young adult in the "elite" range of things, but if the family is... like Britta's friend's family, it's a mediocre achievement indeed.

The point of my post, I suppose, more than just harping on Murray, was that we're accustomed to thinking about the brains lost to the common good - and the lost opportunities for personal intellectual fulfillment - when kids from meritocratically-underprivileged backgrounds don't get channeled to the Ivies. But we forget that advantages don't guarantee success, and that the kid who did have all the extra tutoring and stillcan't get B's is, and I intentionally exaggerate, a tragic case.

lalatechnology said...

The children of over-achievers that I know are strange kids - for the most part they try exceptionally hard at school even though much of what is taught in school is ridiculous. Many who are wholly concerned with this meritocracy completely lose vision of what an education is supposed to be. They are there to go to a good college, get a good job and make money, not to broaden intellectual horizons or look at the world in radically different ways. The kids who do that are the ones who really pay attention so much to the big college names and getting a 2000+ on the SATs.

I feel bad for those who obsessively harp on grades and test scores, they live a wretched life and it manifests itself in anxiety, binge drinking, and just general assholishness. They're out for themselves and nobody else. Their parents have instilled this "me drive" in them, and if anyone else tries to chill them out they're seen as the enemy and must be dealt with.

What I find great about modern times is that people can pursue what the love, not what education has decided they should love. The meritocracy breeds sameness.

lalatechnology said...

*The kids who do that are the ones who don't really pay so much attention to the big college names and getting a 2000+ on the SATs.

Broken Yogi said...

From a strictly genetic standpoint, the claim being made here is not supportable. In other words, merely because intelligence tends to regress to the mean does not mean that there is no selection process going on here in favor of intelligent genetics.

As some have pointed out, the lower end of the meritocratic offspring are still more intelligent than the average. More importantly, even the portion that falls off the meritocratic fence into the "underclass" if you will, still carries with it many of the genes that produced higher intelligence (and other valuable meritocratic traits) with it. Thus, even those "failed" offspring are more likely to produce offspring of their own who are able to rise back into the meritocratic heights.

This is how gene pools evolve and how certain traits rise to the top even in populations where regression to the mean tends to deflate from one generation to the next. Regression to the mean doesn't mean that the valued genes disappear, only that they become temporarily subsumed by the genetic diversity inherent to sexual reproduction. The same valued genes keep re-emerging, however, and help propel those who carry them, and their offspring, into higher positions.

Those, elites to produce self-replicating powers in their offspring over the long term. In the short term, however, the inherent diversity of sexual reproduction ensures a wide range of outcomes. It's only in those outcomes where advantageous genes are wholly absent, not just unexpressed, that we get "dead ends" that eventually fall off the reproductive map. Unless of course they possess genes that turn out to be very useful in some new environment (physical or cultural).

So when we are looking at meritocratic elites, were are indeed looking at the future. Their offspring will indeed be more likely to dominate the population over time, even in the midst of the inevitable rises and falls. This is how genetic selection works. It takes longer than some would like, but does occur and we can't pretend it isn't the driving principle of evolutionary survival, even within human cultural climates.

Phoebe said...

Broken Yogi,

"the lower end of the meritocratic offspring are still more intelligent than the average."

I'm not convinced. The fact that they're likely to get through college isn't evidence that they're smarter than average, just that their parents (or their "homework helpers") held their hands the whole way through.

As for the more general point, I'm not convinced, either, that there's a "success" gene, particularly when different traits are valued not only in different societies, but in the same society at different times. Even if there were some genetic component to, say, SAT-type scores, scores alone aren't college admissions.

Finally, in terms of evolution, wouldn't it be relevant that the hyper-nerds aren't exactly having five kids a couple?

Miss Self-Important said...

With every such discussion of "evolution" and our imminent genetically awesome future, I grow more sympathetic with creationists.

Broken Yogi said...

The distribution curve is a mathematical certainty, and doesn't require that we overanalyze collegiate acheivements. The higher the parental intelligence, the higher the distribution curve of their offspring. And, of course, the more likely that even those lower in the curve will retain the parent's genes for intelligence, even if not expressed in that particular individual. They pass on those genetics to their own offspring, who are more likely to express it through meritocratic achievement than those who don't have those genes.

The number of offspring is not as important as that there are offspring at all. Those who lack the genetic material in sufficent quantity and quality to produce a significant percentage of high-achieving offspring will simply not produce very many at all. So their offspring will almost never rise to the top.

However, those who do possess those genetics will have a significant percentage of their descendents rise to the top, even if some are mediocre duds, and a few just plain failures (black sheep). In this way, there really does arise, in a society like ours, a rather serious division, if this situation were to persist for many generations. The reason why such divisions have not persisted is that there has been so much churn in the gene pools due to vastly changing social and environmental conditions. The problems of the stable meritocratic society we are now in the process of building is that if we actually succeed in sustaining it for a good number of generations, it really could (and even should) lead to a distinctive class division based on meritocratic hereditary characteristics being more and more segregated into the upper classes. And this is the case regardless of how much the lower classes succeed in reproducing. There will just be a lot more of the lower classes, but they will not readily rise to the upper classes, and over time, this gap will only increase. Thus, in some respects our greatest enemy is systemic stability itself. Or, put another way, systemic stability will one day lead, by its own natural progression, to systemic instability, since the creation of a genetic class of superiors will itself be unstable.

Boston Jerry said...

First of all, I need to indentify myself as one of these "shameful secrets." My parents are both educated and my father has had a very long and successful careeer (my mother gave her career up to raise me and my siblings). I grew up in a rich suburb of Boston, went to one of the best school districts in the country and had every possible advantage. I definitely got the smart genes and I was l always near the top of my class. School was easy but I never really tried or cared and by my senior year in high school, I barely went to class. I dropped/failed out of college after a year and have basically been working for my father's business since.

Reading the discussion so far, it seems to me that the idea that these "children of the meritocratic elite" (COTME?) are "regressing to the mean" isn't exactly right. Obviously, with genetic and environmental advantages, the low end for the COTME's is going to be higher than for the population as a whole. That said, I think the discussion is too narrowly focused on the "academically apathetic" part of the equation and not enough on the "socially adept" side.

I don't want to get too abstract and philosophical here, but I think I never achieved anything academically after high school because I was reacting to what I saw from my own parents. My dad worked so hard and was always so stressed and unhappy that I somewhat consciously decided that I wouldn't have the same priorities as him. If I learned anything from watching him, I learned that no amount of money is enough to make a life. I use my brainpower to make myself happier, not richer.

I think that may be the key to this whole idea. A lot of us underachieving COTME aren't less intelligent than our genetics would indicate, we're just using our advantages for purposes other than social and economic climbing. We were comfortable growing up, so we don't have the same will to succeed that drove our parents.

Instead, we use our comfort and intelligence to create happy lives. To me, thats always been the goal, happiness, not material or professional success. I bet if you did some profiles of underachieving COTMEs, you'd see some of the highest social intelligence of any similar group. In my opinion, there is no higher intelligence.

Is climbing to the top of the meritocracy really the highest aim in life? Is making money and becoming part of the elite the be all and end all? No. There are better things to achieve in life.

Boston Jerry said...

First of all, I need to indentify myself as one of these "shameful secrets." My parents are both educated and my father has had a very long and successful careeer (my mother gave her career up to raise me and my siblings). I grew up in a rich suburb of Boston, went to one of the best school districts in the country and had every possible advantage. I definitely got the smart genes and I was l always near the top of my class. School was easy but I never really tried or cared and by my senior year in high school, I barely went to class. I dropped/failed out of college after a year and have basically been working for my father's business since.

Reading the discussion so far, it seems to me that the idea that these "children of the meritocratic elite" (COTME?) are "regressing to the mean" isn't exactly right. Obviously, with genetic and environmental advantages, the low end for the COTME's is going to be higher than for the population as a whole. That said, I think the discussion is too narrowly focused on the "academically apathetic" part of the equation and not enough on the "socially adept" side.

I don't want to get too abstract and philosophical here, but I think I never achieved anything academically after high school because I was reacting to what I saw from my own parents. My dad worked so hard and was always so stressed and unhappy that I somewhat consciously decided that I wouldn't have the same priorities as him. If I learned anything from watching him, I learned that no amount of money is enough to make a life. I use my brainpower to make myself happier, not richer.

I think that may be the key to this whole idea. A lot of us underachieving COTME aren't less intelligent than our genetics would indicate, we're just using our advantages for purposes other than social and economic climbing. We were comfortable growing up, so we don't have the same will to succeed that drove our parents.

Instead, we use our comfort and intelligence to create happy lives. To me, thats always been the goal, happiness, not material or professional success. I bet if you did some profiles of underachieving COTMEs, you'd see some of the highest social intelligence of any similar group. In my opinion, there is no higher intelligence.

Is climbing to the top of the meritocracy really the highest aim in life? Is making money and becoming part of the elite the be all and end all? No. There are better things to achieve in life.

Anonymous said...

Since the "data" are anectdotal, I have to say that my experience is quite the opposite. My wife and high are highly educated professionals who raised two children. My step daughter is a related to my wife, her father is also a highly educated professional. Like them she is very smart and she is a physician. Out other daughter was a former foster child of ours whom we adopted. Her parents are stupid and higfh school dropouts. Out daughter also dropped out but we were able to enroll her in a program that let her get her HS diploma at age 20.

All her siblings are stupid and all are dropouts and have never been employed. Same for her bioparents. She has had three kids, one of whom we don't know who the father is. Their offspring is a bit brighter than average. The other two fathers came from famility with uneducated, not unparents, have siblings like that and are themselves uneducated and unsmart. Their kids are not rocket scientists.

We know lots of highly educated parents and they have mostly smart kids who do very well. We know lots of parents on the lower end of the socieconomic scale, through our daughter and her men. Their kids do not do well in school nor are they smart.

On the other hand we do know several foster kids that have done quite well. But they tend to have had smart parents who lost their kids because of substance abuse problems or mental health issues.

So yes there is some reversion to mean but a lot more tendency to breed true.