My own encounter with the book was unusual. I had followed the journalistic controversy over The Bell Curve, especially in The New Republic, where then-editor Andrew Sullivan insisted that Murray and Herrnstein should not be peremptorily dismissed as crackpot eugenicists. I sided strongly with the book's enemies, accepting their descriptions of the book's ideas and (implied) purposes.
However, after that controversy died down, I found myself in a furious online argument with a white separatist (Dennis Wheeler) who used The Bell Curve to justify his views. I regurgitated the criticisms of the book that I had absorbed from the journalistic discussions, and Wheeler replied: "Have you actually read the book?"
This is the kind of challenge that always gets my goat. My encyclopedic reading habit is a point of pride, and this guy had played the trump card. So I read the book and was surprised to find it far more reasonable in tone and modest in its conclusions than its critics had been willing to admit. Of course, The Bell Curve does not justify, advocate or endorse the kind of racialist doctrine that Wheeler was promoting, and his belief that it did so was evidence of his own inferior understanding.
Having read the book, I re-read the earlier criticism and realized that, of all Murray and Herrnstein's critics, only Thomas Sowell had really laid a glove on them, by arguing that the influences of heredity and culture were hard to untangle in seeking the causes of general differences in groups. Ergo, we need not suppose that such differences are fixed and permanent, even if -- and here, Sowell sided with Murray and Herrnstein -- we agree that the coercive egalitarianism of the liberal welfare state is not an effective means of addressing these differences.
However, the entirety of the controversy over what Murray and Herrnstein said about hereditary and race was a horrible distraction from what was, to me, the most revealing part of their book: How the democratization of educational opportunity and the near-universality of intelligence testing (the SAT and other standardized aptititude tests function, at some basic level, as IQ tests) had resulted in a revolution in American socio-economic class structure.
Tyranny of the Meritocrats
The specific sort elitism that I routinely excoriate here -- e.g., in my recent treatment of David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan -- is based on an overinterpretation of The Bell Curve as misguided as Dennis Wheeler's racialist doctrine. The errors of Brooks and Sullivan can be summed up in a single word: "meritocracy."
In the first two chapters of The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein discuss a series of related points:
- (a) Higher education has become widely available without regard to wealth or social class;
- (b) Elite institutions (especially the Ivy League schools) have begun to recruit bright students on a nationwide basis;
- (c) Standardized testing has enabled the early identification of bright children, who are routinely "tracked" into college-preparatory curricula;
- (d) The Information Age has placed an economic premium on intelligence, so that the super-bright graduates of elite institutions are recruited for the most lucrative occupations;
- (e) As a result of these trends, a phenemenon called "cognitive partition" has taken hold, so that the smart and the rich have less and less social interaction with the dumb and the poor; and
- (f) Increasingly, poverty and failure are tantamount to proof of stupidity, while wealth and success are proof of genius.
If you have read both The Bell Curve and Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, you know how he applied Murray and Herrnstein's ideas -- in a light, breezy, humorous way -- to his study of the lifestyles of the emerging overclass. And every time Sullivan savages Sarah Palin, you are witnessing an expression of Sully's certainty that no one who attended a community college and graduated from a state university can be more fit to govern than a true "meritocrat" like Barack Obama.
Whatever her SAT score, Palin has failed to jump through the proper institutional hoops necessary for validation as a member of the congnitive elite that Sullivan, Brooks & Co. recognize as the only legitimate governing class.
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.
Furthermore, the Sully-Brooks interpretation denies the equality of the states, for Oklahoma produces fewer National Merit Scholars than do Massachusetts and Connecticut, and therefore Sen. Tom Coburn and his constituents are politically inferior to Sen. Chris Dodd or Sen. John Kerry and their constituents.
Finally and most importantly, the Sully-Brooks "meritocracy" theory tends toward the negation of local self-government and the endorsement of unconstitutional centralization of power in Washington, since the national government attracts the "best and brightest" (the meritocrats who are fit to govern) in a way that the governments of Texas or Tennessee cannot.
The Flaw in 'Meritocracy'
What the Sully-Brooks interpretation fails to take into account are (a) imperfections in the screening systems that drive cognitive partition, and (b) the non-cognitive factors that might discourage participation in the system.
It never occurs to the elitists that someone qualified for membership in the meritocracy (i.e., anyone with a 98th-percentile IQ, a category that includes more than 4 million American adults) would reject an invitation to join their club, but many do.
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.
An education system dominated by such mental mediocrities inevitably tends to reward the compliant, the obedient, the natural-born conformists with an appetite for regimentation. A few years spent covering the education beat, combined with my own experiences as a public-school student, convinced me that many of our brightest students are essentially "lost" by the system because of this factor.
The more perceptive the student, the more likely he is to perceive that the educational system is run by time-serving bureaucrats, and that the system's rules are designed chiefly for the convience of the bureaucracy, with intellectual excellence not even a secondary consideration in the process. It is not a justification of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to note that both of them were very bright, and that Columbine High was fairly typical of the large surburban "comprehensive" high school where so many other very bright teenagers develop a contempt for the education system that is no less thorough for being less violent.
Elitism as Self-Congratulation
Considerations of temperament -- the possibility that some children simply don't have the appetite for apple-polishing necessary to become a valedictorian -- are just one factor omitted from elitist notions of meritocracy.
A very bright student with athletic aptitude, for example, might spend time working on his jump shot or his curveball, rather than spending his extracurricular moments studying SAT vocabulary words or improving his prose composition skills. Intelligence and wisdom are not synonyms, love makes fools of many, and even a genius might be foolish enough to employ his after-school hours in pursuit of romance.
Given the hypercompetitive pressures increasingly applied to the admissions process at elite schools -- pressures applied, in many cases, by parents who use their children as symbols of vicarious achievement -- a laser-like focus on scholastic performance allows the would-be Yalie or Princetonian little room for distraction. A brilliant childhood buddy of mine (who went to Emory) enjoyed automotive tinkering. How many Ivy Leaguers have ever installed a custom camshaft in an old Chevy?
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!
This self-congratulatory intepretation of The Bell Curve is, I would argue, far more politically dangerous than the racialist doctrines of Dennis Wheeler and his ilk. The conceit of our soi-disant meritocrats tends toward a contempt for the ordinary citizen, a sensibility of intellectual exclusiveness where the elite address their arguments only to their meritocratic peers, while offering only dumbed-down propaganda to "the masses," who are presumed as incapable of comprehending elite arguments as they are incompetent for self-government.
Over the past several months, some have denounced my populism -- including my support for Sarah Palin -- as purely a function of chip-on-the-shoulder resentment of my "betters." Excuse me for having failed previously to explain the real political danger that I mean to oppose. When the Palinistas defend their heroine against the Sullivans, Brookses and Parkers, they are expressing a small-d democratic conception of politics that is instinctively mistrustful of the elitist approach to governance.
Whatever one says pro or con about Palin, I believe the anti-elitist impulses of the Palinistas are valid and legitimate. Their "populist" resentments are entirely justified by the undemocratic beliefs and practices of the snobs who pat themselves on the back by celebrating the hegemony of a phony "meritocracy."