Monday, November 10, 2008

Cognitive partitioning & meritocracy (Part I)

Yesterday, in discussing the prejudice of (some) conservative intellectuals against evangelical Christians, I wrote:
One of the great woes of the conservative movement in recent years is that it has attracted a set of intellectuals who are culturally and socially disconnected from the people whose votes elect Republican candidates. This is, to an extent, a result of what Herrnstein and Murray called "cognitive partitioning."
Our intellectual class is now dominated by "meritocrats" who come from upper-middle-class backgrounds and who have been grinding it out since middle school trying to get into the elite schools that offer the fast track to success. Conservatism has sought out these brainiac types who bring with them a set of class prejudices that make them incapable of relating to State University business majors and self-sufficient tradesmen, the petit bourgeois backbone of the suburban Sunbelt GOP.
By referring to Herrnstein and Murray, of course, I meant The Bell Curve, and one of the great intellectual tragedies of the 1990s. Because of The Bell Curve's controversial assertions about race, heredity and intelligence, it was dismissed as crypto-eugenic pseudoscience. What was lost in this unfortunate (if perfectly understandable) controversy was the book's profound observations about the impact on our class structure of widespread standardized testing and the democratization of higher education. These observations -- contained in Part I of the book under the heading, "The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite" -- were as valuable as any sociological writing since Veblen, and yet were trampled underfoot because of the racial controversy.

Given that I've been so often smeared as a bigot, I hesitate even to reference The Bell Curve -- "A-ha!" shouts the Southern Poverty Law Center -- but a comment by Kathy Shaidle on the previous thread encouraged me to do so, since so few conservatives ever address the political influence of class perceptions in a useful way. But since coming to Washington in 1997 I have seen first-hand how the processes of modern meritocracy have created an unmistakable class divide between conservative intellectuals and the kind of grassroots conservatives who are the true political backbone of the movement.

A short history of brains
Let's begin by summarizing very briefly what Herrnstein and Murray say in Part I of The Bell Curve, in my own words and augmented by some of my own knowledge and experience of the history of the subject (I used to be an education reporter). Prior to World War II, high intelligence was scattered rather haphazardly across society. The first mass implementation of IQ testing was done by the Army to sort recruits in World War I. So it was quite possible, circa 1920 or 1940, that yon farmer driving his tractor across the cornfield had a 120 IQ -- the mean IQ of today's college graduate -- or that the owner of a small-town grocery store had a 140 IQ, which would almost certainly qualify him for admission to a good law school nowadays (since the LSAT is, to a great extent, an IQ test).

Most importantly, IQ testing was not widespread within the education system, and in the early 20th century the American education system itself was decidedly undemocratic. In much of rural America, the eight-grade country schoolhouse was the norm, and if a farm lad wanted to attend the high school in the county seat, he had to arrange his own room and board in town. To attend college, prior to WWII, you either had to be from a rich family, or win a scholarship, or else work your way through. (Ronald Reagan had an athletic scholarship to Eureka College.)

All this changed in the aftermath of World War II. First, IQ testing was again used in the armed services and the brightest recruits qualified for officer-training programs, or for high-skill specialties such as pilots, engineers, radio operators, etc. And then the GI Bill provided college tuition to hundreds of thousands of veterans (including my own father).

Then came the widespread prosperity of the long postwar boom and, beginning in the late 1950s, federal college tuition aid programs. For the Baby Boomers, then, a college education was no longer for the privileged few, but was available to just about any smart kid who wanted it. Well ... who was "smart"? This was where the SAT and other standardized tests came to exercise so much sway in education.

The SAT was first administered in 1926, but its use in college admissions -- along with a similar test, the ACT -- did not become widespread until the 1950s. By the '80s, the SAT was virtually universal for college-bound students. (I never took the SAT, and when I started Jacksonville State University in 1977, it was open admissions with no testing required. I briefly considered majoring in education, the ACT was required for admission to the teacher-training program, and so one Saturday morning my sophomore year, I took the test with a crushing hangover. When I later picked up my score at the registrar's office, the girl at the desk looked at the score and said, "Wow. Too bad you didn't take this before -- you would have qualified for the President's Scholars program." C'est la vie.)

As the SAT became universal, top universities increasingly attracted the brightest students on a nationwide basis. Before World War II, the Ivy League schools were still what they'd always been, bastions of privilege for the brightest sons of the Northeastern elite. But by the 1960s, these schools -- and other top-flight schools like Stanford, the University of Chicago, etc. --were getting applications from smart kids all over the country.

As college education became more democratic, the top schools became ever more selective and, if anything, a degree from a top school carried even more prestige in 1980 than it had before WWII. Whereas a bachelor's degree from, say, the University of Kansas had indicated one's place in the top 10% of academic ability in 1940, by 1980, such a degree might signify only a top 20% status.

The meritocratic process
A cycle of selectivity (vicious or virtuous, take your pick) began to impact the meritocratic process. Once the average SAT of incoming freshman classes became public knowledge -- thank you, U.S. News & World Report -- employers that were looking for real brainpower quite logically focused their recruiting efforts on the graduates of the schools with the highest numbers. And super-ambitious parents became almost fanatically obsessed with getting their kids into those top schools.

The public education system responded to all these changes in various ways, with more and more testing in earlier and earlier grades, special "gifted" classes, and so forth. My own experience might be intructive of the haphazard and experimental nature of these developments.

I vaguely remember our class being given a very basic kind of fill-in-the-dots standardized test toward the end of third grade (i.e., spring 1968). We were tested again in fifth grade, and our elementary school instituted what is now called "tracking": We were divided into four classes -- 5A, 5B, 5C, 5D -- with the brightest kids in 5A and so on down the line. (Which was kind of weird to me, since I was plunked into 5A with the goody-two-shoes kids like Keith Enterkin and Kathy McDade, rather than with all my buddies in 5C and 5D.) Then in sixth grade, they tried some sort of primitive "gifted" program that required about 10 of us kids to study statistics after school with the principal (whom I hated), and so in seventh grade, when I was invited to be in the middle-school "gifted" program, I said, "Screw that. Why do extra work for no credit?"

To continue down this particular personal sidetrack a bit further, my experience as a "gifted" student -- who tested in the 98th percentile in fifth grade, maxing out in both reading comprehension and vocabulary -- probably explains my complete contempt for the public education establishment. I was the victim of several "innovative" programs (including the once-notorious "New Math") and suffered mental abuse doled out by many sadistic half-bright bureaucrats who called themselves "teachers." From what I saw during my years covering public schools in Georgia in the '80s and '90s, the situation has scarcely improved -- and "gifted" education has, if anything, gotten worse.

When the Columbine High massacre occurred, I noted several things: (a) Columbine High was a large "comprehensive" school with a floor plan almost identical to Lithia Springs High, where I graduated; (b) the two killers were both extremely bright kids who'd been in advanced AP/honors type classes; (c) neither of the killers had gotten into his first-choice college; and (d) each of the killers was from a two-child family, the younger sibling of a "star" child.

The "comprehensive" high school with over 1,000 students is a very bad idea, and it is especially bad for bright kids who don't have some extra-curricular activity -- sports, band, drama, etc. -- from which they can derive peer status. Tracking bright kids into AP/honors courses only tends to reinforce the kids' elitist sense of superiority. If a 15- or 16-year-old is really bright enough to do college work, then let him "test out" of high school and go to college. Don't force him to keep going back to that idiot factory ("subsidized dating," as Newt Gingrich once described high school) with its vicious cliques of jocks and preps and stoners, etc. The Columbine massacre was an evil nightmare from hell, but it was not an unpredictable outcome of the one-size-fits-all education system.

You want "education reform"? Abolish public schools. Get government out of the education business. Fire all the teachers and administrators. Sell the school buildings, the equipment, the buses, the books -- the whole shebang -- at public auction. Return the money to the taxpayers, and let every parent henceforth know: If you bring a child into this world, you and you alone are responsible for that child's education. That's the kind of radical libertarian I am, and my opinion is perfectly consonant with Christian conservatism, since anything as thoroughly f----d up as the American public education system must surely be the spawn of Satan.

Well, it's 2:30 a.m., and that sidetrack delayed our arrival at the main topic: How the meritocratic process by which intellectuals are developed tends to separate the conservative intellectual class from the people whose votes make possible the conservative political movement. Come back tomorrow, and I'll have more.

However, let me add one final thing this morning: If you're smart enough to read and understand The Bell Curve, you're extremely smart, no matter what your race, ethnicity, educational background or socioeconomic status. That was what was so ironic about the furor over the book. How could any reader feel insulted? If you're smart enough to read it, the book says very flattering things about you. Maybe morons should feel insulted, but no moron could ever get through a single chapter of the book. I'm looking at Page 1 and see these words: literate, artifact, blithely, heterodox, productive, transmission, simian, geographer, relevance, capacity. Turn to Page 2, and about halfway down, you encounter this sentence:
His most influential immediate successor, a French psychologist, Alfred Binet, soon developed questions that attempted to measure intelligence by measuring a person's ability to reason, draw analogies, and identify patterns.
Anyone who would voluntarily pick up a book containing such a sentence is, almost by definition, an intellectual. So what was all that uproar about, with people acting as if they'd been slapped in the face and called ugly names?

UPDATE: Part II of this essay is now online.


  1. I am puzzled by this posting, and in particular by the following passage:

    Given that I've been so often smeared as a bigot, I hesitate even to reference The Bell Curve -- "A-ha!" shouts the Southern Poverty Law Center -- but a comment by Kathy Shaidle on the previous thread encouraged me to do so, since so few conservatives ever address the political influence of class perceptions in a useful way.

    What are you talking about? Did the Southern Poverty Law Center censure you for mentioning "The Bell Curve?"

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. No, the SPLC did the whole guilt-by-association trip, and also employed the "ransom note" method of quotation. (You might be surprised how easy it is to get tagged by those guys.) Demonstrating a familiarity with The Bell Curve isn't going to improve the situation, but I'm past the point of giving a damn about that crap. I know who I am and what I believe, and I refuse to be intimidated by people trying to make me out as something I am not.

  4. I am still puzzled. Did the Southern Poverty Law Center denounce you for referencing The Bell Curve?

  5. Three years of summer classes at the local State U in grades 4,5,6!, Wednesday "gifted" classes and a high school guidance counselor that told me I could "do whatever I wanted to do"--so I slacked! HA.
    Read "The Bell Curve" because it was on the bookshelf at home as a kid--Liked your post and have been part of your recent traffic, and still reading (obviously).

    Burn them all down!

  6. Interesting and thought provoking post, I'm looking forward to the continuation.

    Like you, the news of Columbine caused me to think back to my old high school in suburban Ohio, a 2,500 student enormity of Great Society good intentions and unintended consequences. Its mediocre football team was the center of all official enthusiasm and its potential for academic excellence a not entirely welcome byproduct. While not believing that such an institution should be shot up, it was not hard to see how it might have happened.

    BTW, great phrase "ransom note style of quotation."

    In a world where a Klan rally here in Florida got five (5) FIVE participants the SPLC is absolutely desperate for a pretense of relevance.

  7. The "tracking" thing begins in Kindergarten here in OC, California, and continues throughout elementary school.

    If we keep going in the statist/Stalinist direction, maybe the statist/Stalinist solution is mandatory boarding schools for each IQ track -- so kids won't be isolated away from their friends and peer group in various "tracks".

  8. This is really fascinating stuff.