Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cognitive partitioning & meritocracy (Part II)

(This is the second part of a blog essay about how the processes of meritocracy have created a social and cultural gap between conservative intellectuals and grassroots conservatives. In Part I, I discussed how widespread standardized testing and the democratization of higher education fostered a "cycle of selectivity" in which America's brightest students have come under increasing pressure to grind it out academically in order to gain entrance into top schools.)

My late Aunt Barbara was a high-school biology teacher, frequently honored for her excellence. A couple of years before her retirement, she found herself under pressure to change grades for some of her students who had scored poorly on a big test. The students were among the valedictorian candidates at LaGrange (Ga.) High and the poor test grades in an advanced honors course threatened to affect the final selection of valedictorians. (Like many other schools, LaGrange now recognizes multiple valedictorians, reflecting the "prizes for all" trend.)

Aunt Barbara refused to budge on the grades, but as she explained the pressure parents applied to the system (this incident was just one example), it reinforced my perception of what a sea change had occurred in public schools since my own youth. Bright students are nowadays herded into "gifted" programs in elementary school and into the AP/honors track in high school. The 4.0 all-A average that used to be the acme of academic excellence is no longer sufficient for the aspiring young meritocrats. Honors classes award extra credit so that a 5.0 is now possible.

Since making all A's and a high SAT score no longer suffice to guarantee admission to the top colleges and universities -- plenty of ultra-smart grinds have tasted the Bitter Thin Envelope of Rejection from Harvard or Yale, to which their hopeful parents had insisted they must apply -- these young grinds also cram their teenage lives full of extra-curricular activities designed to highlight their "leadership" or illustrate that they possess that "something extra" which will make their application stand out amid the pile of applications from the brainiac herd.

By the time a kid gains admission to a top school, then, he hasn't had an unscheduled moment since eighth grade, and nearly all of his overscheduled adolescence has been spent in the company of his brainiac peers. And, with rare exceptions, these peers are all offspring of affluent, ambitious, college-educated parents like his own, so that for all the rhetorical emphasis on "diversity," there is a stultifying sameness to the millieu in which these teenage strivers are reared.

Even if there were more diversity in their backgrounds, however, the brainiac's actual teenage experience has become homogenized. Think of Anthony Michael Hall's character in The Breakfast Club. Now clone him several times over, and you will have a useful portrait of the AP/honors classroom at the typical large "comprehensive" high school in the leafy upper-middle-class suburban cul-de-sac enclaves where most of these nerds are raised. (Except that, two decades after The Breakfast Club, more of the nerds are Asian.)

Peers and perceptions
While it continues to be my firm belief that David Brooks ought to be dumped from a C-130 onto a Taliban position east of Jalalabad, Brooks is nevertheless a keen-eyed sociological observer. In 2002, he wrote an interesting article in the Weekly Standard about the "almost crystalline meritocracy" that produces the students who inhabit our nation's elite campuses:
They grew up from birth being shepherded from one skill-enhancing activity to another. When you read their résumés, you learn that they got straight A's in high school and stratospheric board scores. They've usually started a few companies, cured at least three formerly fatal diseases, mastered a half dozen or so languages, and marched for breast cancer awareness through Tibet while tutoring the locals on conflict resolution skills and environmental awareness.
Brooks can be forgiven the hyperbole, for he exaggerates only slightly. One important influence of this pressure-cooker process -- the factor that relates most directly to the defects of our conservative intellectual class today -- is that it isolates the young meritocrat within a peer group of his fellow nerds. Since ninth grade (if not before), the National Merit Scholar finalist has associated with and measured himself against other brainiac nerds like himself. These are the only true peers he has, against whom he competes for academic honors, and with whom he can recall shared experiences.

Think how narrow is the path to high achievement that results in a 17-year-old receiving the Sweet Thick Envelope of Acceptance from his first-choice college. That path may seem wider in a posh suburban school district where the AP/honors track is crowded with the sons and daugthers of hyperachievers, but that is a cruel illusion.

There might be 35 kids at Sodded Lawn High who could succeed at Harvard, but it's unlikely that more than two or three of them will actually gain admission there. There will be dozens of those super-bright grinds who are cursed to attend those schools whose campuses are populated almost entirely by Ivy League rejects -- Tulane, Swarthmore, Duke, Haverford, Wesleyan, Emory, Colgate -- students whose failure will stand as burning reminders to future waves of ambitious nerds how easy it is to fall short even by the second-rate standards of Penn, Brown and Cornell.

Because this elite path is so narrow, because any minor slipup might mean the kind of admissions-process embarrassment that compels a kid with a 1,440 SAT to accept a scholarship offer from State University, those in the "almost crystalline meritocracy" seldom have any non-meritocratic friends. They don't spend their weekends helping a buddy install a custom cam in his third-hand Ford, nor will you find them working a part-time job at Old Navy. They've never worked the summer toting boards on a construction crew or gotten wasted at a farm party or engaged in any other activity that would have put them into the familiar company of those slackers and losers and hell-raisers who constitute the non-elite extracurricular club known as Future Republican Voters of America.

Meritocratic prejudice
I arrived in Washington from North Georgia 11 years ago seeking an answer to a question I'd heard over and over from conservatives down home: "What the hell is wrong with those Republicans in Washington? We elect 'em and send 'em up there and then it's like they forget why they're there and who put 'em there."

A big part of the answer to that question involves this socio-cultural gap that the "crystalline meritocracy" creates between conservative intellectuals and the typical Republican voter. The editors and writers at major conservative publications, the wonks at the think tanks, the analysts and "senior fellows" and other functionaries of the rightward infrastructure in Washington -- these people are drawn from the ranks of top university graduates who are the end product of that meritocracy. They reflect, in greater or lesser degree, the distinctive prejudices of their class, and these prejudices tend to alienate them from the Republican rank-and-file.

Just one illustrative anecdote: About a year ago, a bright young operative in Washington (who is certainly not a snobby elitist Ivy League type) told me in all seriousness that virtually all college-educated women under 30 are pro-choice. Now, I don't doubt that hard-core, single-issue pro-lifers are a minority in the college-educated female 18-29 demo, but I do doubt that hard-core, single-issue pro-choicers are a majority in that demo.

The available exit-poll data don't allow such a detailed demographic analysis, but if 44% of 18-29 white voters punched the button for McCain-Palin, I think it safe to say that some signficant plurality of college-educated young women are pro-life. And I further believe that, ceteris parabus, the pro-life position is not a sufficient deal-breaker for enough college-educated under-3o women that the Republican Party dooms itself to defeat by being pro-life. In other words, there are a lot of "soft" pro-choice women who are either somewhat persuadable to a pro-life stance, or else aren't strongly interested in the politics of abortion, caring more about economic issues, etc.

Having not been isolated within the intellectual class, however, I know that the absolute solid bedrock of the 21st-century GOP coalition are the pro-life activists. Those are the folks who put butts in the voting booth -- they deliver on Election Day. The Republican Party can easily afford to lose 100% of the Harvard vote, but if the GOP loses the pro-lifers, you can kiss it good-bye, people. That isn't to say the pro-lifers should be endlessly pandered to, but you can't piss 'em off, either.

As with abortion, so on down the line on various other issues. To have a political movement that is active, energetic and confident enough to secure that magical 50-percent-plus-one of majority power, conservatives have to hunt where the ducks are and dance with the ones that brung 'em. The hard-core "base" alone may constitute only 30% of the electorate, but without the enthusiastic support of the base, you cannot then reach out successfully to the undecided, independent "swing" voters. And you can't get the enthusiastic support of the base when the most prominent spokesmen for the movement are taking to the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to urinate on the party's grassroots, or to engage in cowardly hand-wringing about the Hispanic vote. (Question: Why is pandering to Hispanics acceptable, while pandering to blue-collar evangelicals is not?)

Real trouble vs. imaginary crisis
Economic issues and the Bush administration's blunder-plagued foreign policy are the sine qua non of the Republican Party's electoral woes in 2006 and '08. "Brand damage" and "Bush fatigue" are undeniable realities. The GOP lacks popular conservative leaders with strong crossover appeal to independents.

Yet what do we hear from so many of our Beltway conservative intellectuals? They conjure up a complex existential crisis of conservative ideology, and make important-sounding noises along the lines of, "The party of Ronald Reagan today stands at a crossroads ..."

From these pompous beginnings, they proceed to cherry-pick the vote totals and exit polls, make ostentatious allusions to Russell Kirk or Barry Goldwater, throw in a bit of anecdotal example, all preparatory to pointing fingers at the usual suspects: Those damned Republican voters! Those ignorant xenophobic hicks in Flyover Country who foolishly insist that the conservative movement ought to try to actually conserve something! How dare those backwoods holy-rollers attempt to influence the party of David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Francis Fukuyama and George Freaking Will!

Is it really so? Are the problems of the GOP really the fault of Republican voters, rather than the fault of the intellectuals? Go scan their output from 2001-04 and try to see if you can find where any of these eminent pundits warned of the political and policy errors by which the Bush administration rendered the Republican Party label increasingly toxic to independent voters. When you find that David Brooks column from 2003 warning about the baleful effects of the Community Reinvestment Act and the dangers of pumping liquidity into an already overheated housing market where traditional standards of creditworthiness had been abandoned, please let me know.

Damn. Once again, I've gone off on a mad tangent and haven't fully explicated what I meant to tackle. I need to cool off a bit and try again. I want to talk about how summer internships have replaced summer jobs, and how the meritocratic conservative elites tend to flock to Washington at age 22 or 23, and how this exempts them from the kind of exposure to non-elite folkways that would inspire confidence in the common sense of common people. I realize that it may be unpopular for a conservative to defend the common sense of the electorate immediately after Barack Obama was elected with a 53% majority, but let's face it: Voting against John McCain is a very easy thing to do -- 53% of Republican primary voters voted against him, too.

To be continued . . .


  1. This series is so dead freaking on it hurts.

  2. You are on fire, Mr. R. S. McCain. This post and Part I were excellent, as was your post on Sarah Palin and prayer. I think I now understand why you "slept like a baby" after the Palin rally; it wasn't really about McCain's chances of winning, after all, was it?

    My background is in I/O psych; you're absolutely right about intelligence testing. There's even more that's destructive about it, including its roots in eugenics thanks to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin. (You can't make this stuff up.)

    I will be linking to Part I ("abolish public schools") when I get around to writing another post to explain this one, where I said that people should take their kids out of public schools immediately. I caught some flak about that in the comments from a dear nephew who happens to be a public school teacher.

    I explained to him in an email (and hope to expand on it in another post) that while I have a great respect for the public school teachers I personally know, who often work heroically against all odds, with students who come to kindergarten five years behind already, I have a huge problem with the curriculum, the NEA, DARE, suicide prevention programs, Gaia-worship and all the rest of it. It's more than a waste of time and taxpayer money, it's a prime cause of the destruction of our civilization (a la Bill Ayers and all the rest).

    He thought my statement was bold; wait till he reads Part I here!

  3. Stacy:
    I think you are correct in regards to the intellectual elites in the republican party and meritocracy, but I do not think it is a problem that is particular to them. Look at who we have had for presidents. Where have they gone to school? There is an academic elitism (for the most part) no matter what the economic background. Look at the drubbing Palin took? Do you think it was coincidence that she went to state schools, was a regular person and got the hard time she did? As much as Bush gets a hard time and has been likened to an idiot, he did go to Harvard. What you haven't said about the great unwashed is that there are people that have high IQs and don't go to ivy league schools and aren't part of the elite in this country. My point is, there are plenty of people smart enough to to be in national politics, but do not. I do not think this hegemony is solely based on IQ. Lastly, I went to graduate school at NYU and went to a state school undergrad. Believe me, NYU was not worth what I paid for it in terms of the educational experience. Thanks for the article.

  4. Oops. Minus three points for use of the egghead word "folkways".

    Other than that, verrry interesting so far.

    --See Dub