"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ivy League Meritocracy–Hooking Up With One’s Own Kind

For those fortunate and smart enough to go to an Ivy League school, the way forward is smooth, for it has been paved with a top-quality education, a student community of the best and the brightest; and elite, well-placed alumni who are willing to help the new graduate at every turn.

A friend of mine, a Wellesley graduate, said that she had one fail-safe criterion for recruiting younger staff – their Ivy League credentials.  When she selected a graduate of Harvard, Yale, or Brown, she knew that she would get an applicant who had been exposed to the best education in the world, had been challenged by equally bright classmates, taught by the most renowned professors, and had learned the conservative values of discipline, hard work, and fairness.

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times (4.10.13), notes that there is much, much more to an Ivy League education that education and principle; and finding a like-minded mate – smart, intellectually adventurous, curious, and academically ambitious – is part of the contract. If one does not hook up during the college years, there are always the alumni networks, clubs, and associations in every major city. If that institutional support is not enough, “Where did you go to school?” has always been the first filter for vetting an appropriate mate.  If the answer is Ivy League, the conversation can go ahead, for both parties already know a lot about each other. The four college years are remarkably formative, perhaps more so than any similarly short period in life, and two Princeton graduates coming together from two ends of the country at a DC bar can start off walking on the same foundation.  The likelihood of dating success, if not marital felicity, is not guaranteed; but the chances are certainly improved when two Ivy Leaguers hook up.

Indians always thought Americans’ ‘love marriages’ were silly affairs, doomed to failure because not only was there was no such thing as love, an idealistic concept invented back in the Western Middle Ages, and letting the young determine their own fate within such an illusory system is simply foolish.  An arranged marriage, Indians said, was realistic, for after any initial exuberance and flighty passions there might be in a conjugal relationship, reality will always set in.  One is always far better off with someone from one’s own caste, religion, and region.  If you can, marry up; but at least stay within familiar boundaries.

Ivy League marriages serve the same practical and useful purpose. Two Yalies can hook up because they think they love each other, but in reality they have just concluded the American version of an arranged marriage. Admittedly, the guarantee is no longer as golden as it was in the good old days when Yale meant wealth, privilege, and breeding.  All students were from Greenwich, went to St. Grottlesex, summered on the Vineyard, and skied at Aspen. As importantly, they were all white and Christian. Back in the days before Yale opened the floodgates to the gifted and talented from all backgrounds, the pedigree was unimpeachable.  You ran the risk of marrying a dummy, since class counted more than brains; and you had to work a little harder to hunt the far-off veldts in Poughkeepsie and Northampton for a mate, but still you were always on good, common ground.  Now it is a little trickier.  There is some fine print on the certificate of pedigree which you need to read before moving on to the second drink, but you both are still operating within a new, if changed, zone of comfort.

Douthat then goes on to show his true colors – that this normal, natural, predictable pattern of behavior is suspect, for it preserves the elites of America and is anti-democratic, self-serving, and reactionary.  He writes about Susan Patton, a woman made famous for a letter in which she urged her female peers “to use their college years to find a mate”, surprising only in the deliberateness of the statement.  Everyone knows, as above, that the Ivy League environment is very fertile ground indeed for finding a life partner; but one never went to Harvard just for that:

Patton’s betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

What, may I ask, is wrong with perpetuating an upper class if it is based – as it now is – on brains, ability, talent, drive, discipline, and ambition?  The ‘upper class’ St. Grottlesex Ivy League disappeared after the admission of women and minorities and the opening of generous scholarship programs.  Many Yale graduates are not from ‘the upper class’, but from the broad middle. They are from families who are well enough educated to understand the value of the Ivy League, and financially secure enough to spend on summer internships, travel, and enrichment study; but they are not the idle rich of the Boston Brahmans, the Main Line, or Groton.  Not good enough, says Douthat:

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious…

Douthat’s anger, however, is misplaced. The ‘existing inequalities’ he talks about are in fact very egalitarian, and the they represent no more than a natural consolidation of like-minded individuals who have acceded to their elite graduate status not by class and privilege but through brains, ambition, and the support of concerned parents and secondary schools.

This meritocracy consolidates itself not only through marriage, but through professional association and residence. It is no accident that America’s leaders have come disproportionately from the Ivy League – Obama, Bush II, Clinton, and Bush I are all excellent examples, to say nothing of their associates and lieutenants.  The number of Yale and Harvard alumni in the Washington, DC area is disproportionate to the size of the city.  The best jobs for lawyers are here, after all.  New York – the center of Investment banking – is a mecca for ambitious Ivy Leaguers, and their overrepresentation is also not a surprise. A network of successful Yale and Harvard graduates already exists in these cities, and it is far easier for an Ivy League newcomer to break in there than in Detroit.

Again and not surprisingly, Douthat has a problem with this natural conglomeration of talent and ability

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.)

Of course Ivy Leaguers choose to live in areas which have become known as centers of power, innovation, creativity, and excitement. If you can get a job in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, or New York, why on earth would ever move to Apalachicola? A young friend of mine who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said, “I love it here.  There are more smart people per square mile than any other place in the US”.  The same was true at Harvard and his ‘elite’ secondary school in New York.

Douthat’s and Richard Florida’s argument about gentrification and displacement is too lame and predictable to debate.  Of course the young, upwardly mobile, ambitious and talented lawyers, architects, and doctors are gentrifying Washington neighborhoods that for decades have languished in poverty, disrepair, and dysfunction.  What?  Should Yalies leave them to their misery and move to nice, white, middle class, cheap and boring suburbs like Gaithersburg?

Meritocracy is a good thing, not a bad one, for it encourages the country’s best and brightest to aspire to the best; and if the mechanisms for accession are in place – and they are through scholarships – then more power and glory to those who make it.

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