Saturday, December 3, 2022

Scott Siskind on David Brooks on the Rise of American Meritocracy

Back in 2001, David Brooks published a book called Bobos in Paradise, about the contemporary American elite and how they got that way. Scott Siskind recently read it. He thought most of it was the 90s equivalent of "millennials just want avocado toast." (This is true, although what I remember best is an extended treatment of slate showers.) But the first section advances a theory about how the new elite came into being that Siskind calls a "daring thesis."

The daring thesis: a 1950s change in Harvard admissions policy destroyed one American aristocracy and created another. Everything else is downstream of the aristocracy, so this changed the whole character of the US.

The pre-1950s aristocracy went by various names; the Episcopacy, the Old Establishment, Boston Brahmins. David Brooks calls them WASPs, which is evocative but ambiguous. He doesn’t just mean Americans who happen to be white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant - there are tens of millions of those! He means old-money blue-blooded Great-Gatsby-villain WASPs who live in Connecticut, go sailing, play lacrosse, belong to country clubs, and have names like Thomas R. Newbury-Broxham III. Everyone in their family has gone to Yale for eight generations. . . 

The old-money WASPs were mostly descendants of people who made their fortunes in colonial times (or at worst the 1800s); they were a merchant aristocracy. As the descendants of merchants, they acted as standard-bearers for the bourgeois virtues: punctuality, hard work, self-sufficiency, rationality, pragmatism, conformity, ruthlessness, whatever made your factory out-earn its competitors.

By the 1950s they were several generations removed from any actual hustling entrepreneur. Still, at their best the seed ran strong and they continued to embody some of these principles. Brooks tentatively admires the WASP aristocracy for their ethos of noblesse oblige - many become competent administrators, politicians, and generals. George H. W. Bush, scion of a rich WASP family, served with distinction in World War II - the modern equivalent would be Bill Gates’ or Charles Koch’s kids volunteering as front-line troops in Afghanistan.

At their worst, they mostly held ultra-expensive parties, drifted into alcoholism, and participated in endless “my money is older than your money” dick-measuring contests. And they were jocks - certainly good at lacrosse and crew, but their kids would be much less likely than modern elites’ to become a scientist, professor, doctor, or lawyer. . . . . 

The heart of the WASP aristocracy was the Ivy League. I don’t think there are good statistics, but until the early 1900s many (most?) Ivy League students were WASP aristocrats from a few well-known families. Around 1920 the Jews started doing really well on standardized tests, and the Ivies suspended standardized tests in favor of “holistic admissions” to keep them out and preserve the WASPishness of the elite. All the sons (and later, daughters) of the WASPs met each other in college, played lacrosse together, and forged the sort of bonds that make a well-connected and self-aware aristocracy.

Around 1955 (Brooks writes, building on an earlier book by Nicholas Lemann) Harvard changed their admission policy. Why? Partly a personal decision by Harvard presidents James Conant, and Nathan Pusey, who sincerely believed in meritocracy. And partly because Harvard’s Jewish quota was becoming unpopular, as increased awareness of the Holocaust made anti-Semitism déclassé. Conant and Pusey decided to admit based on academic merit (measured mostly by SAT scores). The thing where Harvard would always admit WASP aristocrats because that was the whole point of Harvard was relegated to occasional “legacy admissions”, a new term for something which was now the exception and not the rule. Other Ivies quickly followed.
Brooks on the consequences:
In 1952, most freshmen at Harvard were products of . . . the prep schools of New England (Andover and Exeter alone contributed 10% of the class), the East side of Manhattan, the Main Line of Philadelphia, Shaker Heights in Ohio, the Gold Coast of Chicago, Grosse Pointe of Detroit, Nob Hill in San Francisco, and so on. Two-thirds of all applicants were admitted. Applicants whose fathers had gone to Harvard had a 90% admission rate. The average verbal SAT score for the incoming men was 583, good but not stratospheric. The average score across the Ivy League was closer to 500 at the time.

Then came the change. By 1960 the average verbal SAT score for incoming freshman at Harvard was 678, and the math score was 695 - these are stratospheric scores. The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10% of the Harvard freshman class of 1960. Moreover, the 1960 class was drawn from a much wider socioeconomic pool. . . . This transformation was replicated in almost all elite schools. At Princeton in 1962, for example, only 10 members of the 62-man football team had attended private prep schools. Three decades earlier every member of the Princeton team was a prep school boy.
The campus turmoil of the 60s, says Brooks, was partly about Vietnam and Civil Rights but even more it was about the new, meritocratic elite seizing the commanding cultural heights from the WASPs.

Siskind seems to have been more impressed by this book than I was. Changes in elite education and the shift to competitive admissions were certainly part of the transformation, but only part. For one thing elites got a lot more meritocratic in other parts of the world around the same time: for example in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany, to name a few I know something about. (But not so much in Britain, which might argue in favor of Brooks' model.) Within the US I would put more emphasis on the GI Bill and the huge expansion of universities than on the particular changes at Harvard. As Brooks notes, the Harvard leadership was responding to pressure to open up and admit different kinds of students, in particular military veterans and European refugees. With the government getting more and more involved in funding education, they really could not resist that pressure.

You also have to go back in time to understand this, to the late 1800s when the Ivy League was remaking itself based on the German model of academic specialization and research. When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton he tried to close the elite eating clubs so students would focus more on studying, which led to an alumni revolt; the leadership of New Jersey got together and kicked Wilson upstairs to the post of governor, in their minds a less important job from which he could not threaten their precious eating clubs. Plus, the American elite of 1952 was not really very old at all but traces back to that same late 19th-century period; the dominant families included the Mellons, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and the Fords, some of whose founders were only recently dead.

But what I maily think is, "everything is more complicated than that." The composition of the American elite has been influenced by economic forces like the rise of the computer world, geographic changes like the growth of California and Texas, the imperatives of the Cold War, increasing global economic competition, etc., etc.

As a cartoon, Brooks' model has something to recommend it, but I prefer not to think in cartoons.

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