Is educational discrimination ruining America?

I see it as a thinly disguised propaganda sheet so I rarely read the NYT.  The following article by David Brooks has however come to my attention.  He is apparently their token conservative.

There are two subjects which are just about "verboten" in the popular press and even in most academic journals:  Social class and IQ. And, for my sins, I have done academic research into both. Both offend mightily against the Leftist dream of equality so are "incorrect".  But both factors form part of the explanation for many things, so ignoring them leads to a very imperfect understanding of those many things.

The black/white "gap" in educational achievement is a prime example of that. Educationalists for many years have been turning themselves inside out trying to explain and eliminate it, but with no real success. Were they to look at the IQ research they would immediately understand it and recognize it as intractable, which would save a lot of wasted effort.

So David Brooks is to be congratulated in tackling social class in his essay below.  And much of what he says is reasonable.  But I am afraid that once again IQ is the elephant in the room and causes Mr Brooks to miss a lot of what is going on.

All the studies of the subject, notably the famous/infamous Herrnstein & Murray study, show IQ to be a substantial factor in social class.  Put simply, high IQ people tend to get rich and even do so when coming from an unpromising background.  So what are perceived as social class attributes are in fact IQ attributes.  Newly rich people may sometimes have to do a sort of apprenticeship and change their accent before being accepted into the "best" circles but eventually money talks.

The British situation is a bit different due to the presence there of an hereditary aristocracy but even there intermarriage with successful middle-class people leads to a similar endpoint.

My favourite example of all that is breastfeeding. There is a lively literature on that subject.  Google records 71 million mentions of it. And a clear theme of it is that breastfeeding is now "correct".  Middle and upper middle class mothers breastfeed and look down on those who do not. And that can be a considerable grief to women who have difficulties with lactation.  No "excuses" are usually accepted.  There was of course a time not so long ago when the class polarity was the other way around

Now one does understand why breastfeeding is so in fashion among the more affluent.  It is in part a Greenie belief that "nature knows best" and doctors do recommend it as best for the child. But there is something else going on beneath the surface that few people are aware of. The major influence on breastfeeding is in fact IQ. We read, for instance, that "The mother's IQ was more highly predictive of breastfeeding status than were her race, education, age, poverty status, smoking, the home environment, or the child's birth weight or birth order".  What looks like a social class effect is in fact an IQ effect.

Taking that finding in conjunction with the Herrnstein & Murray findings, we have to suspect that a lot of what passses as social class characteristics is in fact an IQ effect.  So in his discussion of social class differences and it effect on education, Brooks is failing to see the wood for the trees.  He sees as causative some things that are not. He mistakes the surface for the substance.

And in education IQ is a very powerful influence indeed.  Correlations of around .7 between IQ and educational attainment are commonly reported.  Putting that together with the fact that IQ is highly hereditary (on some estimates 80% of IQ is genetically determined) we have a pretty complete explanation of the phenomena that Brooks describes.

So the fact -- set out by Brooks -- that educational attainment is largely hereditary can be explained much more simply than by seeing it as the result of an informal conspiracy theory -- which is what Brooks sees.  Top educational achievement is hereditary because IQ is hereditary.  All those things that Brooks sees as causative of social success -- such as shopping at Whole Foods -- are in fact epiphenomena rather than  causative.  They correlate with education because both correlate with IQ.

So I am not denying the sort of correlation that Brooks observes.  I am rather saying that the things he mentions are a minor source of  barriers compared to IQ status.  Given high IQ, the apparent barriers will melt away.  Either the high IQ person will have the nominated characteristics in the first place or his/her IQ will enable such characteristics to be adopted to whatever degree is needed.  The one essential is that high IQ.

Let me give a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean. I was born to a distinctly anti-social mother in a very working  class household.  My father was a red-headed lumberjack with all the fight in him that you would expect of that.  But both my parents were avid readers and part of families that did well in the schools of their day.  So I inherited a high IQ.  And that both got me a Ph.D. -- I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in six weeks and much of it was published -- and got me ready acceptance in the "best" British social circles when I spent some time in Britain in the 70s. Despite my origins, I simply had a lot in common with upper and upper-middle class people in Britain.  And if you think social class matters in America, it matters much more in Britain.

So at the end of the day, are there significant barriers to educational achievement for people of humble background? There undoubtedly are some barriers.  Hereditary or "legacy" admissions to the top universities are a reality that sometimes give an applicant from an affluent family an "unfair" advantage at admission time.  Even there however, the applicant will be unlikely to be really dim.  But be that as it may, what college or university you went to does have a big influence when you are applying for certain jobs. But, again, the Ivy League and other top universities do tend towards educational excellence so that may be fairer than it looks

But it must be borne in mind that the level of education that Brooks is talking about does require a substantial IQ advantage.  Without that advantage you will probably go nowhere and with it you will probably do fairly well most of the time or maybe later rather than sooner.  You may miss out on going to an Ivy League school but State universities will usually give you what you need to know about your given subject.  And if your IQ is really high, you will usually have all of life's options before you. That may be unfair but it is not going to change

Over the past generation, members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.

How they’ve managed to do the first task — giving their own children a leg up — is pretty obvious. It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.

Upper-middle-class moms have the means and the maternity leaves to breast-feed their babies at much higher rates than high school-educated moms, and for much longer periods.

Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents. Since 1996, education expenditures among the affluent have increased by almost 300 percent, while education spending among every other group is basically flat.

As life has gotten worse for the rest in the middle class, upper-middle-class parents have become fanatical about making sure their children never sink back to those levels, and of course there’s nothing wrong in devoting yourself to your own progeny.

It’s when we turn to the next task — excluding other people’s children from the same opportunities — that things become morally dicey. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.

The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.

These rules have a devastating effect on economic growth nationwide. Research by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti suggests that zoning restrictions in the nation’s 220 top metro areas lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. The restrictions also have a crucial role in widening inequality. An analysis by Jonathan Rothwell finds that if the most restrictive cities became like the least restrictive, the inequality between different neighborhoods would be cut in half.

Reeves’s second structural barrier is the college admissions game. Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs.

It’s no wonder that 70 percent of the students in the nation’s 200 most competitive schools come from the top quarter of the income distribution. With their admissions criteria, America’s elite colleges sit atop gigantic mountains of privilege, and then with their scholarship policies they salve their consciences by offering teeny step ladders for everybody else.

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.


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