July 28, 2021

"In 1958, Michael Young, a British sociologist, introduced the word 'meritocracy,' warning that the widespread use of I.Q. tests as a sorting device would result in..."

".... a new and deeply resented kind of hereditary class system. But that’s not how people came to understand the term. To many, it denoted an almost sacred principle: that tickets to success, formerly handed out by inheritance or luck, were now given to the deserving... In the summer of 1948, Henry Chauncey, an assistant dean [at Harvard] who became the first president of the Educational Testing Service, was stunned to read an article co-written by one of the most prominent Black academics in the country, the anthropologist Allison Davis, who argued that intelligence tests were a fraud—a way of wrapping the privileged children of the middle and upper classes in a mantle of scientifically demonstrated superiority. The tests, he and his co-author, Robert J. Havighurst, pointed out, measured only 'a very narrow range of mental activities,' and carried 'a strong cultural handicap for pupils of lower socioeconomic groups.' Chauncey, who was convinced that standardized tests represented a wondrous scientific advance, wrote in his diary about Davis and Havighurst, 'They take the extreme and, I believe, radical point of view that any test items showing different difficulties for different socioeconomic groups are inappropriate.' And: 'If ability has any relation to success in life parents in upper socioeconomic groups should have more ability than those in lower socioeconomic groups.'

From "Can Affirmative Action Survive?/The policy has made diversity possible. Now, after decades of debate, the Supreme Court is poised to decide its fate" by Nicholas Lemann (The New Yorker).

I put that last sentence in boldface because it's so provocative. Take a few seconds to understand exactly what he is saying. It's an idea you do not see expressed too often, because it's experienced as offensive and depressing. The words "any relation" and "more ability" make it a fairly modest assertion, but even in that weakened form, you don't hear it said these days.


Ann Althouse said...

Temujin writes:

"Every time I read about 'leveling' our society so that everything is more equitable, I think of the story by Vonnegut, "Harrison Bergeron", which I know I've brought up before, but cannot help bringing up again. We seem to want to have everybody equal. Even if we're born unequal. Unequal in intelligence, abilities, interests, colors, ideas, thoughts, desires, etc. No two people are alike. Not even within the same family. Not even twins. Yet we worry ourselves constantly about making the outcomes for everyone the same. I cannot speak to the best way to measure intelligence and whether or not it should be tied to abilities. But I'm sure you can find some connections, or not- depending on what you are looking for.

"I do think that standardized tests do measure only a narrow range of abilities. Of course they do. That's exactly what they are designed to do. It is those narrow ranges that universities (and others) are looking for. Or...were looking for. Now they are looking to meet quotas of skin colors. Or sexual preferences. Or to get bonus points for coming from certain zip codes. Actually, the zip code thing has always been done. But it used to be that you got extra points for coming from Greenwich, CT. Now you get extra points for coming from Southwestern Detroit. Does this equal things out? Surely I jest.

"I think you can measure types of intelligence through testing. But not full intelligence and certainly not abilities. I do OK in this life, but if you put me out in the distance on a plot of land in Montana and ask me to kill for my food, build shelter, plant and farm, I'm going to show dismal ability and probably look a lot less intelligent than I would in my normal environment. At least initially. Take a Black child out of the depths of Chicago- where it takes amazing ability just to get through a day alive- and put him or her on the campus of Northwestern University and see how they function- initially. Would they look intelligent or overwhelmed? (would any of us?).

"A meritocracy works. But only if you base your judgements on the actual abilities and intelligence you can clearly observe. On...and here's a hated word: Production. Parents should not figure into the measurements of an individual's ability. Because...as stated above: we- none of us- are the same.

"Affirmative action is a government's approach to evening all of this out. If you want to know how government succeeds in it's programs, give a look to one of their oldest and best known departments in any city: the DMV. Or give a gander to how our national government handles it's own abilities and uses its own intelligence in operating within their budget, or creating crises. Are these the people you want handling Equity?"

Ann Althouse said...

Washington Blogger writes:

"This is such a deep topic that it cannot be addressed adequately in an email. It's a complex problem made worse by the application of simplistic solutions.

"'If ability has any relation to success in life parents in upper socioeconomic groups should have more ability than those in lower socioeconomic groups.'

"In a sense this is accurate, though completely wrong as well.

"Accurate in that if all things being equal at the start, for those who achieve success, ability might be the deciding factor. But those parents might also have had parents who might have been in higher socioeconomic groups giving them the edge to achieve.

"I have 6 good examples where ability is not the dividing factor for success: my children. Let's take just one for example. This child was born in a rural mining town along the southern border of China. He is gregarious, and makes friends easily. He has a pretty good IQ and is now attending The University of Washington, pre-dental program. As an orphan in a rural area, he would have been stigmatized by his circumstances and likely never had much formal education and would have toiled away in manual labor all his life. His marriage prospects would have been zero. His trajectory is largely dependent on my socioeconomic status, though I am a child of an immigrant and was raised lower middle-class.

"I think we all want some fairness, but most of us are not willing to sacrifice our own advantage to achieve it. And parents will not give up that advantage for their children for the sake of some stranger. So we all fight for what is our right, thinking we deserve it or earned it. But life is simply NOT fair. It is not fair that blacks born in America have an advantage over blacks born in the Congo, but no American black would give up their opportunities or possessions for the benefit of a person from the DRC.

"To borrow: meritocracy is the worst form of status system except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

"It would be great if we really DID have a meritocracy, but like capitalism and democracy, we have a very polluted form of it. We still have institutions that favor lineage over ability. But one of the worst solutions is to apply racial quotas for college. Foremost, it is too far downstream. Minority kids are already so far behind the curve by the time that college rolls around that it often sets them up for failure. If we wanted to really do some good we would fix the disastrous culture within which they live so that they have the opportunity to display the merit necessary to earn their way to college. But the profitability of the current system is just too lucrative for the grifters to allow that to happen."

Ann Althouse said...

Richard writes:

"You say that this sentence (attributed to Harvard President Chauncey in the bad, pre-progressive times) captures an idea that is “provocative” and “experienced as offensive and depressing” but isn’t heard often today: “'If ability has any relation to success in life parents in upper socioeconomic groups should have more ability than those in lower socioeconomic groups.'" While I don’t know in what sense Chauncey meant it, I take that ‘should have’ as predictive, not some Rawlsian ‘just deserts’ or ‘natural aristocracy’ thing. But it clearly does suggest a sorting process that will create distinct subgroups in the population, but will also result in lots of intergenerational moves within and between those subgroups (putting paid to that aristocracy idea).

"The notion that ‘ability’ might have no relation to ‘success in life’ – or that anyone would seriously advance that proposition as a generality – is utterly nuts. Basketball is one of the usual examples, but the point applies generally. Charles Murray, among others, has been writing about the social realities in America, describing the sharp separation into which the population has divided, along lines of education, intelligence (IQ, narrow as it may be), personal responsibility, financial success, family stability and other metrics – his version of intersectionality, reinforced by intermarriage -- for decades. His recent books, Coming Apart, Human Diversity and the latest, Facing Reality, are all about that. It’s certainly true that some (relatively few out of 200 million adults) manage to succeed based on connections or family rather than ability (Hunter Biden comes to mind, and he’s hardly alone), but that’s the exception proving the general rule. If you don’t like the basketball example, just take Nicholas Lemann – son of a stable, Jewish family in New Orleans; private school then Harvard; successful author; and now dean at Columbia School of Journalism. He is the living embodiment of ‘success’ as well as everything Murray was writing about. And you just know that, when it comes to his own kids, he fully expects and ardently believes that ‘ability’ and willingness to work in developing it will bring whatever ‘success’ they are trying to achieve, to say nothing of a life-partner appropriate to all that implies, notwithstanding his bien-pensant hand-wringing about Chauncey’s antediluvian attitudes. If Lemann lived in suburban Dallas, I doubt very much that he would be accepting the BLM challenge to promise not to permit his own kids to attend a top-50 college or university."


Ann Althouse said...

Richard continues:

"By the same token, it’s a truism that ‘parents in upper socioeconomic groups’ typically do have more ‘ability’ in the skills that generate ‘success’ conventionally defined than those in lower groups – ability meaning both native talent and the personality/character to develop and use their talents productively. That’s not to suggest that luck, in the sense of being in the right place at the right time, isn’t also a factor. And there are plenty of people with both talent and character who, by reason of the circumstance in which they find themselves, can’t achieve ‘success’. Yes, life is unfair that way, just as it is unfair in how every kind of talent and ability (disability) is unevenly distributed (in a distribution impacted by many factors that we dearly wish it weren’t). But among the group that does achieve ‘success,’ again conventionally defined, you find that both the talent and character conducive to ‘success’, in that conventional sense, are abundant. Nothing requires anyone to subscribe to or seek ‘success’ as conventionally defined; and all are free, if they wish, to take a different path – go find your own Walden Pond if that’s what floats your boat.

"Much more provocative, offensive and depressing than Chauncey’s observation is the fact that so many insist on not seeing what’s staring them in the face, or pretending that reality can be wished away. Not going to happen, no matter how hard you may wish or how earnestly some bureaucrat may try to mandate it away."

Ann Althouse said...

Jonathan writes:

“ I very much agree with Temujin here. I will add my two cents.

“This article slides from talking about IQ scores to mentioning "ability," which seem to me a very different thing. Ability takes all forms, and IQ is not necessarily closely tied to many of those forms. Ability is vastly more substantially shaped by training and education than by IQ, I believe. As I see it, the issue now is what our society is doing to tap into and develop the abilities, the talents, we have, both at the top of the social pyramid and at all the other levels. I think this is a far more serious matter than the issue of whether the children at the top in a meritocracy have an IQ advantage over others and a leg up on getting into prestige colleges. Yes, those elite kids may have higher IQs on average and advantages of luck as well as intelligence. But the abilities they develop over time depend on the attitudes and values of their parents, not their wealth, as well as the training their kids get for themselves from the society's institutions of education and training.

“Joel Kotkin has an article at The American Mind titled "The End of Merit," which seems at odds with the obsessions as to how IQ is distributed. Kotkin cites numbers showing that 5 percent of American college students major in engineering, compared with 33 percent in China. He says that in 2016, China graduated 4.7 million STEM students versus 568,000 in the United States, with six times as many students with engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees. Meanwhile, we have a VERY poorly performing (already) school system wallowing now in a new kind of racial obsession and guilt manufacturing. We are adding new mandates (Ethnic Studies frameworks) for what is euphemistically called "culturally responsive" teaching (hectoring), and meanwhile on the level of STEM subjects as well as with respect to skilled work training programs both we seem blithely indifferent.”