When I was getting my undergraduate degree at KSU back in the late 80s, I had a few friends from neighboring Manhattan Christian College. The running joke, many decades old even at that time I’m sure, was that many female students on their campus seemed a little less interested in getting an education than finding a husband. We called it the “MRS. Degree.” The comment carried a not so subtle condescension toward those young women who held to a more traditional role for women… not an original way to be mean, but there it is. I sort of thought that kind of thing was over.
When Susan Patton, a ’77 Princeton graduate, wrote an ironic letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian urging all of the co-eds to get their MRS. degree she knew exactly what kind of flap it would cause. I’ve read it three times and honestly can’t decide if she was serious or not. Ross Douthat wrote a very interesting opinion about the article in Sunday’s New York Times, saying that he thinks that what Patton meant (which is exactly what we used to mean back in The Little Apple), is not actually what the Ivy League-rs are upset about. Douthat says that the Patton’s letter was a scathing attempt at exposing the Ivy League’s strangle hold on power that comes through, well, breeding. Douthat wrote:
“Her 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.”
The elite ruling class seeks, as it has always done, to perpetuate its kind. What Douthat gets wrong in my opinion, is that he calls American culture a meritocracy. The chief revelation of Patton’s article, if Douthat’s take is correct, is that the illusion of American meritocracy is exposed for what it really is: Plutocracy. Money rules.
That college might double as a dating service is nothing new. That Ivy League schools tailor their admissions toward the rich and powerful (as opposed to the smart and qualified), has to sort of make you wonder why? Douthat says the reason is so that the people running the world can continue running the world. He writes:
The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?
So, at this point I’m feeling really bad. Although not for my straight A’s wife, who never even sniffed a B until she had an official post-graduation job offer (…which she accepted before she even started her senior year). She did not marry her intellectual equal. Nevertheless that’s not what I’m feeling bad about. It’s my children and their inevitable regression to the mean; already doomed to middle management. Douthat again:
That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!
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.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. …
Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body “diversity” that’s mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don’t need to be told — that’s how the system already works! The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.
But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.
I don’t always agree with Douthat, and I’m not sure he’s interpreting Patton correctly, but I think he might be interpreting at least some of the response correctly.