The meritocracy is rigged

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In the last couple of days, several friends have sent me this explosive piece at The American Conservative, which argues that the famed Jewish excellence on standardized college-admissions tests “suddenly collapsed” in the last ten years but that Jews continue to get about 1/4 of places at Ivy League schools through a form of “ethnic discrimination.”

Written by Ron Unz, a Jewish graduate of Harvard, the article deals with a delicate but important issue I have repeatedly brought up here, the outsize Jewish presence in what Unz calls “America’s ruling elites.” Unz is saying that Jews have rigged the system much as WASPs did in an earlier generation, and his appeal for greater fairness recalls E. Digby Baltzell’s work in the 1960s calling on the “Protestant establishment” to make way for talented Jews. For my part, I have written about the ways that Jewish kinship networks helped my career in journalism; and I have wondered if ethnic favoritism was not a factor in some elite appointments, from Council on Foreign Relations experts to the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. 

In “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” Unz, The American Conservative publisher, says he was shocked to discover the downward trend in Jewish performance on tests.  But he deplores what he calls the preference shown to young Jews by Ivy League administrations which, he reasons, are comfortable seeking out their own ethnic type because these administrations contain large numbers of Jews and because of a tradition of fighting quotas on Jewish entrance. 

Here’s a summary of his argument:

Ivy League schools are the “funnel” for creating our ruling elites, and there is more and more competition for places in these schools. In the 1980s, the numbers of Asian-Americans doing well on standardized tests soared with the result that Ivy League schools began accepting more and more of them. But then in the mid-1990s, Asian admissions hit a fixed ceiling of about 16 percent of Ivy places. Unz says that this ceiling came into being even as the raw number of young Asian-Americans in our society was doubling. He believes that a “de facto ethnic quota system,” similar to the “longstanding” quotas established against soaring Jewish admissions in the Ivy League in the 1920s, was established for Asian-American admissions. (In the case of American Jews, those quotas were ultimately rolled back, Unz says, in large part because of the American Jewish presence in the media, where this violation of the alleged meritocracy was repeatedly assailed. “By contrast, Asian-Americans today neither own nor control even a single significant media outlet”; and have never made a public issue of the de facto quota.)

As for Jewish performance on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement, Unz has collected evidence that in the last ten years the celebrated tradition of Jewish intellectual performance has collapsed. “From my own perspective, I found these statistical results surprising, even shocking.” He cites the pool of National Merit Scholar semifinalists–  a group of “America’s highest-ability 16,000 graduating seniors; of these, fewer than 1000 are Jewish,” or less than 6 percent of the total. Unz’s methods are admittedly inexact, based on last names, but he says the figure was over 8 percent 25 years ago.

“This consistent picture of stark ethnic decline recurs” in several high school talent competitions he cites: Putnam Exam winners, the Science Talent Search, and the US Math Olympiad.  In that last case, top scoring students averaged over 40 percent Jewish in the 1970s, then 33 percent in the 80s and 90s. “However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish,” he writes.

Unz attributes the Jewish decline to the loss of our outsider status in US society. “[A]chievement is a function of both ability and effort, and today’s overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience,” he says.

But the result is a bizarre one: “[O]ver the last decade or two, meritocracy and Jewish numbers have become opposing forces: the stricter the meritocratic standard, the fewer the Jews admitted.” This decline is reflected at Cal Tech, which accepts students purely on the basis of standardized scores– and where only 5.5 percent of undergrads are Jewish, and 39 percent are Asian-American. “It is intriguing that the school which admits students based on the strictest, most objective academic standards has by a very wide margin the lowest Jewish enrollment for any elite university.”

By contrast, the student bodies at Harvard, Yale and Columbia are all about 25 percent Jewish — a higher Jewish enrollment than the numbers of non-Jewish whites.  

Unz ascribes the unfair numbers to Jewish presence inside university administrations. “It would be unreasonable to ignore the salient fact that this massive apparent bias in favor of far less-qualified Jewish applicants coincides with an equally massive ethnic skew at the topmost administrative ranks of the universities in question,” he writes. Another “unconscious bias,” he writes is college admissions’ officers’ fears of charges of anti-Semitic discrimination in rejecting Jewish applicants.

I do not share Unz’s general criticism of colleges’ search for greater diversity in enrollment, or his concern about Asian-American and white student populations. We live in a multicultural, postracial era; and affirmative action has always seemed to me the fair price of getting our society to overcome traditional forms of discrimination. Jews don’t fit that category, but these pumped-up Ivy numbers suggest that our society would be better off with random selection, as Unz quips.

He writes, “Over the last few decades America’s ruling elites have been produced largely as a consequence of the particular selection methods adopted by our top national universities in the late 1960s. Leaving aside the question of whether these methods have been fair or have instead been based on corruption and ethnic favoritism, the elites they have produced have clearly done a very poor job of leading our country, and we must change the methods used to select them.” 

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