In a recent article (An Hereditary Meritocracy), the Economist magazine argues that a new class of intellectual aristocracy is taking over the United States of America. The article suggests that intellectual elites are more likely to pair up (i.e. find a mate) based on common values such as university education and drive, creating favourable learning environments for children, which in turn is bolsters the chances of such children gaining access to the US’ best educational institutions and in particular the Ivy league.
The article also cites that scores achieved on standardized aptitude tests (SATs) are positively correlated to parental incomes, which is argued to exacerbate the intellectual elites’ ability to cling to power.
Although I have no reason to doubt the strong positive association between parental incomes and SAT scores, the Economist magazine sidesteps the fundamental explanatory factor which is perpetuating the success of the intellectual elites: intelligence or IQ.
As I have argued in several previous postings, IQ does not guarantee success. However, higher IQ, on average, is positively associated with academic success, which in turn is associated with the ability to enter better rated universities, which in turn is associated with better job prospects for graduates, and yes – you’ve guessed it, higher parental incomes. In other words, intelligence (which is a form of natural ability), paired with hard work, remains the best predictor of success, and is at the heart of the success of the intellectual elites, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
As the Economist magazine correctly points out, between 1960 and 2005, the share of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees has nearly doubled from 25% to 48%. This is of course largely explained by the emancipation of women since the second World War, and the fact that the representation of women in higher education (c.60% of university graduates in the US are women) has made it easier for smarter men to pair up with smarter women. (One must recall that the average IQ of university students is c.110 points vs 100 for the population as a whole).
But again, all the evidence points towards first and foremost, intelligence, and perhaps in a distant second position, environment as the root cause of the success of the American intellectual elites. But unlike the Economist, I de-emphasize the importance of environment. As reported upon here a number of recent robust studies have definitively shown that IQ is largely genetic and that learning environment plays relatively little part in the determination of intelligence over one’s lifetime and therefore success. In other words, heritability is likely to play a larger role than say the price tag on the kindergarten or school that you decide to send your child to. Even Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD’s education team, admits in an article published in the Economist, that investment in early years schooling does not necessarily translates into learning gains.
The unfortunate reality is that IQ, and not educational environment, is the root cause of the growth (and what is likely to be the persistence) of intellectual elites. Sadly, blaming parental incomes, or poor nurseries, or educational funding arrangements is, as a strategy, more likely to win votes as opposed to throwing in the white towel to genetics. (Rather than electioneering and scapegoating, surely the sensible strategy would be to standardize nursery educational provision based on ‘best in class’ practices and empirical data?). But if a magazine such as the Economist is unable (or unwilling?) to discuss matters in full, and instead insistent on reinforcing populist wives tales about the root of inequality, then public funds will continue to be mis-allocated and the witch hunt will continue while the intellectual elites consolidate gains in the upper echelons of our societies.
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