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Meritocracy, Jews, and the Liberal Arts

Regulars on this site have probably already read Ron Unz’s provocative analysis [1] of  admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. If you haven’t, you should. Drawing on an apparently unprecedented array of data, Unz argues that these policies amount to a de facto quota for students of Asian origin. At the same time, they tend to inflate the number of less accomplished Jewish students.

Unz’s piece is welcome for a number of reasons. First, it’s another blow to the myth of meritocracy, which I’ve discussed in a review [2] of Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites. Americans like to believe that scarce goods like Harvard degrees (and the glamorous careers to which they can lead) are generally earned by the most capable and hard-working among us. Unz contributes to the mounting pile of evidence that’s not simply true. Second, Unz effectively reframes the debate about  affirmative action. As Dan McCarthy points out [3], the problem in elite universities is not controversial but relatively public preferences for blacks and Hispanics. It’s that “[a]lmost everyone is getting affirmative action or other unearned advantages of one kind of another, but only some minorities have been marked out as, in effect, charity cases.” Finally, Unz deserves credit for breaking the taboo surrounding Jews’ vastly disproportionate presence in the upper reaches of American higher education. If we’re going to talk about what fairness requires the student bodies of these institutions to look like–and the Supreme Court has just engaged in such a discussion [4]–this fact cannot be left off the table.

Nevertheless, I find several of Unz’s conclusions unconvincing. I’ll leave entirely aside statistical issues on which I am unqualified to pronounce (I scored only 580 on the math SAT, and was not what Unz calls a “quality” applicant). And I’ll merely echo Tyler Cowen’s discomfort [5] with Unz’s methods of counting members of various ethnic and religious groups, which include inferring their backgrounds from their names. The problem is not only that these methods resemble the Jew-hunting of classical anti-Semitism. It’s that they ignores the complexity of origins and identity in a society characterized by intermarriage among religious and ethnic groups.

Instead of dwelling on these concerns, however, I want to challenge Unz’s finding of a “collapse in Jewish academic achievement” in the last decade or so. This surprising conclusion is based on three trends: the declining number of (apparently) Jewish winners in math competitions including the U.S. Math Olympiad and Putnam Exam; the declining number of (apparently) Jewish winners in various science competitions; and the declining number of (apparently) Jewish National Merit semifinalists.

Of these measures of academic achievement, only the last involves any major verbal component, which is nevertheless weighted against math scores on a 2:1 basis. Achievement in “productive” verbal pursuits, namely writing, and substantive knowledge of history, foreign languages, and literature, are not measured at all. As such, Unz presents strong evidence of a collapse of (apparently) Jewish accomplishment in achievement in math and science. He presents only weak evidence of a “collapse” of Jewish accomplishment in other academic areas.

This is important because Unz argues that Jews are disproportionately represented at elite universities not only relative to the population as a whole, but also relative to the national cohort of high-achieving students. The cohort of high achievers as Unz defines it, however, is significantly biased toward students who excel in mathematics, hard sciences, and engineering.

These subjects are only part of the picture. A more plausible account of academic accomplishment would consider the humanities and liberal arts. The standards for achievement in these areas are more subjective than success on math exams. But Unz could have considered the results of national competitions in more humanistic pursuits, such as debate, student journalism, and so on. He could also have looked at achievement on AP and SATII exams, which are offered in a number of humanities subjects and languages.

The narrowness of Unz’s definition of academic achievement is connected to a broader defect of the piece. In addition to neglecting students’ ability in the liberal arts, Unz does not consider the liberal arts’ contribution to the university as whole. Unz’s model of meritocracy is Caltech. Not coincidentally, Caltech is an engineering school, which has only a vestigial presence in the humanities and liberal arts. Caltech is a wonderful institution. But would Harvard be more “meritocratic” if its student body and course offerings were more like Caltech’s? Would it be a better university? I doubt it, and not only for reasons of self-esteem.

change_me

The differing missions of tech schools and the Ivy League universities could also help clarify one of the underlying uncertainties in Unz’s analysis. Since he doesn’t have access to data about who applies to various universities, he assumes that their numbers are roughly proportionate to the national cohort of high-achievers. This leads to the conclusion that Jews are overrepresented.

But what if Jews are disproportionately likely to apply to Ivy League universities? In other words, what if their representation on those campuses is reflective of their representation in the application pool? On the other hand, qualified Asian students may be more likely to apply to technical schools than to Yale. That could explain their relative underrepresentation at the latter.

Unz dismisses this possibility, asking: “Why would high-ability non-Jews be 600 percent or 800 percent more likely to apply to Caltech and MIT than to those other elite schools, which tend to have a far higher national profile?” The answer may be precisely that  Caltech and MIT  focus on math and science, in which Asian students achieve the very success that Unz documents.

This kind of self-selection could also be self-reinforcing. More high-achieving Asians might apply to Caltech or MIT to pursue their interests and abilities–or to satisfy their parents. As a result, more Asians would be admitted, giving these schools a reputation for friendliness to Asian students, encouraging yet more applications.

A complicating factor in college admissions is that applications are driven as much by reputation and rumor as by rational evaluation of students’ chances for admission and success. That’s one reason colleges are fanatical about producing brochures including photographs of students from every possible ethnic group: they’re trying desperately to counteract the false assumption, for example, that there are “no blacks” at Yale.

I don’t know if any of the possibilities I’ve mentioned are true. In combination with the narrowness of Unz’s definition of academic achievement, however, they suggest that there’s a lot more evidence to be sifted and thinking to be done before we can hope to understand why some students rather than others are invited through the gates of Harvard Yard.

We also should not assume that current trends will continue forever. Based on anecdotal evidence, it appears that many Jewish students have shifted their interest from quantitative pursuits, in which they excelled in the recent past, to humanities subjects, which were once dominated by WASPs. If they are really the “new Jews,” Asians may do the same over time. That could create room for students of different backgrounds to make their mark in math and science.

Yet Unz is not entirely at fault for the thinness of his evidence and the ambiguity of his conclusions. The bulk of the blame goes to the gatekeepers themselves, who wield enormous influence but resist almost every attempt to open their decisions to public scrutiny.

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#1 Comment By Brad DeLong On November 29, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

Ummm… Ron has written an article that could be subtitled “The Protocols of the Provosts of Zion”. That is not a good game for him, or anyone, to play…

#2 Comment By Rob in CT On November 29, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

Brad, your knee has jerked. I suggest reading Unz’s article again, calmly, without jumping to that conclusion.

#3 Comment By soren On November 29, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

I agree with your criticism of the piece’s narrow focus of academic achievement away from the “Liberal Arts”, but I don’t think this criticism can really account for two things described in the piece.

1. There seems to be a quota for Asians.
2. Asians who are displacing Jews in the hard sciences apparently are not displacing them in the Ivies as a total.

I think it’s ridiculously naive to believe that this can be explained by a greater Jewish focus on the humanities. But someone should maybe study this

“And I’ll merely echo Tyler Cowen’s discomfort with Unz’s methods of counting members of various ethnic and religious groups, which include inferring their backgrounds from their names. The problem is not only that these methods resemble the Jew-hunting of classical anti-Semitism.”

Yeah it’s kind of creepy but at the same time if Jews are going to be counted along side whites in the affirmative-action marry-go round then it needs to be done. Let’s pretend that Jews really do outperform white gentiles to this extent… if so, arguing for affirmative action while also arguing to be put in the white category would be an effective way to keep Jewish numbers up relative to both Asians and non-Jewish whites.

It is absolutely aggravating to read op-ed like this:
bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-26/-diversity-isn-t-colleges-need-affirmative-action.html
from someone with such a privileged background yet benefits by being lumped with people(you know, the Appalachian coal miner’s daughter) he has nothing in common with:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Feldman

I honestly don’t see any good explanation for why Harvard is 16% Asian and 26% Jewish. And let’s pretend Asians don’t focus on the humanities(which goes along with the belief they’re all the same and have no leadership skills)… if they were to start focusing on the humanities would their numbers stay at ~16% like they have been over the past 15 years or so?

“Ummm… Ron has written an article that could be subtitled “The Protocols of the Provosts of Zion”. That is not a good game for him, or anyone, to play…”

Brad, you’re the one libeling here.

#4 Comment By libertarian jerry On November 29, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

By pigeonholing people into groups we fall directly into the trap set up by Cultural Marxist Elitists. That is instead of judging people as individuals we should judge people by what Class,Race,Sex or Religion they are a member of first and not on their uniqueness as individuals. In the end,in that situation,we have a divided nation that can easily be controlled by these same elitists by pitting one group against another. You would think that in the 3rd Century of the American Republic that all stereotyping of individuals such as “Jews,” “Blacks,” “Hispanics,” “Asians,” “Male or Female,” or whatever designation would be put behind us. That people should be judged on individual merit and that alone. Not on what something as vague as what “society” supposedly says about groups. Whether its colleges or sports or being hired for a job or any activity that requires set,specific skills people should be judged on their abilities not on what some politically correct scenario should deem “social justice.”

#5 Comment By KXB On November 29, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

“But what if Jews are disproportionately likely to apply to Ivy League universities? In other words, what if their representation on those campuses is reflective of their representation in the application pool? ”

Even if Jews are more likely to apply to Ivies than non-Jewish whites, what are their absolute numbers in the applicant pool? Do they make up 25% of applicants? Given that Jews are fewer than 6% of the general population, and not all of them are college-bound students at the time, that would seem to make their presence in such numbers even more of a puzzle.

“The answer may be precisely that Caltech and MIT focus on math and science, in which Asian students achieve the very success that Unz documents.”

Increasingly, South Asians seem to be on equal footing with their Jewish counterparts in verbal and writing ability. This is increasingly reflected even in elite media circles – Fareed Zakaira, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponuru, Bobby Ghosh (Time). In the legal field, Preet Bhara is the US attorney for NY and half-Indian Kamala Harris is CA attorney general. If Jews continue to have a large number of Ivy students in social sciences and humanities, it is no longer due to lack of Asian competition.

#6 Comment By David Ryan On November 29, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

My name is David Ryan. What is my race? What is my religion?

#7 Pingback By TAC Digest: November 29 | The American Conservative On November 29, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

[…] practices of Ivy League universities continued to attract attention. Samuel Goldman was unconvinced by Unz’s conclusions: The narrowness of Unz’s definition of academic achievement is connected to a broader defect of […]

#8 Comment By pjsmoov On November 29, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

“Ummm… Ron has written an article that could be subtitled “The Protocols of the Provosts of Zion”.

This comment is simply vile and irresponsible. Goldman provides a proper critique but Brad can’t be arsed.

#9 Comment By thats all u got ? On November 30, 2012 @ 12:36 am

Jews r over represented at HYP because Asians and Gentiles dont apply ?

thats ur rebuttal ?

#10 Pingback By TAC Digest: November 29 | Tony Johnson On November 30, 2012 @ 4:12 am

[…] practices of Ivy League universities continued to attract attention. Samuel Goldman was unconvinced by Unz’s conclusions: The narrowness of Unz’s definition of academic achievement is connected to a broader defect of […]

#11 Comment By jack ryan On November 30, 2012 @ 10:37 am

SAMUEL GOLDMAN

Samuel Goldman certainly makes a good point when he asks:

“what if Jews are disproportionately likely to apply to Ivy League universities?”

Ivy League Schools with the exception of Dartmouth have the reputation of being “Liberal/Left NorthEast Universities”. For any somewhat “conservative” families, high school students in Red States, the thought of being stuck in a PC Liberal/Left Ivy League school like Brown, Penn or Yale isn’t a fun prospect. But, for Jewish applicants, Liberal/Left NorthEast sounds like home.

As recent polling information from the Presidential campaign shows, American Jews are still voting 75%-80% for Liberal Democrat Presidential candidates. In contrast, virtually every White Gentile group of voters voted over 55% for Romney.

I graduated from a prestigious private school in Chicago where the tradition was to apply to the best private Universities in the United States – the tradition being the Liberal Ivy League schools were “the best”.

I just didn’t want to be stuck with Leftist/Liberals or with women who looked like Elena Kagan and had politics like Elena Kagan.

I went to college at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, my brother went to Duke in North Carolina. I am glad I made this choice.

#12 Comment By TomB On November 30, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

What I find rather funny is that when it comes to employment discrimination there’s an incredible importance placed on mere statistical disparities. E.g., comparing the racial/ethnic/gender/etc. proportion of the general population from which employees are drawn to their proportion in that workforce.

Indeed if I’m not mistaken a large lack of correlation can even be considered prima facie evidence of wrongful favoritism being shown by employers that’s very very difficult if not impossible to refute.

And the importance of using such statistical disparity evaluation comes largely I think from the Academy.

But now, when it comes to the Academy *itself*—you know, the institution that might be thought of as more important even than employment given it so largely determines what employment one gets—the Academy positively screams.

“No no no! You can’t infer for a *second* that *our* hiring or admissions plays racial/ethnic/gender/etc. favorites from the (gross) statistical disparities *we* have in our professorships or student bodies!

You can’t *possibly* apply the same standards to us that we so enthusiastically and with such thunderous moral and intellectual certitude insist be applied to everyone else!”

#13 Pingback By TAC Digest: November 30 | Tony Johnson On December 1, 2012 @ 4:32 am

[…] policies also created a flutter. Samuel Goldman and Dan McCarthy reacted to Unz’s piece here and here. Noah Millman contemplated Leo Tolstoy, Scott Galupo reflected on the tragedy of […]

#14 Pingback By SATURDAY GOD & CAESAR EDITION | Big Pulpit On December 1, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

[…] Meritocracy, Jews, and the Liberal Arts – Samuel Goldman, The American Conservative […]

#15 Comment By Andrew On December 1, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

[6] Asians are not on a quota. They are not displacing Jews ever. White ethnics are at stake. Other minorities are on the rise during the ‘Asian Century’. As someone who has only grown up amongst predominantly white neighborhoods – really amongst – Jews are never in trouble and regardless of affirmative action’s plight minorities are pretty safe. Truth in the Northeast is that white ethnics often pass up the opportunity at Ivies (fit, rigor) when they are often more qualified than many Asians.

#16 Comment By FrankieB On December 10, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

I think the Left is playing with dynamite.

So long as the debate on affirmative action was kept off the front page, the political and financial beneficiaries — mostly left-wing WASPs, left-wing Jews, and left-wing blacks — were not targeted politically. But now that the SCOTUS is going to decide next year on a major case, liberals have alot to worry about.

If whites can be discriminated against — working class Jews, white ethnic Catholics, white Southerners — what’s to stop the political debate from asking if there aren’t too many liberal WASPs or Jews in the faculties and/or student body at Ivy League schools? Or in the teaching profession generall ? Or commercial real estate ? Or Hollywood ? Or Wall Street ? Or the media ?

See where I’m going with this ?

The advocates of ‘diversity’ had better be careful. The next debate is going to focus on why groups that are less than 1% and 5% of the population comprise 30-90% of those high-income, high-profile, communications-oriented professions.

#17 Comment By Lynn On December 20, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

The points raided here do not go to the heart of Unz’s article: that the number of Jewish Americans as a percentage of the student body at the Ivies has increased dramatically over the past 15 years. This is not disputed and is based on apples to apples measurements using Hillel data over time.
The next question addressed is why? Given this fact, the admissions process should be challenged – is this based on reasonable differences between populations or does it represent bias?
Each of the possible explanations discussed above go to assessing whether there are rational objective reasons for the increasing disparity.
Are Jewish students increasing as a percent of high school students? No.
Are Jewish students just becoming suddenly that much smarter relative to not only all other high school students but also much smarter than Jewish students in prior years?The data suggests the opposite (although using last name data that is not complete, but the best available). So, no evidence of this absent better (not anecdotal) data.
Are Jewish students just applying in greater numbers than everyone else? This might matter if a lottery was used to select students, but the very nature of subjective evaluation means that applicant number distortions can be easily overcome given the huge number of applications and very small admit percentages. The schools already are very good at identifying and sorting for other ethnicities. In any event, the total Jewish student population is just too small for this to be a defining factor.
Are Jewish students just better at packaging themselves in a way that favors their admission? If so, this is an admission of bias, not a justification of it.
Are colleges shifting away from math/science toward humanities that favor Jewish students talents relative to all other high school ethnicities? This is a subset of the Jewish kids are getting relatively smarter argument, and needs to validate both the use of these factors as the proper definition of merit, and data showing that in fact Jewish students are “better” applying these factors. Again, the burden should be on those justifying using factors that result in such huge disparities in admissions.

#18 Pingback By The Squish Factor in College Admissions | The American Conservative On January 16, 2013 @ 11:10 am

[…] the publication of Ron Unz’s blockbuster critique of admissions process at Harvard. I’m convinced by Unz’s argument that Harvard’s standards are not strictly meritocratic, and […]

#19 Pingback By The Squish Factor in College Admissions | Tony Johnson On January 16, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

[…] the publication of Ron Unz’s blockbuster critique of admissions process at Harvard. I’m convinced by Unz’s argument that Harvard’s standards are not strictly meritocratic, and […]

#20 Pingback By Asian-Americans, Jews and Ivy League admissions « Phil Ebersole's Blog On February 16, 2013 @ 7:23 am

[…] rebuttal, click on Meritocracy, Jews and the Liberal Arts by Samuel […]