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Meritocracy: The College Admissions Season

The season of college admissions is now upon us, weeks of envelopes fat and thin. With so many teenagers now discovering their future life-prospects as dealt out by our academic gatekeepers, discussions of the selection process are appearing in our media, and some of these include reference to my own Meritocracy article of almost five months ago, […]

The season of college admissions is now upon us, weeks of envelopes fat and thin.

With so many teenagers now discovering their future life-prospects as dealt out by our academic gatekeepers, discussions of the selection process are appearing in our media, and some of these include reference to my own Meritocracy article of almost five months ago, focusing on the same topic.

For example, the Sunday New York Times carried an interesting discussion by columnist Ross Douthat on the Ivies and their role in producing our national elites, which included linked references to my main Meritocracy article as well as my short piece for the NYT Forum on Asian discrimination.

Given that the reach of the electronic media so greatly exceeds the number of people who ever bother reading anything, I was even more pleased to see that Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday CNN television show ran a segment on college admissions, heavily drawing upon the findings of my article; his Time magazine column covered the same topic.  One minor point of confusion was his suggestion that I had ignored the substantial number of Asian students whose fear of racial discrimination causes them to conceal their personal background and are therefore lumped into the “Race Unknown” category.  In fact, I had discussed this and similar possibilities in detail, and provided all the related data.

Assuming that the racial and ethnic distribution of Ivy League admissions this year is roughly in line with the recent past, I would hope that activists and the media finally begin exerting serious pressure on our elite schools to provide their admissions rates broken down by race.  All the campuses of the University of California system freely post such data on the Internet, and I cannot think of any non-sinister reason for the Ivy League to make such strenuous efforts to keep such numbers secret.  My strong suspicion is that release of those ethnic percentages and their historical trajectory would produce such an uproar that the front pages of every major newspaper in America might devote many weeks to the reverberations and recriminations, with senior university administrators replacing certain Catholic archbishops as the leading villains in a decades-long cover-up of truly massive proportions.

Perhaps any aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins with friends working in Ivy League admissions offices should give some thought to just how nice a Pulitzer Prize or two might look upon their mantle.


On an entirely different matter, Prof. Kevin MacDonald has published an article analyzing differences in European and non-European marriage patterns, which included a lengthy discussion of my own recent China article.  He singled out China’s system of polygamy—in sharp contrast to European monogamy—as playing a central role in shaping the characteristics of the Chinese people over the last two thousand years.  However, I think his analysis is largely incorrect.

One problem in attempting to draw insight from the great literary works of a culture, as MacDonald does, is that these overwhelmingly focus on the lives of the topmost elites rather than the ordinary multitudes of the population.  For similar reasons, the tremendous importance of the traditional Chinese examination system in selecting China’s ruling meritocracy has led to widespread suggestions that this testing system played a major role in shaping the characteristics of the modern Chinese people and their high academic ability.  But both these possibilities seem very unlikely.

Although successful exam-takers received considerable social prestige in Old China, the major practical benefit they enjoyed was the possibility of an official appointment to the Mandarinate, which might provide them with huge opportunities to accrue wealth and power.  But the total number of such Chinese officials was utterly negligible, numbering just one in 20,000 Chinese during the nineteenth century, or a mere 0.005% of the total citizenry.  The overall characteristics of the population are unlikely to shift when even huge benefits are provided to such a negligible number of individuals.

Although the impact of polygamy would not be quite as insignificant, I think it would still be far too small to make a difference.  I’m not aware of any reliable quantitative estimates of the percentage of adult males who managed to obtain multiple wives or concubines in traditional China, but based on the detailed accounts I have read of particular villages and sociological overviews, the figure would seem very small, probably less than one percent of adult men.  Hence just a tiny fraction of women would have been absorbed by polygamy, with no significant impact upon the marriage prospects of the male population as a whole.

Instead, the overriding factor in preventing many men of each generation from obtaining wives was the widespread practice of female infanticide among the poorer classes, which experts estimate regularly produced a shortfall in the adult female population as high as 15% per generation.  Almost all the landlords of a village were just as monogamous as their poorer neighbors, with their wealth and land being far too insignificant to support an extra family on the side.  The missing wives of unhappy bachelors were not locked away in the harems of the rich, but had mostly been drowned at birth by the impoverished families of the previous generation.

Thus, I think the major demographic force upon Chinese society was the drain at the bottom rather than the overflow at the top.  The poorest portion of each male generation was unable to marry at all, and even those who did often suffered the ill effects of high infant mortality, both intentional and unintentional, as well as malnutrition and the ravages of periodic famines.  The bottom economic half of each generation probably produced just a small slice of the next one, and this economic winnowing was certainly a far more significant shaping force than the tiny handful of landlords who were so exceptionally wealthy that they could afford several wives and numerous children.

Admittedly, the major published works of traditional China would focus on the bitter intrigues of rival wives or the outstanding scholarly achievements of great scholars; but this had nothing to do with 99% of the Chinese people.  Similarly, the contemporaneous literature of Europe might focus on leading armies in battle, fighting knightly duels, or composing sonnets at Court, activities all totally alien to the lives of ordinary peasants, who constituted nearly the entire population.


Finally, I was quite astonished at the enormous response I received to my brief and casual discussion of the “Mickey Mouse” origins of America’s copyright law, with my column quickly reaching the top of the recent TAC readership charts and being Tweeted out to hundreds of thousands of individuals.  Sometimes I invest enormous time and research effort in a piece and relatively few people seem to find it interesting, and sometimes just the opposite.  Which just goes to show that our world remains highly unpredictable.



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