Ross Douthat: Ivy League culture perpetuates social inequality

Twitter users on both Left and Right hailed New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s column today:

Douthat’s argument is that Ivy League schools such as Princeton University are mainly about establishing and perpetuating social connections among elite Americans:

SUSAN PATTON, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

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 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”?

As @ExJon notes, New York Times readers (many of whom presumably attended elite colleges) didn’t think much of Douthat’s argument:

These commenters have very high opinions of their own intellectual abilities, but are they as smart as they think?



@ExJon catalogues more comments from snotty NY Times readers:

  • Harlan Hikaru Fox

    No surprise there. It’s just funny that it’s getting a positive reaction from both sides for very different reasons. The Lefties see “Ivy League” as a synonym for “White”, even though the VAST majority of people who attend and come out of those schools end up on the Far, FAR Left. The Right has always known and said aloud that Ivy League schools are just “finishing schools” for the elites to establish connections and lock everyone else out of the loop. The willful cognitive dissonance of the Left is disheartening.

  • V the K

    Has it occurred to anyone that the sub-prime bubble, the resulting crash, and the deficit exploding bailout that followed… were all contrived by Ivy-League graduates?

  • John (it true me am)

    I take exception to the article’s use of the word Meritocracy. The system is anything but. Meritocracy implies actual merit, but the Ivy league system is little more than nepotism, the antithesis of true meritocracy.

    Anyway, aside from that it mirrors my own feelings about the elitist insanity of the letter that sparked the article.

    Ivy leaguers by and large, with exceptions of course, are often some of the outright stupidest people I know, prone to lack of common sense or any awareness of their own shortcomings. Told they are the best and brightest, even when life proves the contrary they still refuse to admit it.
    These were the laboratories of our modern feel-good “you’re special” humanist bullshit we have to thank for much of the downfall of our society, make no mistake.
    Yet meanwhile, who is it that is running our banking system into the ground? Losing millions and billions of other peoples’ money on a daily basis? Who are the people who live beyond their means to maintain their social illusions, while oweing more to the IRS than most people make in a decade? Almost to a man these are products of the Ivy League system.
    And I’ll say it again… Of course not everyone falls under this generalizations, there are always exceptions.

    • radjahshelduck

      Let me add this: imagine that Newt Gingrich had been the GOP nominee for President last year. We’d have had a presidential election matching two college professors: one who taught at UC, the other who taught at the University of West Georgia–again, a public regional school and one with a hell of a lot more diverse a student body than UC. Can you imagine the code words used among the Ivy elitists, many of whom are in the media, to get across the idea “How in the world could anyone consider voting for a professor from a Hee Haw college over the distinguished professor from the University of Chicago?” (I know, I know, Obama was technically a “lecturer” not a professor, but that’s the way the matter would be presented in Mr. Douthat’s NYT.)

    • CO2 Producer

      You “take exception” to the use of the word “meritocracy”? Get a dictionary, dummy!

      • John (it true me am)

        Uh. Meritocracy = advancement based on merit. How exactly does the Ivy league system of advancement based on who you know and what fraternal order you join equate to merit in your mind? So yes, I take exception to the article labeling the Ivies as meritocracies.

        • CO2 Producer

          Douthat specifically used meritocracy in a present-day context (modern meritocacy, modern meritocratic culture, meritocracy as we know it, etc.). He seems to be saying that the definition of meritocracy as you describe it has been essentially perverted by a modern-day “elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.” Douthat is on the same page as you, from what I can tell.

          The literal definition of meritocracy is “a system based on merit or ability.” But a meritocracy is also defined as a system led by a group of elites—elites who deem themselves the smartest, most experienced, and therefore the most qualified to rule, regardless of whether it’s true or not. Douthat’s saying the meritocratic system as it currently exists is flawed and inconsistent in recognizing and rewarding people with power based on their actual merit, ability, competence, what have you. He argues that being a member of an Ivy League culture does not automatically make one qualified, yet the Ivy Leaguers want the rest of us to think so. Meritocracy “as we know it” is a fallacy, a joke. He didn’t state it exactly that way in the editorial, but that’s what I got out of it.

          You took exception to Douthat’s use of the word, but I doubt he intended the word’s meaning to be taken in its strictest literal sense. If he did, he would defeat his own argument.

          Speaking of jokes, my bit of “meritocratic” role-playing in the style of an NYT comment writer must not have been obvious. I refrain from using “/sarc” tags. I figured my other comment on this thread was enough to make my opinion clear, but I didn’t label my sarcasm as such there, either. But I never attended a university, so my ineptitude at proper communication is a given.

          • John (it true me am)

            I didn’t notice your other post so missed the sarcasm. I should lurn to read better like them fancy ivy types I guess myself.

            Either way, I still don’t particularly care for the usage of meritocracy, at least without qualification, in the context he used it. They can claim true merit all day long, but it doesn’t make it so of course, and essentially allowing the coopting of the phrase just doesn’t sit right with me.

          • CO2 Producer

            Yeah, well…this is what meritocracy looks like, or something.

  • radjahshelduck

    This dovetails nicely into a reason I despise President Obama. You folks remember one of his predecessors in the US Senate, another Illinoisan, Paul Simon? Simon was about as liberal as they come, but give him credit–he walked the walk. When he retired from the Senate, he decided he wanted to teach in a university. I’m sure Princeton, Yale, and Harvard would have been delighted to have him. But Senator Simon instead went back home to teach at Southern Illinois University, a regional public school where the 99% send their children. SIU has a law school, and the young Barack Obama, having gotten his law degree, could have gone there to teach, or to some other public law school, or even to one of the few traditionally black law schools still around, like Howard where Thurgood Marshall attended. But no–Barry had to go to another elitist private school to pretend he was working, so off he went to the University of Chicago. (A school that was built with John D. Rockefeller’s money and a gift of land from Marshall Field–remember that when Obama talks about how we need to tax the wealthy more.) And Obama did this because he’s exactly the type of Ivy League elitist Douthat refers to in this column. Except Obama is even more insufferable because he pretends he’s the champion of the common man and the Republicans who oppose him are the elitists.

  • Jack Deth

    The rich and the brainless have to meet and breed incestuously somewhere.

    It helps propagate the less than sentient species.

  • CO2 Producer

    Ivy League elites care about the little people…but not enough to marry them. That would be absurd!

  • TocksNedlog

    Who the hell would want to marry someone that spent $100,000 on an ‘education’ and emerged from that experience with a devout belief that Socialism can A) work; and B) preserve freedom?

  • Jillane Kent

    I have mixed feeling about this one. My daughter, due to stellar grades and SAT scores, has been aggressively courted by a number of Ivy League schools despite our inability to afford them. There are many programs, like Questbridge, who exist to connect poor teens with schools seeking to diversify the population. She will attend a school that has a price tag of 64k for exactly 0 dollars next year.

    • Miss Clairee

      Congrats! I know you must be very proud! Sounds like you’ve done a great job!

    • CherDash

      @facebook-100002109532283:disqus Congratulations to your daughter! She earned her spot in whatever school she decides to attend. The opposite of the liberal elites being reference in the article and the comments!

  • mike_in_kosovo

    “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

  • Section 9

    Remember: THIS is the social class of Bourbons who seized control of the state, gave us Bush AND Obama, and are convinced that Sarah Palin is stupid. None of these educated fools could change a tire, or, as we have seen, win a war or run a government.

  • neoface

    The only social equality that counts is an opportunity in pursuit of happiness, other than that you need to suck up, and laid in the bed you made. If you don’t like then get up and do something. Obama wants everyone to be feeding from the same government trough, as most liberals in power wants, so they can have total control.