Monday, April 08, 2013

THE STORY THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO READ! (Because they assume you've already read it)

Yesterday Ross Douthat published a column about that letter from Princeton alumna Susan Patton urging young women at her alma mater to find husbands at the school and marry young. Douthat triumphantly declares that Patton's letter has ripped the lid off a secret plan to restrict the Ivy League marriage pool to fellow elites -- something no one's ever acknowledged until now:
{Patton] 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.
No one's ever talked about this before! ... Except ... um, Douthat's colleague David Brooks, repeatedly throughout his career, going back to his New York Times bestselling first book, Bobos in Paradise, which (despite Brooks's roots in the right-wing media) was eagerly read by the folks DougJ calls "totebaggers." Here's Brooks on The NewsHour in 2000, explaining his research method for the book:
DAVID BROOKS: One of the places I went to look at these was the New York "Times" wedding page, which is a great indicator of the American elite. In the 1950's, it was the WASP aristocracy. It was, you know, when your ancestor came over was listed on the page-- not your job, but your connections, what cotillion ball you came out. Now if you look at the New York "Times" wedding page, it's this great clash of resumes. It's, like, they call it the mergers and acquisitions page. Harvard marries Yale. Princeton marries Stanford. Magna cum laude marries magna cum laude. You never get a magna cum laude marrying a summa cum laude because the tensions would be too great in that wedding.
(Actually, that's not true -- Ross Douthat himself is a Harvard magna cum laude married to a Harvard summa cum laude, a fact the Douthats took pains to note in their Times wedding announcement.)

In other words, this is not news. And I assume that "associative mating" is common in most strata of American society -- Patrick Henry, the Bible college that was a feeder school for jobs in the Bush administration and will probably play the same role in the Rubio administration, probably doesn't have a lot of graduates who marry forklift operators or hipsters from Bushwick or Portlandia.

I suppose there's a case to be made that social networking in the Ivies is the primary factor that keeps the same elite families at the top of the heap, as Douthat argues (I think other factors are at work, among them an economy that's uninterested in innovation apart from crafting tax loopholes and exotic financial instruments). But if Douthat believes this, he might have made a stronger case if he hadn't written this about the Secret No One Will Discuss:
... don't come out and say it! Next people will start wondering ... why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can't seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn't have a Harvard or Yale degree.
Um, Ross? Our current Ivy League president is the son of an American teenager born in Kansas and a Kenyan (and the president is married to a Princetonian from the South Side of Chicago who, along with her brother, was part of the first generation in her family to go to college at all). Two presidents ago we elected a Yale Law grad from Nowheresville, Arkansas. And one of our Supreme Court justices is a Princeton/Yale Law graduate of Puerto Rican descent who grew up poor in the Bronx, the daughter of a nurse and a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education.

In other words, there's some social mobility in this country -- though not nearly enough, and less than there's been. And the point Douthat misses is that efforts to perpetuate elitism tend to be meritocratic -- if you've beaten the odds and clawed your way into the elite from outside it, Susan Patton would probably deem you acceptable to marry a female Princeton undergrad. Bobo marriage these days are pan-ethnic, even if they're not pan-economic.


Victor said...

"Ross Douthat himself is a Harvard magna cum laude married to a Harvard summa cum laude..."

How very noble of him, slumming like that.

My bet is, if either of them can, or do, neither of them ever cum's loudly.

Anonymous said...

"No one's ever talked about this before!"

"social networking in the Ivies is the primary factor that keeps the same elite families at the top"

With the number of strawmen you invent and then proceed to slay, you could be the next Democrat presidnent!

Uncle Mike said...


This word; I do not think it means what you think it means (especially since the two quotes you cherry-pick directly reflect something Douthat claimed).

Also: president only has one n.

Ten Bears said...

Hey! Hey now, easy... we have forklift operators in Portlandia!

Not so sure about hipsters in Bushwhack.

No fear...

Michael Doane said...

Great post. Azzhat is becoming the proverbial fish in a barrel but I appreciate that you are keeping a close eye on his spray-painted columns.

Michael Doane