The First Word: The end of merit

We game the system or lose our hair trying. All the while pretending our children are merit incarnate.

SAT (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Another year of child abuse is just ending here in the affluent, educated, ambitious precincts of American Jewry. I refer, of course, to the culmination of the annual college-admissions process, which has become an ugly obsession for parents in the chattering classes like me. During the last week in March and the first two of April, high school seniors are learning either on-line or in the old-fashioned mail whether they have become the new kind of Chosen People - those admitted by elite colleges. A favorable result brings these teenagers and their parents a transitory triumph, followed by the first normal breathing in months. An unfavorable answer leaves them feeling failed and bereft. It is true that not only Jews partake in this particular form of collective insanity, and yet because Jews are justly renowned for their commitment to education as the ladder of upward mobility, and because Jews are disproportionately represented at the top levels of academic achievement, we also bear more than our share of blame for the cynical travesty we have made of meritocracy. Once upon a time, back before World War II, American Jews were the losers in the college-admissions racket, the ethnic and religious outsiders restricted by anti-Semitic quotas from the Ivy League and its ilk. The grandeur of City College in New York, the so-called "poor man's Harvard," reflected two fierce necessities. The smartest Jews went to City because they couldn't afford the top private schools, and those schools would only take a token number of them anyway. AFTER THE war and the revelation of the Holocaust, America could no longer morally sustain its homegrown bigotry, and in short order the barriers to Jews in hospital staffs, social clubs, tony neighborhoods and top colleges began to topple. While the concept of merit as measured by standardized tests was propagated, most importantly by two consummate WASPs - James Conant, president of Harvard, and Henry Chauncey, founder of the Educational Testing Service - Jewish students figured heavily among the method's beneficiaries. With na ve faith, Jews accepted the premise that the SAT test was a scientifically irrefutable measure of intellectual talent. (Even though all the test actually claimed to predict was academic performance in the freshman year, and it wasn't so great at that, either.) The vigorous Jewish opposition to using race as a factor in college admissions, as litigated in the Bakke case before the Supreme Court in 1978, depended on a belief that merit could indeed be reckoned by standardized tests. But even before the Bakke case, there was a more, let us say pragmatic, view of merit taking hold among American Jews. It was Stanley Kaplan of Brooklyn who launched the first SAT-prep class, defying the Educational Testing Service's dogma that its exam was resistant to all forms of cramming. Kaplan proved right, and so was born the test-prep industry that now measures well into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. If anything, the Kaplan operation has come to seem positively quaint beside the array of highly-paid tutors, consultants and ghost writers who insinuate themselves into every facet of the application process. Unpaid internships, summer courses on college campuses and community service projects are de rigueur for the Jewish high school students of today. God forbid that anyone might actually take a summer job as a lifeguard. And the thought of delaying college until after military duty or national service, as Israeli young people routinely do? Any such selflessness is beyond the pale of American Jewry, or at least its best and brightest. Still, as the Who famously put it, the kids are all right. It's the adults who are all wrong. The generations of postwar American Jews, raised on the ethos of merit, have remade themselves into manipulators and insiders of the sort we used to abhor. We are the ones who game the system or lose our hair trying. All the while we pretend that our children, boosted by the advantages we have purchased, are merit incarnate. Those children have absorbed the lesson from us that youth is not a time to take risks, take chances, possibly fail, maybe learn something from it and certainly wake up alive the next morning. No, youth is the time to perfect yourself. Otherwise you won't get into the Ivy League. And then you won't get into law school or med school or business school. And then, well, certainly, your entire life will be ruined. Deep down, my cohort of parents know we have bungled this part of child-rearing. We have forgotten, or lost trust in, the way we applied to college. Bought a book of sample SAT questions at Sears. Read it once or twice. Applied to maybe four or five colleges, not the dozen or more typical these days. Went pretty gladly to a state university, if that was the outcome. And realized that life is long. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.