This week in the NYTimes, we have a couple of stories that both pertain to giving your kids the best shot at a good life. The first story is a report that most of the money spent on education may be wasted. The reason is that differences in cognitive abilities appear at an early age.
Children of mothers who had graduated from college scored much higher at age 3 than those whose mothers had dropped out of high school, proof of the advantage for young children of living in rich, stimulating environments.
More surprising is that the difference in cognitive performance was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3.
“The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten,” Mr. Heckman told me. “School neither increases nor reduces it.”
If education is supposed to help redress inequities at birth and improve the lot of disadvantaged children as they grow up, it is not doing its job.
It is not an isolated finding. Another study by Mr. Heckman and Flavio Cunha of the University of Pennsylvania found that the gap in math abilities between rich and poor children was not much different at age 12 than it was at age 6.
For this reason, some researchers have suggested better nutrition for mothers-to-be with low income. Not an easy task to solve. Few will bring up the idea that it might be they don’t have the genes to pass down that will result in high achievement.
The second story approaches the same issue from a different perspective. What do the rich and the elite do to ensure their kids have the best chance to stay an elite? Susan Patton had the temerity to suggest that Princeton girls should look for husbands while they’re at Princeton. The reaction to her article was widespread condemnation. But Ross Douthat sums up the breach of protocol pretty well here:
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”?
That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!
The article itself is op-ed gold and expresses something I didn’t understand well at the time, or possibly even now. College isn’t about learning so much as connecting. A college degree gives you a signalling device for employers. Your college classmates set you into your social class. None of this is set in stone of course – I’m talking about averages.