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It’s the Al Franken decade after all
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It’s the Al Franken decade after all

Unlike most Jews, I don’t read The New York Times wedding pages just to count the intermarriages. I also try to figure out what planet this mighty race of marrying people actually comes from.

This week, for example, the Times reports that Thomasin Davis Franken, the daughter of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), married Brody Konow Greenwald, the son of Dr. Audrey M. Konow, an internist, and Dr. Harris L. Greenwald, a pediatrician. The bride graduated cum laude from Harvard. The groom graduated from Duke and received a law degree from the University of Chicago. The couple will reside in a crystal palace built for them on the banks of the Potomac River by a corps of angels sent down by the Almighty Himself.

Okay, I made up that last part, but c’mon! Is it not enough that you are the daughter of a guy who starred on Saturday Night Live and became a U.S. senator? You had to go to Harvard and marry a doctors’ kid who studied law at Chicago? Shouldn’t there be a limit on how much naches a set of grandparents be allowed to schep?

James Atlas has a deeper set of worries about the rise of what he calls the “Super People.” In a piece for the Times this Sunday, he focuses on over-achievers just like Ms. Franken and Mr. Greenwald and what he calls “the aggressive hoarding of intellectual capital in the most sought-after colleges and universities.”

Atlas says the competition for the best colleges is coming at the expense of family sanity, women’s liberation, economic parity, and higher education as a whole. Worst of all, perhaps, the very process of building a resume — in high school — only widens the country’s already gigantic social and economic gaps. “The privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — ‘service learning,’ as it’s sometimes called — doesn’t come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room, and board,” writes Atlas. Only the elite can afford to build a resume that gets them into the best schools and pay the enormous tuition once they do.

Atlas stands on firm ground when he points out the economic consequences of this race to the top, although at times he sounds less like a populist calling for structural change than he does a Harvard grad worried his own kid won’t get into the Ivies. “[C]ompetition for places in the upper tier of higher education is a lot tougher than it was in the 1960s and ’70s,” writes Atlas, “when having good grades and SAT scores in the high 1200s was generally sufficient to get you into a respectable college.”

In focusing on the “respectable” (!) schools,  Atlas doesn’t consider the ways the glut of high achievers benefits universities farther down the list. Surely the kids rejected by the Ivies wind up in the next tier of top universities and end up boosting their quality, no? Doesn’t society benefit from this surplus of super people?

Not really, argues economist John Quiggin, who is also quoted in the Atlas article. Like Atlas, Quiggin worries that college madness is contributing to “the growing inequality and polarization of U.S. society.”

But in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he rejects the idea of a cognitive trickle-down effect. He points out that enrollments at flagship state universities have remained largely static, while the population has grown and public support for the institutions has declined. State schools are clamoring to raise their tuition rates to match the private schools. Some of these schools are “excellent,” he writes, “but many are appalling.” The picture is even worse for two-year colleges, which are attended by around two-thirds of those who go to college.

“The result,” Quiggin wrote in a response to my blog, “is ever more ferocious competition for an effectively shrinking pathway into the upper tiers of the income distribution.”

Granted, I am a little sensitive on this issue, having gotten my degree at a state university whose most famous alumnus is the guy who played Valerie Harper’s dad on Rhoda.

I am also in the middle of the college application process for my middle son. You try to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter where your kid goes to school — he’ll find himself wherever he goes. It’s not as if you have suffered as a result of your state-school education, after all, and you surely benefitted by not carrying a burden of student loan debt into your middle years.

But then you think: How is he going to marry a senator’s daughter if he doesn’t go to Harvard?!

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