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Too dumb to fail?
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Too dumb to fail?

In June I read an obituary for Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, the second woman to earn a Nobel Prize in medicine. The native New Yorker developed a way to measure insulin and other hormones in the blood, essential to our understanding of diabetes, thyroid function, and fertility.

Born in the Bronx in 1921, she fell in love with science at the public Walton High School and graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College as its first physics major — at the age of 19.

After Hunter, she applied for a graduate assistantship at Purdue University. The university wrote back to her professor: “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship.”

Instead, she had to settle for work as a secretary at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. When the war broke out, barriers began to fall for women and Jews, and she wound up on the engineering faculty at the University of Illinois. She earned her PhD in 1945 and joined the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, where she would do her groundbreaking research.

I thought of Yalow’s story and dozens more like hers when I read Ross Douthat’s essay in Sunday’s Times suggesting America paid a price for lowering those same barriers.

In the piece, the paper’s young conservative columnist explains how smart kids from modest families in the Midwest (and, presumably, the Outer Boroughs) took advantage of the meritocratic wave of the second half of the 20th century to storm the institutions once carefully reserved by and for the WASP elite. Unfortunately, he writes, those same upstarts have left a troubling legacy.

“By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-IQ elite in all of human history,” writes Douthat. “And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.”

These supremely self-confident, brainy meritocrats “take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.”

Instead of a brave new world, the best and the brightest left us with Vietnam, global economic meltdown, the Iraq war, and a crippled European Union.

Douthat isn’t the only critic of the meritocracy. Walter Kirn, himself a modest Midwesterner who ended up at Princeton, writes in Lost in the Meritocracy about a system that rewards “aptitude” over real accomplishment. And Nicholas Lemann, in The Big Test, complains that the new meritocracy is, like the old aristocracy, self-perpetuating. The idea that the SATs and similar aptitude tests would level the playing field among rich and poor was subverted once the rich realized they could raise their scores by paying for test prep and college tutors.

But I guess my ethnic radar starts a-tingling when someone blames our biggest problems on the very social trends that carried my people out of the ghettos and tenements and into positions of wealth, power, influence, and intellectual achievement.

I don’t think Douthat, a practicing Catholic, means to single out Jews, by any means. (His poster boy for the failed meritocracy is a Methodist, Jon Corzine.) The meritocracy has been good for the Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. But once you start pining for America’s blue-blood past, it’s a fairly short walk to Pat Buchanan country.

I remember the same icky feeling after reading Tom Wolfe’s noxious takedown of the hedge fund culture, in a 2007 article for the short-lived Portfolio magazine. In writing about the “collision of new money and old money,” Wolfe painted a portrait of grotesque young arrivistes who appalled “old money” types with their ostentatious displays of wealth, their vulgar taste, and their showy philanthropy. Wolfe can never decide whether he is parodying the new rich or their critics, yet this Jewish reader couldn’t get past his references to “these people” with their “aggressive nature,” obsession with status, and their own country clubs — especially when “these people” tended to be named Cohen, Feinberg, Icahn, Kovner, and Loeb.

Douthat doesn’t go there. But he does seem overly sympathetic to the New Anti-Intellectualism, which, I’d argue, can’t be good for the Jews. Douthat calls the Republican primary campaign “a revolt against the ruling class that our meritocracy has forged, and a search for outsiders with thinner resumes but better instincts.”

It’s an interesting use of the word “outsider.” Once it meant a terribly bright young woman whose gender and religion kept her out of grad school, or perhaps a farmer’s ambitious grandson who in an earlier era would never have been considered for a job on Wall Street. Now it means — what? A mediocre student who understands foreign policy in his gut? A cheerleader type who thinks climate change is a hoax because it snowed in October?

I can list a number of things that led us off a cliff in recent years. The notion that our leaders are just “too intelligent” isn’t one of them.

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