Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Heart of Blueness

Our travels on my daughter’s college trip have taken us far from Kentucky, to some of the iconic places of “Blue America” – Swarthmore, PA, Princeton, NJ, Middletown, CT, Williamstown, MA, and, especially, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was asked by an academic friend in Cambridge, as an emissary from Red America, if I could explain why most Americans voted in a way that seems to Cambridge folk to be just plain irrational.

I think I do understand the difference between the two views of the world – and they begin with a difference over what counts as rational. Cambridge extracts a kind of intelligence from all over the world and concentrates it in one place and in a narrow set of careers. Danville, Kentucky, and the thousands of other Danvilles in the great Flyover Country of America, draws people with a different kind of practical wisdom (as well as the usual kind of brains) and spread them over a broader range of The Good Life. The wisdom of Cambridge is that if individuals get their work done, any kind of family life they choose to make is good enough. The wisdom of Danville is that if most people marry and raise their children with care, many kinds of work life that they might choose are good enough.

I heard Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? speak at a panel of the American Sociological Association this summer. The gist of his book is that Kansas and places like it vote for Republicans and against their economic interests because they believe that the Democratic leaders are an arrogant elite who look down on ordinary, faithful, family-first Americans. Frank's presentation, and the others like it from the panel, drew an approving, “ain’t it awful” response from the gray heads in the audience. Then a young woman rose to ask a question. She said that as a Midwestern liberal she had read Frank's book and joined in lamenting the paranoia of her neighbors. Then she went to Cambridge as a graduate student and discovered that it was all true. Her professors and their peers did routinely denigrate the intelligence of religious people and disparage the morals of those who value marriage and careful childrearing. The panel could offer no reply.

What does this have to do with family life? The great meritocratic experiment of picking who we will educate from the top IQ scores, and then picking who will manage our economy and design our social policies from the top of this intellectual heap, has a serious sociological flaw. The “cognitive elite,” as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein called them, are chosen as individuals, educated as individuals, put through the elite job selection sieve as individuals. Is it any wonder, then, that they are likely to put individual achievement ahead of forming rich and stable families? In particular, it is, it seems to me, a deep flaw in our current meritocratic culture that the highest achieving women are more likely to skip marriage and children the higher they go in the power structure.

There is much that is great and amazing about our meritocratic system. It is certainly better than any system in which rulers are chosen simply because their ancestors were rulers. But the weakness of Blue America is that it creams individuals with only one kind of intelligence, while leaving out other, family-oriented kinds of wisdom. Worse, the highly individualistic way in which we construct our meritocracy makes it less likely that they will have families to pass their intelligence and achievements and work ethic on to. This is a double loss for American families and American society.

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