More elephants in the room: assortative mating

Ross Douthat in the New York Times wrote tongue in cheek about the well-off in the United States doing their best to remain in the upper class by marrying intelligent achievers in university. It is called assortative mating, and it means that the intelligent marry the intelligent. A Princeton alumna, Susan Patton,  had scandalized the university by strongly recommending that young women at Princeton marry before graduating.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next….

That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.

But really, Susan Patton, do we have to talk about it?

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