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A Jewish Mother in Every Home

As much an annual Passover fixture as horseradish or bad wine, every Jewish family has an Uncle Ron. He is, in fact, at most every holiday gathering, but with Pesach’s prescribed overindulgence, he’s in rare form. After tipping back the … Read More

By / March 27, 2007

As much an annual Passover fixture as horseradish or bad wine, every Jewish family has an Uncle Ron. He is, in fact, at most every holiday gathering, but with Pesach’s prescribed overindulgence, he’s in rare form. After tipping back the fourth cup of wine, his mix of arrogance and outrage boils over. Uncle Ron’s been ruining American seders for a century, but over the decades—depending on the context—his diatribe has changed.

In generations past, Uncle Ron was the seder socialist, crying for world revolution and railing against the piecemeal reforms pushed by FDR and his labor union boss. But with today’s Uncle Rons inhabiting the upper socioeconomic echelons of American society, the seder rant is more likely to critique welfare queens than corporate fatcats. “Look, I didn’t get to Scarsdale by hanging out on street corners,” today’s version might go. “The Asians study, work, and get ahead. But don’t hold your breath for the Puerto Ricans. And the blacks? Don’t get me started. They don’t need scholarships and affirmative action. What they really need is a Jewish mother.”

Uncle Ron should not be dismissed lightly; he is our impolite cultural bellwether, expressing the collective’s underbelly of anxieties, hopes, and prejudices. The ideas that underlie today’s Uncle Ron rant—that Jews moved up through hard work and if others don’t it’s their own fault—are a key part of contemporary conservative rhetoric. Ironically, much of the Jewish punditocracy is on the wrong side of today’s social mobility debate, actually working to dismantle the institutions that afforded them, their parents, and their grandparents a chance to move up.

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Uncle Ron—and his conservative pundit friends—couldn’t have chosen a worse time to be wrong. Social mobility is in decline. The children of those on top now stay on top; the children of those on the bottom stay on the bottom. Reversing the post-WWII trends, the proportion of students at top colleges coming from poor families is dropping. Only 3% of students at selective colleges come from families in the bottom quarter of income earners; 74% come from the top quarter.

The question is whether this developing crisis is due to economic barriers or cultural barriers. Did Jews move up because of unions that made working-class jobs pay middle-class wages, free public universities, and the GI Bill, or because of their tradition of literacy and learning? Was it City College or pushy mothers? *****

Jews have always been central to the national debate about social mobility. For most of the twentieth century, Jews were at the forefront of the push to eliminate explicit racial and religious barriers to educational and employment opportunities, and they believed that once these barriers were lifted, the top of the new meritocracy would be as diverse as society at large.

The social scientist Richard Herrnstein disagreed. The child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, he had worked his way up through New York’s then-tuition-free City College to become a professor of psychology at Harvard. A perfect meritocracy, he proposed in a seminal 1971 Atlantic article, would allow the naturally brightest to end up on top. Those bright people would pair up and produce bright children and the American meritocracy would wind up looking less democratic than aristocratic. But unlike aristocratic Europe, where inbred imbeciles like George III ended up ruling empires, modern aristocracies would be fair. Even more alarming, this new, fair aristocracy would look like a racial caste system, Herrnstein theorized, citing a study showing a 15-point gap in the average IQs of whites and blacks.

In his important 1992 book, The End of Equality, Jewish pundit Mickey Kaus cautiously came to Herrnstein’s defense. Social mobility was beginning to decline, he theorized, because a perfect meritocracy had been nearly achieved. Those groups that had what it took to move up had already moved up. Meritocracy was like a centrifuge that spun the best to the top and left the dregs on the bottom. “At some point,” Kaus wrote, “we may run out of new groups to run through the centrifuge.”

Just as Herrnstein predicted, American society has become more aristocratic. (We even have George II, a dim-witted heir, running our country.) It is tempting, then, for Jews to take up the position Herrnstein outlined in 1971, essentially defending and legitimating hierarchy. After all, anti-meritocratic policies like legacy preferences at Ivy League colleges that used to hurt Jews now help them.

And now that new research has shown that IQ is largely shaped by early child development, conservative pundits have been able to have their cake and eat it too—to embrace Herrnstein’s theories without embracing his openly race-based explanations. Though Herrnstein was Jewish, many Jews were wary of embracing a view that sounded so much like eugenics, the pseudo-science that worked to legitimate the social order back when Jews were towards the bottom. Explaining away inequality as the result of black/white IQ differences sounded like something out of 1930s Germany—not the kind of argument most Jews want to defend. But once the racial element was removed, the argument became more appealing, even flattering. Perhaps there really was something superior about us. But rather than claiming to be some kind of black-haired, brown-eyed master race, why not just say it’s behavioral? It’s not our genes, it’s our moms.

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Jews and Asians do well because they are good parents, the thinking goes. They push their kids in school and make them do punishingly un-fun but mentally rewarding activities, like taking music lessons. This develops their children’s brains in ways that parents who spend their time shooting hoops and shooting drugs (whatever color they may be) never will. Thus the way to reinvigorate social mobility must be to not let economically poor parents be parentally poor parents. In short, we need to create more Jewish mothers.

So when Jewish Republican pundit David Brooks writes, “the rich are getting better at passing their advantages on to their kids,” as he did in The New York Times in January, he’s not talking about how George W. Bush eliminated the inheritance tax allowing the rich to literally pass all their wealth on to the next generation. Instead, he’s talking about cultural advantages, arguing that rich parents imbue their children with good social skills and study habits.

Undoubtedly, these things matter. It’s good for a kid to have a pushy mother who makes him do his homework. And it’s good to have grandparents who read bedtime stories. But there have always been pushy mothers and storytelling grandparents. Does it make any sense to blame declining social mobility on these things?

In Brooks’ scheme, America is turning into a “hereditary meritocracy [because] highly educated people…move into highly educated neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools. [These kids] get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over again.” What Brooks doesn’t mention is how much more expensive top schools have become over the past generation—the very period in which social mobility has declined.

Two generations ago, when my grandparents went to the City University of New York, it was free. That came to an end during the 1970s New York City budget crisis. Despite the city’s fiscal turnaround, the Republican mayors of recent decades have never restored the funding. (I nearly went into my own Uncle Ron tirade when I heard conservative pundit Irving Kristol explain in an interview in the documentary film Arguing the World why he went to CCNY: “I didn’t know anything about City College. All I knew was it was free.”)

In the more middle-class America of a generation ago, there was also a lid on what private colleges could get away with charging. When my mother went to the University of Pennsylvania it cost just $1,630 a year ($11,000 in today’s dollars), within the financial reach of her schoolteacher parents. Now, with the lid off, today’s tuition is over $34,000 a year. Granted, most private colleges offer financing options to rival Bob’s Discount Furniture, but gee, Mr. Brooks, maybe the reason Harvard students come from such well-to-do families is because Harvard’s tuition has gotten so high.

Which is not to say that culture doesn’t matter. Consider Asians, who can see and raise the Chosen People in pushy mothers per capita. They are still moving up more than most ethnic groups, but their route is through the few public escalator institutions that conservatives have not managed to fully dismantle—free urban magnet schools like Manhattan’s Stuyvesant high school and low-cost public universities like UC Berkeley, which is now majority Asian. (It should be noted that before the conservative backlash landed Ronald Reagan in the California governor’s mansion, Berkeley was tuition-free.)

That’s why Brooks’ policy prescriptions miss the point. He thinks the government should encourage marriage and get kids from “disorganized” homes into preschools that teach “bourgeois values.” (To which you might respond, what’s he doing in the party that cuts Head Start to fund tax cuts for the rich?) But let’s be honest: Governments are much better at tasks like making sure institutions like City College and UC Berkeley are tuition-free than at making sure parents are pushy.

When Montrealer-turned-Angelino Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes,” he must have been talking about L.A. because in Montreal, that’s not how it goes—Canada now has higher levels of social mobility than we do. Why? Canadians certainly aren’t known for being pushy. The reason is because Canada hasn’t experienced the same conservative backlash we have down here. They haven’t eliminated inheritance taxes, made it impossible to organize labor unions, and ratcheted up college tuitions. Government mandates require even top private universities like McGill to charge only USD $4,200 a year ($1,400 for in-province students). That’s why they’re eating our lunch when it comes to social mobility.

For better or worse, pushy mothers will always be with us, but unless we start rebuilding the institutions of social mobility, all the pushing in the world won’t get their kids up the ladder. You have to wonder: if Richard Herrnstein or Uncle Ron were born in today’s America, could they still make it to Harvard or Scarsdale?

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