This month, some Brooklyn-based friends have been touring New York’s top selective public high schools to assess whether their children should take the ultra-competitive entry tests.
It has left them grappling with unease and some subtle guilt. On one hand, they said they were dazzled by the schools’ academic environment. Competition to get into these free institutions is so fierce that the schools are veritable intellectual hothouses — not least because many children come from poorer, immigrant backgrounds and are very motivated to succeed.
However, the experience also prompted my friends to wonder whether academic success is the only thing children need to succeed. “It’s the extracurricular stuff, the social things, I wonder about,” a mother said.
More specifically, what worried her about these ultra-competitive high schools was that they seemed to provide fewer of the diversions middle-class children might find in elite — private — schools, such as sports, trips to France, extra music lessons and so on. “I don’t know if that matters,” she murmured. “But it worries me.”
On one level, that quibble may seem ridiculous: After all, academic excellence and strong competitive skills are supposed to be the keys to success in modern-day America. (And I suspect that if my friend’s children do combat the odds to get into one of these schools, they will not turn it down.)
But on another level, her comment is revealing, doubly so if you look at an intriguing new book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren Rivera, a United States sociologist. Dr Rivera has spent the past few years studying social mobility and elitism in America, focusing on leading bankers and lawyers.
However, she has not done this by studying economic statistics in the vein of left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty. Instead, she has conducted what sociologists and anthropologists may call “fieldwork”, or on-the-ground observational research. She spent hours watching elite companies interview university students, talking to admissions officials and students, and observing the cultural patterns in how candidates were picked.
Her richly described account is mesmerising — and horrifying. For what it shows, as my Brooklyn friends instinctively know, is that academic qualifications alone are not the key to an elite job. Nor is an Ivy League education sufficient per se. Instead, what these companies are looking for in the interview process is what they often describe as “polish” or “pedigree” — as evidenced in thousands of tiny social cues and cultural patterns.
Children from elite families tend to monopolise these subtle social cues, often in ways that nobody (including the elite) will admit. “In prior eras, elite reproduction ... commonly took the form of parents handing the reins of companies or family fortunes to their adult children,” wrote Dr Rivera. “Today, the transmission of economic privilege tends to be indirect. It operates largely through the educational system.”
The word “pedigree” encapsulates a paradox. In decades past, the term denoted good ancestry — carefully bred dogs, horses or people were deemed to have it. But today, admissions officials in US firms use it in a different way: Candidates being interviewed for jobs are deemed to have “pedigree” if their resumes are filled with wide-ranging accomplishments such as playing music, being captain of a sports team, doing philanthropic work and so on.
In theory, this “pedigree” is meant to reflect individual merit and talent. In practice, though, it is hard for students to engage in extracurricular activity unless they come from an elite background to start with. Of course, some non-elite students manage to do this. However, a private high school, full of privileged children, tends to provide a more supportive background than a public institution, even a highly competitive school.
“Working-class students are more likely to enter college with the notion that the purpose of higher education is learning in classrooms, and invest their time and energy accordingly,” observed Dr Rivera.
“But the (fact that) these students focus on academic rather than extracurricular pursuits adversely affects their job prospects,” she added, describing how, time and again, the people interviewing candidates had made decisions based on subjective issues such as whether an applicant had “polish”, “breadth” and “pedigree”.
In some ways, this is not surprising: Wealthy elites in any society always try to reproduce their position over generations, using not only their so-called “economic capital” (in other words, money), but also social and cultural capital (symbols of elite status). Thankfully, this pattern of elite reproduction is not foolproof. Each year,thousands of smart, poorer students get into elite colleges, sometimes as a result of positive discrimination programmes. Some acquire the cultural skills — or “pedigree” — to move into elite jobs.
However, Dr Rivera’s book is a sobering read. It suggests that, as time passes, elite families are becoming more adept at hanging on not only to their economic capital, but also to their social capital or, if you like, ensuring their children dominate in terms of social cachet and prestige.
That is worrying for politicians. It is also alarming for teachers and parents. Indeed, I would bet that if parents buy Dr Rivera’s book, they may end up treating it as a “how to” guide as much as anything else, even as they sigh in horror at the ways in which inequality continues to haunt America. THE FINANCIAL TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gillian Tett is US managing editor for The Financial Times.