The Ron Unz piece on meritocracy to which I referred contains a provocative claim that Jews are maintaining, or even increasing, their admissions rate to elite colleges while their rate of genius appears to be reverting back to average. He documents the decline in Jewish genius by looking at performance in high-level competitive examinations, such as the Putnam exam. My thoughts:
1. Perhaps the period from 1920 through 1970 was unusual in some respects. Maybe instead of asking why Jewish genius has declined since then, we should be asking why it became so prominent in those years.
2. My wife and I attended a talk by an official from the Technion, an Israeli version of MIT. He said in his talk that the Israeli students are less interested in science and technology than in the past. When my wife asked him afterward to speculate on why this is the case, he curtly replied, “The DNA hasn’t changed.” Like Unz, he attributed it to a softening of life, so that Jews feel less need to deal with the difficult courses in math and science.
3. I am struck by the way genius seems to come in small clusters. Read Eric Kandel about Vienna or George Dyson about the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s and 1940s. In the latter case, it seems as though much of the genius originally was concentrated in a part of the Jewish community in Budapest. So, my hypothesis is that having one high school with 5 really bright students produces more geniuses than five high schools with one bright student each. Together, the bright students are more competitive and also learn from one another. The same would be true for tennis players or artists–people with talent will be pushed to higher levels by being around other people with talent. According to this hypothesis, the decline of Jewish genius might come from the dispersion of the population of bright Jewish students, instead of a high concentration at particular high schools in Vienna, Budapest, or New York.
4. Tyler Cowen argues that the status accorded to math and science matters, and I would say that the status of science and math has fallen among Jews. Perhaps part of the reason is that, as Unz points out, elite colleges are emphasizing “well-rounded students.” If the parental status symbol is the child admitted to Harvard, and this is less likely to be achieved by an outstanding math score than by participating in community service projects, then parents will not press their children to cultivate math genius. One would think this would affect non-Jews as well as Jews, though.
5. Another possibility is that the mediocrity of the American teaching profession is dampening the emergence of young genius. Back when the teaching profession was populated in part by highly intelligent women, bright students probably felt better understood and more appreciated. Again, one would expect this to affect non-Jews as well as Jews.
I urge you to read the Unz piece before commenting.