The Decline of Jewish Genius?

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.

9 thoughts on “The Decline of Jewish Genius?

  1. It’s possible that Asian and Asian-American parents have the wrong idea about what Ivy League schools want, based on outdated notions. I’ve seen comments by admissions officers at Ivy League schools saying that the too common emphasis by Asian applicants on the violin or piano is “tiresome” compared to finding some kind of new and innovative “hook” that the admissions department likes.

    OTOH, as Unz notes, those sorts of changing admissions standards were also used to keep Jews out before. It’s possible that changing admission standards were pure cover for racism against Jews now, but wholly innocent against Asians and Asian-Americans now, but perhaps it was and is a mix in both cases.

  2. American teachers are not mediocre in the aggregate. The case for American teachers ranking among the best in the best in the world relies on examining international test scores and then controlling for poverty. Second, the teaching practices that are used in most international countries come from American teachers, including those used for gifted students. Last, most international private schools are modeled on American public education.

  3. Perhaps bright kids simply view STEM careers as unrewarding in various ways. Generally speaking, “ordinary” lawyers and MBAs seem to be better paid than :ordinary” engineers, for example. They rise through management ranks at a faster clip, and are considered for a larger variety of jobs.

    The social status of STEM fields is constantly declining. Consider than an engineer in 1950 was part of about 10% of the US population — since that was about the extent of the college educated, and most of the high status positions in American society went to that 10%. In the mid 1960’s, an engineer with similar qualifications was in the top 20% or so, in status terms. Today, similar engineers probably fall in the top 30-40 %. A BSc in Comp Sci just doesn’t seem all that imposing anymore.

    And finally, with the possible exception of IT, STEM field careers just aren’t as interesting anymore. In the 1960’s, we were trying to send manned spacecraft to the Moon, for example. We haven’t done that for a while, and there’s not much evidence that Americans will get out of low earth orbit in the rest of the century, or indeed ever. Nuclear engineering’s pretty much a dead field anymore, Oceangraphy’s been cut back worse than spaceflight, for even longer. Nanotech isn’t getting much attention. Etc etc etc.

    I’d make an exception for a bright kid who really really wanted a scientific or engineering career, but basically for anyone else, I think you’d have to be a sadist to recommend a STEM career to a high school student. I don’t see this as a Jewish issue — I think bright literate kids from ALL backgrounds find technical careers unappealing. And alas, they’re right.

  4. I always associated math/science professions as being filled largely by central & east Europeans. If the connection is attached to that geography, then it would be logical that any group of person that moves in mass out of the area may suffer a decline in the cultural/intellectual values of the area.

  5. I’d agree with Unz and the guy from Technion, across the board the US is a rich country and that’s why the people shy away from critical thinking and tough decisions, witness the Obama re-election as one big example. However, math and science are highly overrated and it’s largely a good thing that kids don’t go that route anymore. What’s needed are critical thinkers who can reorganize society, whether through applying the internet to new uses or creating entirely new institutions, not spending all their time incrementally improving yet another 20th century technology. Even for the few who choose the tech route, computers do all the math for you, so the current math-drenched curricula are highly outdated, yet they keep being taught the same way by the dimwit professors without compunction. Anyway, the few who create new tech are always self-selected: the notion that we could have more inventors by simply training a bunch of new engineers has always been a fatuous one.

  6. You can’t talk about this without noting three major factors:

    a) Ultra-Orthodox Jews are increasing their proportionate share of American Jews.
    b) Inter-marriage has become far more common; the data used in this article is based on surnames.
    c) “Jewish genius” also manifested itself in cultural as well as mathematical and scientific pursuits, right? Film, literature, music, the tiny proportion of American Jews had outsized visability and impact in those fields. Maybe those have risen in relative status and so more talented young Jews are opting for creative pursuits.

  7. It seemed as if Unz had used the percentage of Jews of the total population and compared that to the percentage of Asians of the total population. Problems:

    1) There may be less Jewish children now. Small families and lots more old people mean that there are just fewer Jewish students.

    2) Asians, especially recent immigrants, have many more children and no old people.

    So you’re comparing lots of Asian students to a few Jewish students and wondering why Jewish students do not do better. And if you also consider what Squarely Rooted has to say…

    • I doubt your assertion that the Asians are producing significantly larger families in America than Jews, at least amongst the East Asians and successful Indians. You are perhaps right to draw attention to the likelihood of a Jewish child being a child of the Ultra Orthodox DNA will not flower intellectually for a couple more generations perhaps. But, generally, the figures Unz provides are so outlandish that none of your points really amount to much more than quibbles. After all a change in the Jewish out performance from a about 10 to 1 to 2 to 1 compared with non-Jewish whites is huge. On reflection though it is hard to find it surprising. Just change people’s incentives, opportunities and family pressures and they will change, and maybe the smarter they are the quicker they will change.

    • Sorry, it was Squarely Rooted who made reference to the Ultra Orthodox. However, it occurs to me that they probably best keep up the study of the Talmud which some suggest underpins the Jewish intellectual focus.