The Great Disconnect

I suspect there is a sort of cognitive dissonance between what upper-income, professional-class liberals say they believe in, and what they actually believe and do. I think they know that conveying wokeness in public and on social media is just the socially accepted thing to do, not something to base one’s life around or as useful framework for getting ahead in an increasingly competitive society.

As determined as politicians and ‘thought leaders’ are to make egalitarianism work, it falls to the inescapable pull of reality: that objective differences between individuals are real and do matter in terms of quantifiable life outcomes, whether it is academic success, individual wealth, social status, or career success. And as much as black lives may matter, having your child grow up or aspire to be a social worker is a ‘failure’ compared to being an investment banker.

And in spite of paeans of praise by the media and pop culture about the virtues of self-esteem and ‘being yourself’, high school students are rightfully anxious about the SAT, because they know that these scores signify so much more than just aptitude, but one’s implicit potential or capacity to be an economically-useful, valued person in society. And despite the best efforts of the media to downplay the predictive power and usefulness of these tests, the people who have actual skin in the game–parents, college administrators, and students–know otherwise.

Admissions for top-20 colleges are more competitive than ever due to a growing applicant pool, combined with a fixed number of slots for these handful of competitive, prestigious institutions, which has not kept up with demand and population growth. The result is an unending arms race between colleges and parents, with the latter looking for any edge, however small, to boost the odds. There is the implicit understanding that ‘holistic admissions’ is not a substitute for the SAT, AP courses, and other objective measures of achievement, which is why parents, regardless of their politics, invest so much time and money in trying raise their child’s test scores, not just aiming for higher absolute performance, but more importantly, higher scores relative to one’s peers.

For example, more young people are taking advanced math courses than ever before, and at an earlier age. Much like how Olympic records keep being broken, the same is true for how early in life kids are learning calculus and other advanced concepts. A generation or two ago, it was uncommon to learn calculus before college, but now it’s expected of anyone who aspires to go to college, which is almost everyone. So you now have many 14, 13, and even 10-year-olds learning calculus. AP courses are now the norm instead of for only a small minority.

According to the College Board, the number of students taking AP courses has surged since 2008:

More than 1.24 million students who graduated from American high schools in 2018 took a total of 4.22 million AP Exams. That is an increase of 65% over the number of students who took part in 2008. Also, 38.9% of the class of 2018 took at least one AP Exam, compared to 25.1% of the class of 2008.

The percentage of students from low-income families taking part in the AP program has doubled in the last decade, with 30.8% of 2018 participants coming from low-income families.

Test prep is a much-billion dollar industry even if score improvements tend to be small.

There are no signs of this trend slowing down, nor any reason to expect it to. Because the college wage premium keeps rising to no end, especially for STEM, consulting, finance, and other professional/managerial jobs, the benefits of learning calculus at age 12 and taking a full load of AP courses will keep paying dividends long into one’s career. This makes the current generation and future generations ‘the most educated ever’ (at least in terms of STEM concepts).

A top-1% SAT score and getting into a top college is more impressive in the eyes of one’s peers and social circle, students and parents alike, than having showed up to protest for George Floyd or putting a BLM-themed avatar on one’s social media profile. Protests, voting for Biden, or ‘being woke’ are just the social equivalents of the participation trophy, and thus doesn’t in any way highlight or distinguish the individual, but only signifies having participated in something, not having actually accomplished anything of noteworthiness or merit. It’s just another cope–a way of reconciling or painting over one’s mediocrity with a false sense of accomplishment or unearned appellation.

Politicians, journalists, and activists will continue to elevate diversity and the subjectivity of achievement and outcomes, but as long as quantifiable, objective differences in individual outcomes remain, everyone else will continue to act and believe differently as if such differences are real and matter.

1 comment

  1. The entire political milieu in the USA is characterized by hypocrisy. It’s not just liberals.

    Conservatives praise the free market while actually supporting restrictions on labor (immigration), and tariffs. Conservatives denigrate socialism and welfare, yet actually support Medicare and Social Security, the largest social welfare programs in the world (more spent as percent of GDP than any other country except France).

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