To the Editor:
Two books reviewed by Russell K. Nieli in “Genes and Grit,” in the Winter 2014 Academic Questions (vol. 27, no. 4), attempt to explain the success of certain racial groups and failure of others.
In The Triple Package: How Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed Rosenfeld posit three commonalities of the eight ethnic groups—Jews, Chinese, Cubans, Iranians, Mormons, Nigerians, Lebanese, and Indians—who are “starkly more successful than others.” These are (1) self-discipline and impulse control, (2) a strong belief in their superiority to others in many ways, and ironically (3), a deep personal insecurity and need to prove oneself to family and group. In contrast, the authors attribute academic failure of blacks to the usual racist suspects who have destroyed their ability to rise above their travails and develop the triple package leading to success.
In A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade suggests that the two thousand years of anti-Semitism that excluded Jews from most manual occupations herded them into fields requiring literacy, mathematical skill, and general intelligence. Those Jews, who, despite the pogroms, exiles, ghettoes, and general harassment, succeeded, were more likely to attract mates and reproduce than their less bright and bookish co-religionists. The modern cohort of Jews is therefore mostly composed of their descendants.
In spring 1946, Salanter Yeshiva, a Bronx elementary school, decided to eliminate the ninth grade. For most eighth graders this was just an inconvenience. In the fall they could continue religious studies at the Yeshiva University High School or enter their local public high school. For my brother Bernie and his best friend Paul, however, the situation was more complicated. They had planned to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) the following year and apply for admission to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Admission to Science and the other elite NYC high schools is based exclusively on scoring in the top echelon of the SHSAT. The test for eighth graders had already been given and the few spots for the incoming ninth grade entering class determined.
Salanter’s principal, believing that given the chance Bernie and Paul would have easily made the cut, successfully lobbied Science’s principal for their admission based exclusively on their exceptional grades.
Bernie and Paul were admitted, performed well, and went on to Ivy League colleges and outstanding careers as a doctor and lawyer, respectively. They may have been the only students ever admitted without the rigorous entrance exam.
Obviously then, I should agree with the push to eliminate the SHSAT as the only criterion for admission to Science, Stuyvesant, and the other elite NYC high schools.
In the 1950s, I was an indifferent Salanter student who often played hooky, skipped the school’s religious services, and failed most classes.
Pressure from my parents and sibling rivalry with my brother—by then a magna cum laude Columbia College graduate and medical school student—forced me to pay more attention to my studies. In eighth grade I took the SHSAT and was accepted to Science. I had been lazy, not stupid.
My four years at Science were the most amazing educational experience of my life, not because of the teachers or classes, but because of my incredibly smart classmates.
The entrance exam culled the best and the brightest and put them together under one roof. Bronx Science alumni have won eight Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, seven Pulitzers, and numerous other honors. Many recognizable names are Science graduates: members of Congress, business magnates, pop culture entertainers, and Hollywood film producers, writers, actors, and prizewinning makeup artists. More important, like the children of Lake Wobegon, the “average” Scienceite is above-average: a doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect, astronomer, physicist, chemist, professor, etc. Science graduates have made countless contributions to society.
In the eyes of progressives however, the NYC elite public high schools have a deep-seated structural problem: a homogeneous ethnic population. When Bernie, Paul, and I attended Science the vast majority of the students were first- or second-generation Ashkenazi Jews. Today, most students are Asian.
Although there are complaints that African Americans and Latinos are not proportionally represented at Science, there have been outstanding minority graduates. The late Stokely Carmichael (Class of 1960) became an early black power activist and chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. As director of the Hayden Planetarium and television host of Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (Class of 1976) has introduced millions to the wonders of the universe. My brilliant friend Eugene H. signed my yearbook in Hebrew and at the time of graduation was fluent in five languages.
Alternate elite high school admission procedures have been suggested, including selecting the top 10 percent of students in feeder middle schools or those with high scores on other statewide tests. Not surprisingly, a study by the New York University Institute of Education and Social Policy revealed that not only would that system select essentially the same group of students admitted by the SHSAT but also the number of disadvantaged students admitted would actually drop.
It is painfully obvious that admitting students lacking the ability to navigate the intellectually challenging environment of the elite high schools is harmful to them and ultimately destructive to the schools.
I also fear that the replacement of educational elitism by egalitarian mediocrity is precisely the outcome sought by those who loathe the very idea that some kids are, for whatever reason, smarter than others.
Steven S. Kron, M.D.
Bronx High School of Science, 1962