April 1, 2007

Dilemmas of overachieving girls: The tough-minded response

I'm not trying to sound dismissive of their frustrations, but after reading a recent entry at The Audacious Epigone on the distributing of didactic comic books among underage Hispanic females to warn them of the dangers of getting used and knocked up by older men, something tells me we have graver ordeals to worry about. That said, there are a few interesting aspects of teenage life in a current NYT feature article on the pressures facing overachieving high school girls. Readers can probably anticipate much of what I would say to the main storyline of the article, so I'll only comment on some of the more peripheral -- though still important -- points. The response is split into two posts, this one more tough-minded than the other, since it's difficult to integrate both lines of thought into a single post.

First of all, thank christ that a major elite newspaper has so exquisitely discredited the canard that young girls these days aren't being encouraged to excel, that they are being steered away from certain career paths, and so on. College-bound girls these days are all but smothered in encouragement and given free rein to "find their own voice."

Moving on, the first peek into life at Newton North High School is a scene that should provide a disturbing reminder of the quality of university literature and philosophy classes to those who had to sit through them. Despite the profound title of the course, "Man's Search for Meaning," it's clear from the picture and the few quotes from the discussion in the article that this is one of those "glorified book club meeting" courses, although at a public high school you're not paying $3000 per semester to stroke each other's cerebral genitalia by quoting Sartre and affecting the mannerisms that you believe Serious Thinkers are supposed to put on. The narrative thread about how smart and sophisticated these girls are would have been better portrayed if the article had shown the girls conducting lab work or offering tough but constructive criticism of a friend's essay (rather than agreeing with everyone else in a discussion).

Here's one thing girls definitely do not have to worry about:

These students are aware that because more girls apply to college than boys, amid concerns about gender balance, boys may have an edge at some small selective colleges.

As pointed out in the body and comments of this "women in science" post at GNXP, males have greater variance in IQ, so that there are proportionally more males than females at elite (as well as special ed) levels of IQ. To achieve gender equity at a place like Harvard or Stanford, where you figure the mean IQ of undergrads is about 140, they must either turn away more males than females, or (more likely) a greater proportion of brainiac males are willing to go to less sexy universities for whatever reasons -- to save money / plan for financial independence, to graduate more quickly, or because their geeky interests bias them away from "well-rounded" environments like Harvard. For instance, here is uber-geeky CalTech's profile: 29% female for undergrad, 30% female for grad students. Now, CalTech is very prestigious, but the point is simply that lots of other brainy guys might be drawn to similarly geeky and rigorous places, such as U. Illinois - Urbana Champaign, which don't have the sex appeal of elite liberal arts schools.

In any case, the fact that more females apply to college than males means almost nothing at the elite liberal arts colleges that the girls profiled are interested in. The surfeit of female applicants is likely due mostly to more lower-IQ females than males wanting a bachelors degree to make a decent buck in adulthood, while males go to vocational school or what have you.

And speaking of IQ, notice that the girl who scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT is the daughter of brainy Northeast Asian immigrants. That's a pretty easy way to boost our nation's mean IQ through immigration -- obviously let in Chinese PhDs, but bring over more "mail order brides" from the impoverished areas of Northeast Asia for smart but low-status delta-males in the US. Their children will be smarter than average, harmless / law-abiding, and contribute a lot to the tax base. NB: I am not advocating this position out of self-interest, as I am generally unattracted to Northeast Asian women.

Oh, and in case you didn't know, SAT prep is a booming business:

High-priced SAT prep has become almost routine at schools like Newton North. Not to hire the extra help is practically an act of rebellion.

This is a great way to make money for young adults in transition like me: I make $35 an hour for private tutoring, though I could probably charge $50 (I don't like haggling; just leave me alone and let me work). If you're smart and did well in school, and most importantly can communicate with your fellow human beings (which a lot of math / SAT tutors are hopeless at), it's a great job. You don't have to prepare lessons, and all of the relevant knowledge is already in your head, so you don't need lots of extra training. Working with smart, motivated students (like those you'd find if you lived in Newton, Mass.) means that you can take a more abstract, Socratic approach, which is more stimulating for you as a tutor. It's not a full-time job, obviously, but it's still good money.

However, it blew my mind to read this:

Esther’s ethics teacher, Joel Greifinger, spent considerable time this winter on moral theories. An examination of John Rawls’s theory of justice led to extensive discussions about American society and class inequality. Among the reading material Mr. Greifinger presented was research showing the correlation between income and SAT scores.

I'll say again: it is absolutely astonishing that a teacher at an elite liberal high school can point out the obvious, while anyone who cites data from The Bell Curve (which also examines the correlation between class and IQ) is pilloried as a racist eugenicist. The article doesn't mention how the teacher elaborated on the data -- you might first guess that he went the easy route of saying, "See kids, IQ doesn't measure anything useful other than how much money your parents have to spend on tutors." (Wrong.) But we have to bear in mind that this was an ethics teacher presenting a Rawlsian view of justice. I've never hidden the fact that I think a Rawlsian approach to policy is only bolstered by the empirical data on wealth and IQ correlating as they do, as well as the data on the substantial heritability of IQ. Smart people didn't do anything to earn the genes which were bequeathed unto them by their parents, so we are rewarding natural inequality by allowing income and IQ to correlate so highly.

It's pretty easy to correct for that by some mild redistribution of wealth, subject to the obvious provisos (e.g., the poor could only use the extra money to better their station, not to buy cognac, diamond jewelry, or garish automobile rims). The moral rationale is straightforward: imagine that society financially rewarded those who scored highly on some trait on which you score lowly -- unless you're a masochist, you'd hope that the more blessed would help cushion the blow somewhat, rather than abandon you to fend for your hopeless self. Now, unless you're someone special -- which you're not -- why shouldn't this hold true from the point-of-view of the low-IQ as well?

Moving on, though:

There is something about the lives these girls lead — their jam-packed schedules, the amped-up multitasking, the focus on a narrow group of the nation’s most selective colleges — that speaks of a profound anxiety in the young people, but perhaps even more so in their parents, about the ability of the next generation to afford to raise their families in a place like Newton.

I'll just let Steve Sailer answer that one. However, Esther has resolved not to enter a lucrative profession but theology:

"I have such a strong sense of being supported by my faith,” she continued. “It gives me priorities. That’s why I’m not concerned about making money, because I know that there is so much more to living a rich life than having money."

On the one hand, I'm glad to hear that her criteria include more than making a shitload of money, but after pausing for a few seconds, it strikes me to ask: Who wants to place bets on whether or not she'll marry a rich lawyer, doctor, or banker? That's fine with me, of course, and she can marry whom she wants, but then she should drop the faux rebellious act -- rejecting consumerism means accepting the consequences, much as a mendicant monk does, not mouthing objections to the rule of the almighty dollar while her parents and husband subsidize her million-dollar house, leather-interior car, and Movado watch (the last two visible in the "multimedia" interactive feature).

Well, beating up on teenage girls is pretty easy to do, so I'll leave it there. Really, though, my main gripe is not with the kids themselves, so much as it is with the quixotic mush-heads who have abdicated their role of guidance, preferring instead the slogans "Do what you want" and "You're special just the way you are." In the next post, I'll take a more empathetic tone in addressing some of the other features brought up in the article.


  1. . . . amid concerns about gender balance, boys may have an edge at some small selective colleges.

    Contra the idea that campuses with more women are better for female 'self-esteem' and such, I'd wager the truth is that a male biased sex ratio is generally better for female subjective well being. When there are fewer males and more women, women have less sexual bargaining power and men act like pigs. When there are more men and fewer women, men make more compromises and women have the upperhand (less sex, more dates).

    Someone should compare college sex ratio with how happy the female and male students say they are.

  2. I'm not sure where the theorists get the idea that women are less competitive in a majority female environment. From experience, the situation is not good for ones' self-esteem even without the sexual aspects. When I was a pre-med undergrad (like every other science major in my majority female state school), the most acid, jealous comments I ever got were from other women - women I didn't even know who overheard me talking about grades and such! - particularly around application time. Men will never tear a woman down directly - but women will.

  3. Jason,

    Until that's done, I'll aver to the Galahad experience!


    In this case what's good for one's self-esteem probably isn't optimal for realizing one's potential for achievement. I throw in with the theorists that see sexually-segregated classrooms as better suited for focused learning.


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