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Posted by on Sep 28, 2007 in ban private schools, private education | 27 comments

Are upper middle class kids innately smarter and more talented than other children?

Earlier, I made a case for banning private schools (see “ban private schools” link to the left), and also responded to various objections that you raised.

My case for banning was really on two fronts:

A practical case – we’re wasting enormous amounts of native talent – and perhaps even missing out on that cure for cancer – because second-raters are, in effect, being bought a place at the front of the high-status jobs queue.

A moral case – it is unjust that the children of a small minority should so dramatically dominate the high status professions because their parents bought them a “superior” private education. For by buying their own children a leg up in this way, they dramatically restrict the life chances and opportunities available to other, innately more gifted and talented individuals.

However, my objection did, in both cases, rest on an assumption – that the children of those 7 percent who dominate the high status professions do not, in fact, have greater native wit and talent. I’ve been assuming that native wit and talent is distributed fairly evenly across the social classes. But perhaps it isn’t. It’s this suggestion that I now want to explore.

Could the children of that top 7%, who so effectively hand on power and privilege from generation to generation, actually be innately smarter and more gifted than the rest? Could this be the real reason why they dominate those high status professions?


  1. I think it is pretty obvious that there is a genetic component to talent – see Bach & sons etc.Wealthy people will be on average more talented, but not uniformly so. And the children of talented people will be on average more talented, but not uniformly so.So equality of opportunity is still denied when wealthy parents buy their children advantages out of proportion to their talents. Parents will also tend to pass on the attitudes and values that led them to their prosperity or lack thereof.And familiarity with the lifestyles and attitudes of the better off can lead to career opportunities that you don’t need to be terribly bright to take up.So – this means we will never get perfect social mobility, but does this matter? Isn’t good social mobility good enough?If we manage boost social mobility, we should expect a big surge as previously unrecognised talent finds its level, and then a dropping off, since the talent has already moved on. Arguably this is what is happening now.But this doesn’t mean there aren’t more obstacles to mobility that we could take down.

  2. I don’t think it’s terribly likely that the children of the 7% are on average genetically more intelligent than the rest of the population. (In fact, if you define the problem as narrowly as the 7%, I should say it’s certainly not true).However, there are lots of other things apart from genetic predisposition to intelligence and formal schooling which influence career prospects; parental encouragement to study, expenditure on books, peer approval/disapproval of doing well at school, willingness to take risks (perhaps because supported by money), self-confidence etc etc.

  3. “I don’t think it’s terribly likely that the children of the 7% are on average genetically more intelligent than the rest of the population. (In fact, if you define the problem as narrowly as the 7%, I should say it’s certainly not true).”I think it is extremely likely, almost certainly true, but that the difference will be slight. (Remembering, of course, that this is not “uniformly so”: there is massive, massive overlap.)Intelligence is heritable (and heredity is statistical, probabalistic). The expansion of the human brain over the course of its evolution and the dominance of humans tells us this straight off, and this is backed up by research ( argue that richer people and their children are not, at all, on average more intelligent, is to argue that intelligence has no effect at all on wealth, which research (mentioned) shows is not true. (To say all that is not to say anything about the size of the difference in averages, or to advocate any policy based on it.)

  4. Of course, that doesn’t answer Stephen’s question. That’s a job for scientists, not philosophers.

  5. I agree that intelligence (or at any rate IQ, which is a good proxy) correlates with wealth and a whole heap of related social indicators. But IQ is probably about 50% heritable, so the relationship between the wealth of the parents and the genetic IQ of the children is so much more attenuated. And the 7% group is a very specific demographic which includes not-very-bright children being educated at specifically non-academic schools (ie not all public schools are academically selective).I read GNXP too and am not in any way ideologically averse to evidence for genetic variation within the human species. But one needs to be very careful with data-mining, and cautious about the difference between correlation and causation. So far, Stephen’s thesis has been based on rather slim sociological evidence. I am waiting with interest to see what his acquaintance with population genetics throws up. Despite a general persoanl leaning towards individual freedoms and a considerable disinclination to believe the state capable of effective social engineering, I would be cautiously in favour of the “ban public schools idea” if I thought that the sociological evidence backed up real harm done by their existence.

  6. The problem with this question is the assumption that classes are fixed, when in fact there is quite a bit of class mobility, both across generations and even throughout the lifetime of an individual. For example, many of the people in the middle class in America today are the children or the grandchildren of poor immigrants, so it cannot be any innate trait that is passed on genetically that explains their performance. It seems more likely to me that it is the habits and traits that children acquire while growing up in middle class households that accounts for their performance.

  7. I am reminded of an excellent quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau about the issue of whether the inequality in the distribution of social goods (wealth, good jobs, etc) was connected to the inequality in distribution of natural talents (ie, intelligence):”There is [no] point in asking whether there would not be some essential connection between the two inequalities, for that would amount to asking whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey…Perhaps this is a good question for slaves to discuss within earshot of their masters, but it is not suitable for reasonable and free men who seek the truth.”It seems to me that there is really a more basic problem underlying this issue of whether or not to have private schools. We live in a society of winners and losers, a society that is organized hierarchically with some people enjoying greater education, better jobs, and more power and money than other people as the result of competition.As long as we maintain a system in which some people get more than others (and many of those who get less can hardly survive on what they have), people are going to fight like hell to make sure that they and their families don’t end up slipping down the social ladder. Hence private schools and all the other ways people struggle to get ahead any way they can (fairly or otherwise). Furthermore, from this come all those sophistic ideologies which purport to justify the hierarchical order as it exists (eg, rich people and their kids are rich and better educated because they’re smarter, harder-working, more virtuous, etc).The point I’m driving at is that as long as we maintain a social order which is basically hierarchical, people are going to use all sorts of means to get ahead. Trying to do away with, for instance, just private schools seems (1) unlikely to work given how hard the well-off can be expected to fight to maintain their position, (2) just an inadequate reform that will fail to seriously undermine inequality because it allows the well-off to use countless other means to maintain their advantage for themselves and their kids, and (3) insufficient because it fails to question whether a hierarchically-ordered society is just. Banning private schools might, to some extent, increase the ability of lower-class kids to join the upper-classes, but this just means that banning private schools might make it easier for the children of slaves to someday become slave-owners themselves.

  8. I think its entirely possible that, in a society where intelligence, ingenuity and drive can win one great wealth that the wealthy may tend to be, on average, of higher native intelligence than the average of the less wealthy.But only actual scientific investigation of the question can show if this is actually the case.I also suspect (and, anecdotally, have tended to observe) that the children of wealthy people are of greater physical attractiveness than average—for similar reasons—a wealthy individual has greater opportunity to find a highly physically attractive mate than a less wealthy person (and is usually inclined to take full advantage of this opportunity).

  9. There is evidence of the correlation between wealth and intelligence, but of course that is only one piece of the puzzle. Values, peers and opportunities are another, in that they influence the starting point of the student when they hit school and their ability to take advantage of what is being taught. For example, poor students often have less access to books and have parents who haven’t read to them prior to school. This influences their ability to learn to read in school at a reasonable pace, thereby setting them behind from the very start.But even if we were to assume that there was an even distribution of intelligence at birth, the poor face more fundamental issues that will take it away. Malnutrition, exposure to lead in paint and other toxic chemicals and potentially lesser healthcare (a bigger problem in the US) all play a part in stripping inate ability from kids who otherwise may have had it.Banning private schools won’t resolve these types of issues. It may even things out between the middle and upper classes, but the poor will still be left behind and realistically that is where the greatest loss of talent is occuring.

  10. To argue that richer people and their children are not, at all, on average more intelligent, is to argue that intelligence has no effect at all on wealthI think Hugo has made an outstanding point here; a nice antidote to kneejerk condemnation of innate differences. However, as he points out, the difference would likely be tiny and there would be massive overlap of the two bell curves. For all intents and purposes, it is highly doubtful that this has any significant bearing on the upper class kids dominating the “high class” professions. So I think Stephen’s assumption is still safe on empiric grounds.However:I’m not sure you even need that assumption to make very similar arguments. Group characteristics don’t matter here – only individual ones do. Even if meticulously-designed studies repeatedly showed that the upper classes were MUCH more intelligent, this would still only be a statistical average. There would still be individuals outside of this ‘privileged class’ who were more intelligent than certain individuals from that upper class.So private school education would STILL be (i) unfair and (ii) a waste of native talent. It’s just that the present sin would be far less great.The only assumption you DO need is that the present system isn’t 100% fair – i.e. that the reason the top 7% dominate the top jobs isn’t entirely due to innate talent in EVERY case. This is a much easier assumption to swallow.

  11. I don’t see how class would have any connection to innate inteligence. Class, however, taken as one’s external evironment is extremely important in one’s intellectual development as evident from national test results which often show close correlations of high scores to high social status and low scores to low social status. But innate inteligence is not confined to a particular class.

  12. jeremy, of course it is unfair that people have different opportunities.There is probably rather more unfairness within the state sector – between good and bad schools; and with the private sector too, than there is between the state and private sectors.The problem I have here with all this discussion is that there seems to be an assumption that it is a reasonable response to unfairness to tell people that they are not allowed to provide something for their own children, if not everybody else can also provide it. Are my children’s christmas presents going to be safe when you lot are in government?The state should be fighting unfairness, yes, but by giving opportunities where they are missing, not by taking opportunities away. Fairness is not so important that its pursuit should crush freedom.Of course it would benefit my children if the difference between the good state schools (where they go) and the good private schools were somehow averaged out. (If indeed the private schools are better – I am not entirely convinced.) And it would harm them if the difference between their schools and the poor state schools were similarly averaged out.I am guessing you people are mostly in a similar boat to me, but you are only looking upwards with envy and not downwards with charity.

  13. Jeremy,I am not in particular for or against Stephens proposision, but havn’t several of you made a number of simplifying assumptions here? One that springs to my mind is what I can call “learning environment harm” Namely that likely both the in-class and overall learning environemt on bright kids is impaired by the negative influence from de-motivated and for that matter un-talented kids.This might have negatively impact on both the learning situation as such, motivation wearing on teachers, as well as other factors.Cassanders

  14. Would anyone agree with the assertion that poorer people lead more difficult lives because of the releative lack of money and that this adversely affects thier chances.For example, a parent or parents who are working two jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table have less time to devote to their children’s development (in all areas, not just education). Not to mention sending their kids to college.

  15. I propose an alternative question. Are Jews inherently smarter than all other races? For example if you look at the proportion of the US population comprised by Jews, and the proportion of Jewish-American nobel laureates, entrepreneurs mentioned in newspapers and journals, CEO’s – even actors and actresses – they are apparently disproportionately over-represented. I have heard it said that indeed this proves Jews are inherently more intelligent. I suspect there is something else going on – for instance social networks are far more important than intelligence in obtaining positions of significance, in getting jobs (or parts in films), in being nominated for nobel prize etc. Perhaps the upper middle class have a better social network – and that is what their parents are purchasing for them in sending them to private schools. I also concur with Joe Otten. Unfairness does not require removing opportunity from those who have been able to obtain it, but finding new ways of providing opportunities to others

  16. Actually, I suspect it is quite likely that American Jews are on average smarter than other Americans. This would largely be because smarter (and richer) Jews would have had a better chance of escaping the holocaust.Even before that, centuries of pogroms will have taken their toll disproportionately on the more vulnerable.Murder the less capable in any group and you will increase the capacity of the average. This is elementary statistics.Somebody warn me if I have crossed a line here.

  17. Are my children’s christmas presents going to be safe when you lot are in government?Joe – you made me laugh 🙂 For what it’s worth I am actually still not convinced that banning private schools is the way forward, and I’d far rather work to (i) raise the bottom rather than pull down the top (even in the interests of fairness) and (ii) put in place other steps to limit the unfair access of private scholars to Oxbridge, etc. (e.g. perhaps stop the interviews?). I’m not from Britain though, and it’s a little difficult for me to fully appreciate the situation there.What I was doing in my post was to validate the unfairness of the present situation as described – not (entirely) endorsing Stephen’s propasal.In that light, I agree with cassandra and anonymous. Since I don’t think genetics plays a significant role in the better performance of the upper middle class kids, the reason MUST be ‘environemental’.

  18. I am amazed that people don’t think genetics is significant. Nor do I see why it matters whether it is genetics or environment, when the bulk of the environmental influence on a child is also a gift from its parents, largely inseperable from the genetics.Of course where the state is responsible it should seek to give every child the best possible environment. But it would be disproportionate to the problem (wouldn’t it? everybody?) to seek to increase the state’s role in child-rearing at the expense of the family.

  19. I was almost convinced by Stephen’s arguments, but felt that something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t articulate it, but I think Joe has hit the nail on the head. I think Stephen’s argument has shown that it is unfair for private schools to exist. He has shown that getting rid of them would improve the lot of people at state schools (while decreasing the average intelligence of the country). But that does not mean we should do it. As Joe said, “the problem I have here with all this discussion is that there seems to be an assumption that it is a reasonable response to unfairness to tell people that they are not allowed to provide something for their own children, if not everybody else can also provide it. Are my children’s christmas presents going to be safe when you lot are in government?The state should be fighting unfairness, yes, but by giving opportunities where they are missing, not by taking opportunities away. Fairness is not so important that its pursuit should crush freedom.”I think so too. You may not, but it’s quite a bullet to bite:Should the government ban all learning outside school (just like richer parents paying for private school, should more learned parents be allowed to teach their children outside school?)? Should we pass on benefits to our children at all? Or should the state be the ultimate leveller, and all benefits accrued die with the parents? You can bite the bullet, but I think this entails no private christmas presents. Should the state pay for everyone to have a basic minimum amount of christmas presents, with no extra private spending (“no top-ups”)? (I would go a bit further: this is the road to serfdom: the state intruding into all parts of life, and the loss of the market. Eventually everyone loses. Freedom really is this important. But even if you don’t agree with this, what is the difference between private school and “private christmas presents”?)

  20. I imagine from the posts here that very few of the posters are what might be descrived as poor. Joe, Hugo,When you talk about increasing fairness by given more oppertunity to those at the bottom rather than removing it from those at the top, you are ignoring certain realities and to some extent the thrust of stephen’s argument. (I Think :)).Particularly when considering places in third level education like oxbridge it must be taken into account that the supply is finite. If every single final year second level studend achived 100% in all their exams, could they all go to oxbridge? I think the unfairness that Stephen is referring to is that some more talented but poor (disadvantaged) kids are being denied thier oppertunities because the parents of less talented kids have bought places for the own children by sending them to the favoured private schools. Its not about taking oppertunity away, its about sharing out the available opertunity as fairly as possible amoungst the most talented kids.I come from a very poor background and can personally attest to the disadvantages that brings with it. It is galling to say the least to see many people being handed success in what amounts to nepotism when you must far exceed the performance of your socially better placed peers to be noticed and given oppertunity. Oppertunity does exist for the non-rich, it’s just much rarer and must be very aggressively persued to be attained by the very poor. The poor kid of average talent stands almost no chance of achieving notable success. Only the well above average have any hope. It is not so for the wealthy. Private schools are one of many means to give them a little push in the direction of success.This entire disscussion of course amounts to little more than hot air. Rich people, understandably, will fight for every advantage for their own children and as rich peopele have more power in society, they will find ways to unfairly bias the system in their favour. This though is not a good reason not to try to make it harder for them 🙂

  21. GPowSa Thanks to author.

  22. Magnific!

  23. actually, that’s brilliant. Thank you. I’m going to pass that on to a couple of people.

  24. Magnific!

  25. Nice Article.

  26. To ask if ‘upper middle class kids are innately smarter and more talented than other children’, reminds me of those who claim that American black children are less smarter than white children. A child will grow up ‘smart’ if his/her parents are articulate, show an interest in their child’s education, are educated themselves, enjoy the culture valued by educational institutes, own books and have the money to send their child to the best schools.

  27. I recommend reading Plato’s Foundation Myth to those interested in the relationship between social class and intelligence.

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