As America gets better at making sure nothing gets in the way of ability, a new fixed class of privilege may be emerging: a cognitive elite. Here's my theory: America's past success at creating a culture of opportunity (including women) means that America has gotten very good at identifying those with cognitive ability and funneling them toward elite institutions. There, they meet, marry each other and reproduce powerful social advantages for their children through at least three mechanism: genes, human capital and moral capital. Children born to, say, two Yale grads are more likely to be born with cognitive ability, and to have parents who can educate them informally and also encourage successful habits (from doing homework to intellectual curiosity).
Meanwhile, smart, disciplined, focused, poor 18-year-olds like Sam Alito's dad, whose lives can be transformed by $50 (or even full local college tuition), are still out there, but they are surely harder to find these days. The new barriers to success among poor children (fatherlessness, neighborhood chaos, poor schools, rampant substance abuse and a distracting sexual culture) are not the type that college admission officers can do much about.
Which is no excuse for the rest of us who live in Sam Alito's America to give up trying. I bet Alito's dad used to say, like mine did: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.