What can a rock-and-roll life teach us about public policy?
Permit me to suggest a semester’s worth of work that some college students may wish to undertake: Study the life of John Lennon and, after you finish reading two or three biographies of the famous leader of The Beatles, go read The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. When you have completed those assignments, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The purpose of this proposed curriculum is to understand how the abandoned son of an English sailor became one of the most influential figures in popular culture during the remarkable decade of the 1960s. What was it about Lennon, or the circumstances of his childhood, that enabled this boy from Liverpool and his friends to conquer the musical world? Ah, but first things first.
Last week, an anarchist mob at Middlebury College in Vermont riotously protested a campus speech by Charles Murray. “Resist White Supremacy Here!” was one of the slogans on the signs displayed by the disruptive demonstrators. Later, a group of about 30 protesters, some of them wearing masks, attacked Murray and the Middlebury professor who was walking him to his car. Professor Alison Stanger, a progressive who was a consultant for the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, required medical treatment for the injuries she suffered during the radical mob’s attack. What evidently inspired this madness — beyond the current anti-Trump rage of the Left — was the controversial book Murray co-authored more than 20 years ago.
Claims that The Bell Curve was a crypto-Nazi “racist” tract, a revival of discredited theories of eugenics, sparked widespread discussions in the mid-1990s. (The New Republic, at the time edited by Andrew Sullivan, was a major venue for that discussion.) It was unfortunate that Herrnstein, a Harvard psychology professor, died of cancer just as the book went to press, which meant Murray was required to defend their work without having his colleague to lend the authority of his own scientific expertise to that defense. When the paperback edition of The Bell Curve was issued in 1996, however, Murray included a 22-page afterword addressing the controversy, and the book — more than 800 pages, including notes, appendices and index — is still highly relevant to the public policy questions it was meant to address.
What those fixated on the racial controversy over The Bell Curve have done, besides inspiring the Middlebury mob attack last week, is to cause intelligent people to ignore the important issues the book raised about the American education system. The Bell Curve begins with a 90-page section (“The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite”) describing how developments in the mid-20th century — particularly widespread use of standardized testing in public schools, and federal subsidies that helped more students pursue higher education — created a sort of nationwide vacuum cleaner that sucked up smart kids all over the country and deposited them on the campuses of elite universities.
Whereas once the Ivy League educated the sons of affluent families in the Northeast, from the 1960s onward, the campuses of schools like Harvard and Yale have increasingly recruited ultra-brainy kids from everywhere in America, and even worldwide. The steep tuition at elite private schools (now about $50,000 a year) is no longer a barrier to entry, if a teenager has the kind of SAT scores, perfect high-school grades, and other qualifications that appeal to the university admissions committee. The smartest kids are thus separated from their peers and pushed into an educational machinery intended to manufacture a professional elite. This process has been underway now for two or three generations and, because members of the college-educated elite tend to marry other members of that elite, today’s teenage applicant to Columbia University might be the child of two parents who graduated from Columbia in the 1980s, and it may be that all four of this child’s grandparents were also college-educated.
The Bell Curve describes these related processes as “cognitive partitioning” and “assortative mating.” And if you want to understand why this matters, it helps to apply it to known examples of how great minds achieved success before this system existed. That’s why I suggest studying the life of John Lennon.
No one could have imagined when he was born in a Liverpool maternity ward in 1940 what a great destiny awaited John Winston Lennon, his middle name a tribute to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. England was at that time fighting for its survival against the Nazi menace, and Lennon’s father was a merchant sailor whose job meant risking attacks from German submarines. Lennon’s father was a working-class joker of part Irish ancestry who “couldn’t resist having a good time,” and his marriage to Lennon’s mother Julia Stanley was opposed by her middle-class family. Lennon’s mother was a free spirit who loved jazz and played the banjo, a skill she later taught her son. His parents split up and after age 5, John never saw his father until “Beatlemania” made him famous. John was largely raised by his aunt and uncle, Julia’s sister Mimi Smith and her husband George, who had no children of his own. The Smiths provided young John with a proper home, taking him to St. Peter’s Anglican church, where he sang in the choir. In school, Lennon was a class clown who liked to draw cartoons and write humorous poems, talents that did not endear him to his teachers at Dovedale Primary School. There were no standardized tests to identify the boy Lennon as a genius, and the main lesson he learned in school was to hate his teachers almost as much as they hated him. Young John became a rebel and displayed his leadership skills as the top hoodlum among the local misfits, a fearless fighter with a bad reputation.
“I was the one who all the other boys’ parents … would say, ‘Keep away from him’,” Lennon told a journalist in an interview not long before his death in 1980. “The parents instinctively recognized I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did.”
His aversion to school, where his teachers did not appreciate the troublemaker’s extraordinary talents, prevented John Lennon from being steered toward a university education. Any similarly bright child growing up in America today, however, could scarcely escape the system of testing that steers smart kids into “gifted” classes, and then on to the honors/advanced-placement track in high school. Because college education is now considered de rigueur for the American middle class, many parents pressure the schools to put their children into this scholastic fast-track in hope of qualifying them for one of the “best” universities. Because this system has been in operation for so many decades, it has resulted in a steady “brain drain” from small towns. The smart kid from Kansas or Kentucky who leaves home to attend Stanford or Princeton is likely never to return. Instead, most of our brightest children end up in a few major metropolitan areas — Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, etc. — disconnected from the nation’s heartland.
Two or three generations into this kind of “cognitive portioning,” the adolescent offspring of affluent elite-educated parents are radically alienated from ordinary Americans in the places where their grandparents were born. Part of this alienation is economic, but it is also cultural. University faculties are dominated by liberal professors who wield enormous influence on the values of the “cognitive elite.” Software engineers in Silicon Valley, managers of philanthropic foundations in New York, and journalists covering politics in Washington may have little in common, but all of them are university-educated, and they probably encountered few if any conservative professors during their collegiate careers. As the economist Thomas Sowell once remarked, “The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department.”
Even beyond the cookie-cutter conformity of political opinion resulting from the leftward tilt in academia, however, there is a similarity of socioeconomic background among most students at elite universities. Not many kids at Northwestern and Brown are the offspring of truck drivers or mechanics, and very few Ivy League students have any close relatives in the Army or Navy. Furthermore, there is a certain sameness about the childhood and adolescent experience of elite students — identified as “gifted” by third grade, participating in a multitude of extra-curricular “enrichment” activities, winning prizes in competitions, attending student leadership conferences, etc. Giving your kid what an ordinary American may think of as a happy childhood — fishing trips, dirt bikes, church choir, family picnics — isn’t going to impress the admissions committee at Duke or Northwestern. And there is almost zero chance that an elite university is ever going to admit a rebel genius like John Lennon.
You don’t need a Harvard degree to play rock-and-roll, and if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, you know a little bit of what made The Beatles such a world-changing phenomenon. As Gladwell shows, the group Lennon put together with Paul McCartney and George Harrison was not much different from many other bands of British schoolboys swept up by the rock music craze of the 1950s. Lennon had great leadership charisma and a knack for witty words, while McCarthy had good looks and a fine ear for melody, and George had diligently honed his skill as a guitarist. They were other teenage rockers in England, but Lennon’s band fortunately landed a gig playing nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany. In that city’s notorious Reeperbahn district, The Beatles were forced to play long sets for drunken crowds, most of whom didn’t understand the English lyrics of the songs, but just wanted to hear the latest dance music. Playing in these conditions for as many as eight hours a night, five or six nights a week, month after month, The Beatles were doing what Gladwell calls the “10,000 hours” necessary to obtain mastery of any skill.
Hamburg made The Beatles into the band that conquered the world. In that crucible, they lost Lennon’s art school buddy Stu Sutcliffe, who had been recruited to play bass guitar. The versatile McCartney took over on bass, and it was in Hamburg that The Beatles made friends with the drummer in another band from Liverpool, Ringo Starr, who would eventually join their group, replacing the not-quite-good-enough Pete Best. During those long nights in Hamburg, Lennon and his bandmates also discovered drugs in the form of methamphetamine pills, and made friends with a group of German art students who persuaded them to switch their Elvis Presley-style greaser haircuts for a “mod” style swept forward into bangs. They invested part of their earnings in bigger amplifiers, and bought black leather jackets. When they returned to England, the band had a better sound, a distinctive look, and an expanded repertoire of popular tunes they’d been forced to learn to satisfy requests from the Hamburg nightclub crowds. This made them something of a local sensation in Liverpool, which brought them to the attention of record-store owner Brian Epstein, who’d studied theater in college. Epstein became the group’s manager, switched their leather jackets for tailored suits, and gave them a few pointers in professional showmanship (e.g., no more smoking onstage or mingling with the audience between sets). Epstein used his connections in the record business to get The Beatles an audition with a London-based label, where a classically trained producer named George Martin was intrigued by their sound. By January 1963, a little more than two years after their first trip to Hamburg, their single “Please, Please Me” landed atop the U.K. pop charts. They rushed out their first album (recorded in one all-day session) a few weeks later, and two more No. 1 singles (“From Me to You” and “She Loves You”) followed in quick succession. Crowds of screaming teenagers now besieged the band at their performances in England, a phenomenon the press dubbed “Beatlemania,” and by November 1963, they played for Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Command Performance.
All of this, you see, started with that troublemaker John Lennon, the brilliant boy who hated school, where none of his teachers recognized his genius. Countercultural rebels always emerge in opposition to the existing system, and no one can predict when such an uprising will occur, nor who will lead it. When Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve more than 20 years ago, he was describing how our education system (along with many other institutions) was operating to produce socioeconomic results directly opposite of the avowed ideals and goals of the liberals in charge of these institutions. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing wider, black and Hispanic communities in cities like Chicago are plagued by criminal violence, and the liberal elite’s only policy prescription for these problems is — you guessed it — more liberalism. The goons who attacked Charles Murray at Middlebury College probably think of themselves as rebels, defending “diversity” against a fascist enemy, but the truth is the complete opposite. Murray is the real rebel, and the mob who attacked him are the real enemies of diversity. Being a left-winger on an elite campus like Middlebury is the most conformist thing imaginable. The anti-Murray protesters were defending a failed status quo against a genuinely radical critic of the system. Murray is a man who creates controversy because he asks tough questions and follows wherever the facts lead. Does this sound familiar?
“I always asked why people did things and why society was like it was,” John Lennon told an interviewer from Playboy magazine. “I didn’t just accept it for what it was apparently doing. I always looked below the surface.”
Charles Murray has been looking below the surface for a long time. A native of Iowa whose SAT scores were his ticket to Harvard, he has become a leading critic of the liberal ideology that prevails at his alma mater and other elite universities. Liberalism simply doesn’t help the poor people for whom liberals claim to feel so much sympathy, and liberalism doesn’t help poor white people any more than it helps poor black people. Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart, examined the declining fortunes of non-college-educated white Americans. Progressives who talk of “white privilege” simply ignore the data showing that drug abuse and the unraveling of family life (to name two key factors in the persistent problems of black communities) are also associated with socioeconomic decline among working-class whites. Liberals insist that poor blacks are victims of racism, but they have no simple explanation for the problems of poor whites, few of whom ever make it to the Ivy League, or to Middlebury College, for that matter.
John Lennon was cynical about the left-wingers of the late 1960s: “You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world.” He scorned the advocates of destructive violence: “But if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell you, brother, is you’ll have to wait.” The mob at Middlebury obviously didn’t understand what Lennon meant by that, any more than they understand Charles Murray’s ideas. And almost no one in elite academia is teaching kids anything that could help them understand what’s really wrong with 21st-century America.
John Lennon (YouTube)