James Atlas has written an interesting piece for the New York Times about an emerging category of youths in America’s upper echelon: Super People. Hailed as the Great Academic Leap Forward, the movement of which these young people are a part is populated by the hysterically competitive, education-obsessed winners whose academic credentials, community service hours, multilingual competence, and musical talent far outmatches the rest:
“Perhaps theres an evolutionary cause, and these robust intellects reflect the leap in the physical development of humans that we ascribe to better diets, exercise and other forms of health-consciousness. (Stephen Jay Gould called this mechanism extended scope.) All you have to do is watch a long rally between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to recognize if youre old enough how much faster the sport has become over the last half century. Or maybe its a function of economics. Writing in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, John Quiggin, a visiting professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the Great Academic Leap Forward is both a consequence of, and a contributor to, the growing inequality and polarization of American society. Nearly 25 percent of the annual income in America goes to 1 percent of the population, creating an ever-wealthier upper class. Yet theres no extra space being made in our best colleges for high-achieving students. Taken together, Professor Quiggin points out, the Ivy League and other elite institutions educate something less than 1 percent of the U.S. college-age population a percentage thats going to shrink further as the population of college-bound students continues to grow. ”
But what Atlas is calling evolution might in fact be something else altogethera reversion. Pascal published Generation of Conic Sections when he was sixteen years old, Montaigne spoke Latin before French, Leibniz composed three hundred hexameters of Latin verse in a single morning at age thirteen, and even John Henry Newman had read Thomas Paine, David Hume, and Voltaire before he turned fifteen, meanwhile having played the violin since ten.
But then, thinkers such as these were not doing what they were doing to get into Harvard.