Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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 there’s 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 you’re old enough — how much faster the sport has become over the last half century. Or maybe it’s 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 there’s 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 that’s 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 altogether—a 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.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles