My recent postings on tribal identification and other primitive parts of our personalities gives one reason why assortive mating would be a topic of fascination for me. The other reason, likely much more important, is the idea of legacy. I have four sons, and however much we kid them about marrying them off and how awful their own children will be to deal with, the plain fact is that 4 is a very small sample size, and individual differences and destinies will affect their future lives more than the averages of assortive mating will. Still, as parents, we try to set things up for our descendants to put the averages in their favor as much as possible. Did I marry the right sort of person myself? Have I been a parent who trained children to be parents themselves? Have I provided sufficient warning and insulation against their divorcing or having children outside of marriage? There are deeper items of legacy as well, spiritual legacy, emotional legacy, cultural legacy. I would far rather talk about those, but don’t really know what to say.
It is not that I am here conscious of my audience, which includes a goodly percentage of young friends-and-relations, including my own children. I am actually less conscious of addressing them than I perhaps should be. In discussing large abstract issues, I likely make comments which could wound those I know, because I wasn’t thinking of them specifically when I made a sweeping generalization. My audience should be what makes the discussion difficult, but it isn’t.
Legacies are transmitted bone-to-bone, and thus defy easy description. What children receive is also not quite what we thought we bequeathed. We threw in lots of extra stuff, good and bad, that we hadn’t realized, and never did pass on some things we swore were important to us. Confusing the issue further, each child in any family has different parents. The interactions are different from Day One. And with my two Romanians, who I didn’t even have until Day Five Thousand and Day Six Thousand of their lives, legacy is even more a roll of the dice.
These are close to the central facts of my life, and I haven’t a clue what to say. So I’ll go back to the grand theoretical constructs.
Kay Hymowitz’s new book Marriage and Caste is one of those sound-the-alarm books. She has looked at the numbers for education, stable marriage, unwed parenting, cohabitation, and divorce and is very worried that we are rapidly dividing into two Americas: one educated and married, the other less educated and divorced, single, or cohabiting, with disastrous consequences for the children. She summarizes this material in an essay over at City Journal. It is disquieting. The advantages of having two parents is great – greater than popular culture supposes - and one large portion of the rising generation already has advantages. Two difficulties with the Hymowitz information strike me. 1) What’s new? Even in elementary school I could have pointed out to you who had “advantages” and who didn’t. What are considered the main advantages have changed over time in our society, but they have been drawn from the same short list. These are percentages, not destinies. Perhaps I say this a bit defensively, as I was a child of divorced parents in an era (early 1960’s) when that was rare, and more stigmatized. 2) This pattern does not result in a division into castes unless it is worse each successive generation. Children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves, but is it even more likely if their grandparents were divorced? Or does that disadvantage remain for only a generation each time? The numbers aren’t in for that, I don’t think. If some factor of deterioration – criminality, substance abuse, chronic unemployment, divorce – is 50% in the first generation, but 60% in the second and 70% in the third, then we have a more serious problem. We would then have an underclass which is not merely under, but going further under every year. I don’t think we see that. People still rise from a low place or fall from a high place with fair regularity in American society.
Hymowitz makes much of the fact that elite colleges have a hugely disproportionate percentage of children living with both parents. It worries her that this is the early evidence of a new aristocracy, which will increasingly get the good jobs and rule the rest of the country. If I thought that the graduates of elite colleges actually were destined to rule society, I would be more concerned. I think that day has long passed. Graduates of Princeton and Bryn Mawr will have higher incomes than average, and more than their share of state attorneys general. But they will also have a higher share of Gender Studies and Art History majors, who might go on to have interesting productive lives, but aren’t likely to be ruling too many of their fellows. Materials engineers from state universities are better placed for that.