The U.S. cultural elite

Overall I do not regard this as good news:

We examine the educational backgrounds of more than 2,900 members of the U.S. cultural elite and compare these backgrounds to a sample of nearly 4,000 business and political leaders. We find that the leading U.S. educational institutions are substantially more important for preparing future members of the cultural elite than they are for preparing future members of the business or political elite. In addition, members of the cultural elite who are recognized for outstanding achievements by peers and experts are much more likely to have obtained degrees from the leading educational institutions than are those who achieve acclaim from popular audiences.

That is from a new paper by Steven Brint,, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


Define "cultural elite." Is it a synonym for "influencer?"

This is what I wondered. It should include, say, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Lorne Michaels, Stephen Colbert, etc. Does it? Or does it mainly mean journalists and Harvard professors who have written influential books?

The article (might be paywalled, not sure) has some very good tables that you can click on to enlarge and read. I didn't dig down to see if they list individual names but they do include categories such as "recording artists", "television stars", and even "video game directors and developers". And the tables tell you how many people are in each of those categories.

Still, even when one grants that the article is about "cultural elites" and not "popular cultural leaders", I think their list is a little top-heavy with categories such as Academy Award winners, directors and curators of museums, and academic leaders (where of course highly selective educational institutions are going to dominate) compared to leaders of more plebeian careers.

IOW they might be asking the wrong research question. Cultural leaders in the form of conductors of symphony orchestras are going to come from elite academic/musical institutions. Cultural leaders in the form of hip hop artists are not (with a few exceptions e.g. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys attended Bard College). Their research focuses on cultural elites and yeah the elites are going to come from elite institutions. But that might not be the most interesting or important measure of cultural influence.

It is a mistake to conflate education with intelligence or ability.


They're positively correlated, but not at all the same thing.

Worse; Intelligence doesn't protect you from being captured by tribal grupthink and social virtue signalling.

You would be right to conflate education and intelligence 95% of the time. State schoolers are not nearly as bright as Ivy Leaguers. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Please allow me to rephrase more accurately: "State schoolers are not nearly as privileged as Ivy Leaguers."

Among my acquaintances in my class at a state school were a Rhodes Scholar, an epidemiologist whose work validated a major vaccine, a US Senator and a groundbreaking journalist whose books were made into two big motion pictures.

The bottom of the class may be lower at state schools, but the top is the same everywhere.

That's a nice feel good story but the average student body is just superior at all levels in the Ivy Leagues.

Ironically enough, you'll likely receive a better education elsewhere. The Ivies float on via historical association. West Coast and Midwest schools have overtaken in terms of quality.

Ivy League is a mere status symbol for exclusivity, not a marker for intelligence or capability.

Midwestern schools are mostly mediocre and attract mediocre Midwestern talent. West Coast schools attract talent but not intellectuals. The hidden gem are the second tier/third tier schools on the East Coast. Schools like Babson, Rutgers, the SUNYs or the UMass honors program.

Are you pro-Ivy league guys really this diluted, or are you trolling?
The key metrics for getting into an Ivy League school are legacy and financial ability to pay for the school. Many of the people in that group went to the top (cost and outcome) high schools so they are very educated, but that is more a product of money, not inherent ability.

The "average student body" isn't the point.

State schools enable students, especially immigrants and children from families with no history of post-secondary attendance, to reach their potential. They also bring out the best in people (including a lot of boys) who don't hit their strides academically until late in high school or afterward.

Ivy League admissions officers do not pick the winners in life. We're way too absorbed with college as signaling.

This is confusing, because the term cultural elite has a previous, and different, meaning. Previous research has defined it as those with shared values and consumer preferences acquired during elite education or similar to the values of those who received an elite education, regardless of income, and in general not celebrities. In other words, it includes baristas.


I googled "brint define cultural elite and found" › ...DOC
Steven Brint, Komi T. German, Kayleigh Anderson-Natale, Zeinab F. Shuker, and Suki Wang. Forthcoming. - Colleges & Universities 2000 - University of California Riverside
Steven Brint, Komi T. German, Kayleigh Anderson-Natale, Zeinab F. Shuker, and Suki Wang (University of ... In this paper we identify a third elite group, the cultural elite, defined by its prominence in the domain"

The definition is long winded and seems contrived to me to create a list of Hollywood liberals, newspapers, etc, with investigative reporters, and accomplished scientists, who have not become billionaire corporate masters putting them on their business elite list.

This cultural elite class is a mashup trying to identify a mostly white male style setters. Eg, those in fashion are excluded to eliminate tattoo artists, gay hair stylists and clothing designers, dance instructors, all major influences on culture, driving the way people want to be seen physically.


In the other studies I've seen, the political elite is the outlier to other U.S. elites in business and culture which have more subtle differences. The political elite is less educated, more geographically diverse, more religious, and in general, made up of a small proportion of people in the upper class and top components of the upper middle class, than other elites.

This strikes me as exactly what you would want to be the case in a properly functioning republic.

Don't disagree. But, when this study sees business elites and political elites as more similar than cultural elite (and obviously, definition are not written in stone), while another study sees an opposite result, I'm skeptical about what is going on.

Is your complaint that the "cultural elite" aren't reinforcing the whims of the business and political elites?

Fact: low culture subsidizes high culture.

What is so surprising about this? It is as planned.

Did Olivia Jade Loughlin and her mom need to cheat her way into USC with her millions of followers, affluent lifestyle, and fashion brand earning her millions? What about getting into school was so important for an 18 year old that had already amassed a level of success most 50 year olds will never achieve?

Maybe there's a there there.

If Olivia Jade Loughlin were planning to go into politics instead of lifestyle and fashion, her mother would not have needed to bribe her way into USC (which is not an ivy institution in any case).

I should note that if one is interesting in getting into the film industry, then USC is THE Ivy (along with UCLA). Otherwise not, although it likes now to call itself "the Princeton of the West Coast," but it is not.

Livvy should have just declared herself as bicurious and that would have granted her a full ride

It's fashionable so she probably is already. It's telling that being bicurious still puts you at a disadvantage compared to being on the rowing team (or faking to be on the rowing team). Apparently there's a hierarchy when it comes to 'doing laps'.

Isn't this a case of looking in the rear view mirror while the car is heading into the ditch that's in front. In any case, attacking higher education and so-called cultural elites is what some folks do. Here's the manifesto of the blog that published the attack on Greta Thunberg:

"The David Horowitz Freedom Center is unique among conservative think tanks whose emphasis is on public policy and institutional reform in that it sees its role as that of a battle tank, geared to fight a war that many still don’t recognize. For 27 years, since its founding in 1988, the Center has been warning that the political left has declared war on America and its constitutional system, and is willing to collaborate with America’s enemies abroad and criminals at home to bring America down. For most of those years the Center was a voice crying in the wilderness with few willing to recognize the threat from the enemy within, a fifth column force that was steadily expanding its influence within the Democratic Party. With the election of a lifetime radical to the White House in 2008, the perceptions of conservatives began to change. But the Center remains unique as an organization dedicated to the war and to developing strategies to win it."

Threadjack level: master.

But, he hits 6.5 on the HBLC (Hiding Behind Little Children) Scale.

The tone-deaf coastal elites — with their cushy lifestyles and luxury trips to Davos, on private jets — have not yet begun to feel peak Trump Agony.

Trump, Jr. 2024 for sure.

The tone-deaf coastal elites — with their cushy lifestyles and luxury trips to Davos, on private jets

That is an accurate description of Jared Kuschner, Steve Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump or Peter Thiel. Doesn’t describe most of the opposition to Trump however.

Peter, most of the opposition to Trump is the jetset crowd, the hollywood types, the traditional Davos, Council on Foreign Relations types. Please come back to Earth.

The underlying question is whether top universities are selecting the best and brightest so as to prepare them to lead, or instead are an institution that seeks to extend the privilege of an elite by instilling their progeny with that same privilege. The study shows that where choices are dictated by commercial and political markets (i.e. business and politics), the graduates of elite schools are not particularly successful. They are successful among the cultural elite (Academia, media, fine arts), where leadership choices are not subject to market discipline, but where leaders are free to exercise bias in favor of graduates of top schools.

In short, Harvard exists to help Harvard, Harvard graduates, and the children of Harvard graduates. When Harvard claims that it is educating tomorrow's leaders, that is only true to the extent that wherever possible, a Harvard grad with the power to dole out power and influence will seek to do so to other Harvard grads, rather than to a more capable, but less credentialed rival. The supposed meritocracy of our system of higher education with its "highly selective top schools" is once again shown to be indistinguishable from crony capitalism.

Tom gets it.

I doubt Tyler ever will.

I don't think Tyler is unaware of the problems in academia and 'elite' schools. He got his PhD from an elite school but teaches at a fairly non-elite school (same for me). And it isn't as if the leadership of Harvard gathers in a secret mountain hideaway to plot evil deeds. Like most leaders of institutions, they act in the best interests of the institution, because that's their job. The problem is that the best way to improve the financial, cultural, and political standing of Harvard is to use it to maintain the standing of a self-selected elite, which in gratitude showers Harvard with ever more money, power, and influence. That positive feedback loop doesn't require evil intentions, and I don't know any academics who think they are doing anything but acting in their institution's and students' best interests. And they aren't; it's society that suffers, not the university.

The solution has to come from the outside. When general opinion, including people with power and influence outside academia, begin to condemn our elite universities as dens of cronyism and self-interest, it will then behoove those schools to change, growing their student population (why aren't there 30,000 Harvard undergrads on 10 campuses?), eliminating legacy preferences and scholarships for rich-people sports, and simplifying a complex admissions that only the rich can afford to game (I favor a lottery from a pool of capable applicants identified by a simple system of tests and grades).


Remarkable that the pitchfork brigades didn't sack the place years ago.

When did Americans decide to ignore the fact that "the best and brightest" was used in the 60s in a sarcastic sense? Or was Tom's use sarcastic too?

The children of the elite are smarter than average American children. That's a fact.

Of course they are. But forget “smart”: what about their judgment? Is their judgment also better?

Getting a degree at Harvard shows better judgment than not getting one at Harvard.

Or luck.

Or hard work. But I understand it's not politically correct to attribute anything to hard work these days. We must all be victims of some kind or other.

An Ivy League stamp of approval shows they are capable of doing big boy jobs the kind that would make you wet your pants.

As somebody with fairly high brow interests, I have to say that the name "Harvard" sure comes up a lot in the biographies of interesting intellectuals, significantly more than Yale or Princeton.

Ah, yes. The elite: a concept just nebulous enough to mean whatever anyone decides it means, while everyone nods on approvingly.

Pithy, +5 i.p.

Just like the "middle class", which Mitt Romney (a man worth $200 million) once described as "...the great middle class — the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country."

Yes. Those who make between 20k and 20m a year.

Pithy, but dead wrong.

When you point out the failings of "The Elite," people like Tyler, and all the other rank-and-file Dems, and celebrities, and NYT editors, and EU fans, and whoever is puppeteering Greta Thunberg.... they all instinctively tighten their sphincter so tightly that they could sever a human finger with it. And then they post chin-stroking pieces online in defense of The Elite.

That should tell you something about what it means. But, I doubt it will.

Your boy Trump and all the other Republicans in higher government are as elite as Obama. Probably more now.

Not dead wrong. Among other things, "elite" and its cousin "intellectual" have served as dog-whistle substitute terms for "Jews." Other times, it is as I point out below, a general pejorative for people who have fancy degrees and fall into certain other stereotypes of Democratic-leaning voters.

People who want to be taken seriously take care to define their terms. Charles Murray at least tried to do so although his definition was flawed and didn't make much sense.

move silo to see here... move along...

It's hard to get a handle on this without knowing whether we're talking about culture professionals or activist-artists.

Culture professionals (by which I mean, the best at fine arts, classical guitar, sculpture and whatnot; established artforms with clear standards that exist irrespective of and alienated from the enactors' politics) should be from elite cultural institutions because, well, these are skilled professions and skill concentrates. That's not particularly concerning.

Activist-artists (artists who not celebrated for being particularly talented at the "craft" of established artforms, but who are believed to have some important message or idea) being from a narrow cultural background is perhaps more concerning. Especially if they purport to be representing people who are not!

I find it very odd that "the publishers and executives of the 10 top social networking firms: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, Yahoo!, Yelp, and YouTube" are coded as "cultural elite" and not "business elite" in the paper.

UC Riverside studying the "elite?"

Shots fired! I mean it’s not a community college, they’re nationally ranked and..

SAT score: 1250

Nevermind, anonymous nailed this one. That’s even lower than West Point.

I know a couple kids going there. They love it, but it does seem the hinterlands.

Both scored higher, but one scored and was accepted much higher.

She chose UCR to reduce the burden on her family.

Under the US system of higher education, this is not uncommon.

Because I lived next door to Stanford and wanted to get away, and it seemed like mostly the class dipshits went there.

Most interesting thing about UCR was there was a mountain behind it, with a big C painted on it, and I never knew it was there until a breezy day in November when the smog cleared.

Engineers aren't the only smart people in the world. And their intelligence is fairly narrow generally. Also, 1250 on the old SAT scale is not retarded, not even close (might be on the new one I don't know)

Also, you're doing a great impression of an arrogant prick.

I can't do calculus but I'm smarter than an engineer because I pay myself more than I pay them. They create the value and I capture it. Engineers are idiot savants.

Skep knows differential equations.

Would you have preferred for the business and political elites to be credentialed from top (i.e. expensive, exclusive, grossly unrepresentative) universities and only the cultural elite to be diverse? To some extent, by absorbing the flow of elite university graduates, the cultural elite is making space for others in the political and business elites where it really matters. The empty prestige of the cultural elite (which is precisely what draws credentialists towards it) is a small price to pay for such outcome.

Tyler: "Overall I do not regard this as good news . . ."

A promising lead, suggesting Tyler's mastery of understatement.

--but readers must then decide which aspect of the news Tyler finds troubling:

--the implication that our leading credential mills have come to exercise negligible influence on the intellectual qualities of our degraded commercial and political classes, or

--the implication that our leading credential mills have inadvertently leveraged the numerous degrading contributions on full display in our tech-addled, witless, derelict, bottom-feeding commercial "culture" of American schlock and froth?

Both, by chance?

American truth-curator Wikipedia informs us:

"In 1984, Robert Penn Warren noted that 'To have great poets there must be great audiences, Whitman said, to the more or less unheeding ears of American educators. Ambitiously, hopefully, the Academy has undertaken to remedy this plight." --Penn Warren got things at least half-right, too.

The first-order derivative Straussian message is that the elite are preserving their self-interest (and that of their progeny) using elite educational institutions. The second-order derivative Straussian message is that the people most capable of changing the status quo and creating new institutions are themselves alumni of elite educational institutions. As such, they either will deliberately avoid making change or conveniently not see growing educational stratification as an issue.

There used to be more dynamism in our economy. It used to be easier to imagine a normal lower/middle class person reaching the upper heights of the elite. There used to be more household innovation, outside large corporations and universities.

- We need to revisit the standard 20-year length of patents, as well as patent and copyright law more generally.
- Educational debt should be dischargable through bankrupcy, perhaps over a slightly modified timeline.
- Free education needs to be available from RESPECTABLE public universities, with none of the standards frills. Want top notch buffets, Olympic training facilities, and sleek, modern dorms? That'll be extra. There also needs to be absolutely zero subsidy of sports programs, even if a legitimate case can be made that they attract students. States can refuse federal money if they don't like those conditions, at their peril. A mandated percentage of classes, up to 30% or whatever makes the budget feasible, should be delivered online. Caps should be imposed on programs that don't deliver certain outcomes, like if a certain degree at a particular university leads to 10% unemployment post-graduation and 70% underemployment. The metrics should be measured by the feds, through surveys and tax returns from alumni, in order to justify the federal tax money subidizing state schools.
- To the extent new schools are needed, especially with a STEM focus, they should be created using federal subsidies. A federal online school available to all U.S. citizens for free, for life, with top professors across the nation, should also be made available. That school should also have pre-university coursework that helps gradeschool students explore various specialty routes early on.
- A public-private partnership (perhaps with subsidies) should increase the supply of internships so that the vast majority of students can have a decent internship every single year of their college education without having to be in the top 10% of their class.

This kind of pessimism about American income mobility is totally wrong, in my opinion. The reason books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad sell so well is because they really work. Saving aggressively and investing wisely can turn any family into the 1%.

Of course, "the 1%" isn't good enough now, according to Saez and Zucman and people who always talk about "the elite," so now we have to focus on "the 0.2%," as if that number is any less arbitrary.

You are whoever you think your peers are. If you compare yourself to the neighbors on your street, then you're always going to think the rich dicks across the tracks have some "elite secret" or that their millions are protected by "institutions." Poppycock. Hang around with those guys for a little while and, lo and behold, you discover a bunch of people who save aggressively and invest wisely.

I know people who make just as much money as the supposed "elite" in my town, but who don't enjoy an elite quality of life. Why not? Because they prefer to spend their money on $500,000 homes with 30-year mortgages and $70,000 pickup trucks and guns and fishing boats and stuff. If they had been a bit smarter in their late 20s-early 30s they could have been "the elite."

But the siren song of consuming stupid crap that pays no dividends is irresistible to some...

Isn't the nice house and nice car and hobbies an 'elite quality of life'?

Aren't you comparing net worth to lifestyle? What makes the miser who never spends more 'elite' than the one who enjoys their money but doesn't save much of it?

No, I don't think overleveraging on houses and cars is an elite quality of life. People who get caught in those kinds of traps have no money left over to fund their children's educations or gradually increase the quality of their consumption without taking on more debt. They don't get to retire early and they have to declare bankruptcy when they encounter medical debt. They don't get to move somewhere warm in their retirement and they don't get to live off income-generating assets when they get tired of being employed.

There's a lot they give up in order to get a 30-year mortgage on a poorly made home and a 6-year loan on a Ford, of all things.

Given this dynamic, the best place to have gone to school is one of the top 5-10 state schools. This gives one the best chance to occupy positions in cultural, business and political elitism.

I never knew we had cultural elites until now.

I never knew we had elites until now.

I never knew we had culture until now.

That is not my America.

Could you breakdown, Tyler, the composition of your dismay? Is it the higher importance of these elite institutions to cultural elites or, maybe, their relative lesser importance in finding the "talent" or like of members of the business and political elite? Something else?

This is a good thing. If you want to be elite, you need to study hard and work hard. America is a meritocracy.

A good thing?! This is a horrible trend!

What is a "cultural elite"? The concept of a political elite makes sense because everyone lives under the authority of a single government; you can't "opt out" of following President Trump's authority. The concept of a business elite is a little less tenable, but you could still say that everyone respects the dollar, so people with lots of dollars form a sort of elite. But there is no one culture. Everyone enjoys different forms of media and different cultures. If someone is recognized by their peers as a great author, actor, video game designer, etc., that does not give them any power over the general public or among people who aren't interested in their work.

Moreover, if you define a "cultural elite" as someone who has the most cultural influence over the most people, you'd probably get Hollywood actors, pop stars, or top athletes. I highly doubt there is an abnormally high concentration of elite college graduates in any of those fields. Which makes me think that this paper is defining "cultural elites" as something like "people who have influence among the demographic that went to elite universities," in which case, yes, elite university graduates would probably be over-represented. But those people are more of a self-contained community, not really an "elite" that has influence or authority over others not in their community.

Solid comment, +5 i.p.

Except it is not one government.
It is an over lapping chain of semi-independent governments, many of them elected in overlapping but regional elections. And, many of us completely ignore Trump's rule, most completely unaware of any effects from him; other than great copy.

Cultural elites exist and exist by consensus. It's a lot like cultural "canon" - those works are canonical because cultural elites who are accepted by consensus have decided they are canonical and sketched out an argument that they are singularly important. (Or perhaps think of religious elites or elites within other "imagined communities"; religious elites still exist in secular societies even without a defined mechanism of power.). Trying to find a kind of signifier of cultural elite status as reflected by anything material or economic is singularly a misapplication of the wrong tool for the job.

you can't "opt out" of following President Trump's authority.

You can opt out quite easily. That is the beauty, still, of America. For the most part the President’s authority is still limited and doesn’t affect most people’s daily lives at all. That is perhaps why Presidential races have become so celebrity driven.

"Elites" is a term invented by social science types to substitute for "the capitalist class" after it was recognized even by them that the real Marxism was dead, say the 1970's. Like the former shot, the new one is useless and worse.

It seems to have taken on a new life as a generic pejorative used by right-wing populists to describe people who have graduate degrees and live in metropolitan areas. I think you get more elite points if you work as a college professor, journalist, or work for a non-profit and you subtract elite points if you live in the suburbs and have children (e.g. entry level staff writers for the New York Times sometimes get lumped into the "elite" category but dentists living in Bergen County, NJ do not).

Rich Republicans are not elite, rich Democrats are. Trump is not, Obama is, etc.

It's basically just another term for Democrats to these goofballs.

Why wouldn’t the most talented 18 year olds wind up at the 3-4 best universities and go on to leadership in life? Notre Dame has the largest number of graduates in the NFL; is that bad?

Great if one wants to enter the NFL, whatever that is. :-)

Life is a not a sprint but a marathon. There are people thrive in school but not so much thereafter. There are people who learn an industry over 20 years and then get a CEO job and change history.

There may be some predictive value to an elite college that accepts you as a student, or your academic transcript wherever you study, but it's rather pleasing to think that neither of these defines the rest of your life -- that your own efforts and luck matter as well.

I think the differences between the education institutions might play a larger role here, to become enrolled in one of the top art schools you have to provide art as your application. In general only the most talented musicians will make it to to a top music school and they will have started learning their instruments in their childhood. So the selection is less focused on talent and general intelligence it is focused on ability.

The subjectivity involved in evaluating art and music is much different than the objectivity of math, physics, chemistry, etc.

Not sure why this news is so bad. It indicates that cultural elites who receive popular recognition or acclaim are less likely to have gone to leading educational institutions than those who receive recognition mostly from fellow elites. So high culture may be a bubble (when has it not been?) but people who didn't go to elite schools still have a chance to reach a mass audience.

Then, business and political elites are even less likely to have gone to leading educational institutions. Again, mostly good news as it suggests that achieving mainstream influence in politics, business, and even culture does not require admission to an Ivy League institution when one is young.

Not to be blunt, but Harvard is powder in 2045.

Humans are batteries then. So who needs Harvard after you show up?

Excellent point about the qualitative differences between cultural and other elites.

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