Is There a Cognitive Elite in America?

  • Nicholas Lemann


Even before The Bell Curve was published, the idea of what Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray call “the cognitive elite”—a dominant and rich group of well-educated smart people—was taking form.1 This elite has enemies across the political spectrum, but usually it is described as liberal and most criticism of it comes from conservatives. This chapter argues that the dimensions of the cognitive elite have been wildly exaggerated. After examining the original historical documents from which The Bell Curve makes its case for the rise of the cognitive elite, it finds that the case is much flimsier than Herrnstein and Murray let on. The chapter also points out that people with elite educational backgrounds control some but by no means all of the turf in the United States; they don’t control the central American institution, business, contra The Bell Curve. An elite education neither guarantees money and power, nor provides the only route to them. Therefore the cognitive elite should be understood as a sociological cartoon with political uses, not a phenomenon to be accepted at face value.


Selective College Bell Curve Economic Elite High Test Score Petty Bourgeoisie 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicholas Lemann

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