The Strange Collapse of Jewish Academic Achievement

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From my own perspective, I found these statistical results surprising, even shocking.

I had always been well aware of the very heavy Jewish presence at elite academic institutions. But the underwhelming percentage of Jewish students who today achieve high scores on academic aptitude tests was totally unexpected, and very different from the impressions I had formed during my own high school and college years a generation or so ago. An examination of other available statistics seems to support my recollections and provides evidence for a dramatic recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews

The U.S. Math Olympiad began in 1974, and all the names of the top scoring students are easily available on the Internet. During the 1970s, well over 40 percent of the total were Jewish, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the fraction averaged about one-third. However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish. The Putnam Exam is the most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition for American college students, with five or six Putnam winners having been selected each year since 1938. Over 40 percent of the Putnam winners prior to 1950 were Jewish, and during every decade from the 1950s through the 1990s, between 22 percent and 31 percent of the winners seem to have come from that same ethnic background. But since 2000, the percentage has dropped to under 10 percent, without a single likely Jewish name in the last seven years.

This consistent picture of stark ethnic decline recurs when we examine the statistics for the Science Talent Search, which has been selecting 40 students as national finalists for America’s most prestigious high school science award since 1942, thus providing a huge statistical dataset of over 2800 top science students. During every decade from the 1950s through the 1980s, Jewish students were consistently 22–23 percent of the recipients, with the percentage then declining to 17 percent in the 1990s, 15 percent in the 2000s, and just 7 percent since 2010. Indeed, of the thirty top ranked students over the last three years, only a single one seems likely to have been Jewish. Similarly, Jews were over one-quarter of the top students in the Physics Olympiad from 1986 to 1997, but have fallen to just 5 percent over the last decade, a result which must surely send Richard Feynman spinning in his grave.

Other science competitions provide generally consistent recent results, though without the long track record allowing useful historical comparisons. Over the last dozen years, just 8 percent of the top students in the Biology Olympiad have been Jewish, with none in the last three years. Between 1992 and 2012, only 11 percent of the winners of the Computing Olympiad had Jewish names, as did just 8 percent of the Siemens AP Award winners. And although I have only managed to locate the last two years of Chemistry Olympiad winners, these lists of 40 top students contained not a single probable Jewish name.

Further evidence is supplied by Weyl, who estimated that over 8 percent of the 1987 NMS semifinalists were Jewish,[60] a figure 35 percent higher than found in today’s results. Moreover, in that period the math and verbal scores were weighted equally for qualification purposes, but after 1997 the verbal score was double-weighted,[61] which should have produced a large rise in the number of Jewish semifinalists, given the verbal-loading of Jewish ability. But instead, today’s Jewish numbers are far below those of the late 1980s.

Taken in combination, these trends all provide powerful evidence that over the last decade or more there has been a dramatic collapse in Jewish academic achievement, at least at the high end.

Several possible explanations for this empirical result seem reasonably plausible. Although the innate potential of a group is unlikely to drop so suddenly, achievement is a function of both ability and effort, and today’s overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience. In support of this hypothesis, roughly half of the Jewish Math Olympiad winners from the last two decades have had the sort of highly distinctive names which would tend to mark them as recent immigrants from the Soviet Union or elsewhere, and such names were also very common among the top Jewish science students of the same period, even though this group represents only about 10 percent of current American Jews. Indeed, it seems quite possible that this large sudden influx of very high performing immigrant Jews from the late 1980s onward served to partially mask the rapid concurrent decline of high academic achievement among native American Jews, which otherwise would have become much more clearly evident a decade or so earlier.

This pattern of third or fourth generation American students lacking the academic drive or intensity of their forefathers is hardly surprising, nor unique to Jews. Consider the case of Japanese-Americans, who mostly arrived in America during roughly the same era. America’s Japanese have always been a high-performing group, with a strong academic tradition, and Japan’s international PISA academic scores are today among the highest in the world. But when we examine the list of California’s NMS semifinalists, less than 1 percent of the names are Japanese, roughly in line with their share of the California population.[62] Meanwhile, Chinese, Koreans, and South Asians are 6 percent of California but contribute 50 percent of the top scoring students, an eight-fold better result, with a major likely difference being that they are overwhelmingly of recent immigrant origin. In fact, although ongoing Japanese immigration has been trivial in size, a significant fraction of the top Japanese students have the unassimilated Japanese first names that would tend to indicate they are probably drawn from that tiny group.

In his 1966 book The Creative Elite in America, Weyl used last name analysis to document a similarly remarkable collapse in achievement among America’s Puritan-descended population, which had once provided a hugely disproportionate fraction of our intellectual leadership, but for various reasons went into rapid decline from about 1900 onward. He also mentions the disappearance of the remarkable Scottish intellectual contribution to British life after about 1800. Although the evidence for both these historical parallels seems very strong, the causal factors are not entirely clear, though Weyl does provide some possible explanations.[63]

In some respects, perhaps it was the enormously outsize Jewish academic performance of the past which was highly anomalous, and the more recent partial convergence toward white European norms which is somewhat less surprising. Over the years, claims have been widely circulated that the mean Jewish IQ is a full standard deviation—15 points—above the white average of 100,[64] but this seems to have little basis in reality. Richard Lynn, one of the world’s foremost IQ experts, has performed an exhaustive literature review and located some 32 IQ samples of American Jews, taken from 1920 to 2008. For the first 14 studies conducted during the years 1920–1937, the Jewish IQ came out very close to the white American mean, and it was only in later decades that the average figure rose to the approximate range of 107–111.[65]

In a previous article “Race, IQ & Wealth,” I had suggested that the IQs of ethnic groups appear to be far more malleable than many people would acknowledge, and may be particularly influenced by factors of urbanization, education, and affluence.[66] Given that Jews have always been America’s most heavily urbanized population and became the most affluent during the decades in question, these factors may account for a substantial portion of their huge IQ rise during most of the twentieth century. But with modern electronic technology recently narrowing the gaps in social environment and educational opportunities between America’s rural and urban worlds, we might expect a portion of this difference to gradually dissipate. American Jews are certainly a high-ability population, but the innate advantage they have over other high-ability white populations is probably far smaller than is widely believed.

This conclusion is supported by the General Social Survey (GSS), an online dataset of tens of thousands of American survey responses from the last forty years which includes the Wordsum vocabulary test, a very useful IQ proxy correlating at 0.71. Converted into the corresponding IQ scores, the Wordsum-IQ of Jews is indeed quite high at 109. But Americans of English, Welsh, Scottish, Swedish, and Catholic Irish ancestry also have fairly high mean IQs of 104 or above, and their combined populations outnumber Jews by almost 15-to-1, implying that they would totally dominate the upper reaches of the white American ability distribution, even if we excluded the remaining two-thirds of all American whites, many of whose IQs are also fairly high. Furthermore, all these groups are far less highly urbanized or affluent than Jews,[67] probably indicating that their scores are still artificially depressed to some extent. We should also remember that Jewish intellectual performance tends to be quite skewed, being exceptionally strong in the verbal subcomponent, much lower in math, and completely mediocre in visuospatial ability; thus, a completely verbal-oriented test such as Wordsum would actually tend to exaggerate Jewish IQ.

Stratifying the white American population along religious lines produces similar conclusions. An analysis of the data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that Americans raised in the Episcopal Church actually exceeded Jews in mean IQ, while several other religious categories came quite close, leading to the result that the overwhelming majority of America’s high-ability white population had a non-Jewish background.[68]


Finally, in the case of Jews, these assimilation- or environment-related declines in relative academic performance may have been reinforced by powerful demographic trends. For the last generation or two, typical Jewish women from successful or even ordinary families have married very late and averaged little more than a single child, while the small fraction of Jewish women who are ultra-Orthodox often marry in their teens and then produce seven or eight children.[69] As a consequence, this extremely religious subpopulation has been doubling in size every twenty years, and now easily exceeds 10 percent of the total, including a far higher percentage of younger Jews. But ultra-Orthodox Jews have generally been academically mediocre, often with enormously high rates of poverty and government dependency.[70]
Therefore, the combination of these two radically different trends of Jewish reproduction has acted to stabilize the total number of Jewish youngsters, while probably producing a sharp drop in their average academic achievement.

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