It occurred to me the other day that although I am quite sure that I knew who Jonas Salk was by the time I was eight or nine and had received three doses of his vaccine, I do not know the name of a single scientist who participated in the development of any of the COVID-19 vaccines. Science has changed. Salk went from medical school to a position as a researcher at the medical school of the University of Pittsburgh, where he set up his own lab and developed the vaccine with the help of grant money from various sources. Drugs nowadays are one of our biggest businesses and corporations develop them according to corporate priorities. That is why they would rather (usually) spend their money working on drugs that will alleviate chronic conditions, rather than desperately needed new antibiotics that could cure new and dangerous infections or vaccines that will prevent us from getting sick in the first place. COVID showed that these corporations can rise to the occasion when a worldwide emergency arises, but they have not done so to combat the increasing threat of post-surgical infections.
While looking into Salk, however, I noticed something else: his educational background. Salk was born to Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire in 1914 in the greater New York area. He attended Townsend Harris High School in New York, perhaps at that time the most competitive of all the New York public high schools, since it crammed four years of high school into three. From there he went to the equally competitive and free City College of New York, and to medical school at NYU, which according to the wikipedia article was the only medical school in the area without a strict Jewish quota. That got me thinking of the role of such schools in the development of the United States, and thanks once again to cyberspace, I found all the information that I needed very quickly.
Let's start with Salk's high school alma mater. Townsend Harris, a late-nineteenth century diplomat, had founded the Free Academy of New York, the ancestor of City College, and the school named after him was open from 1904 to 1942 when it closed for budgetary reasons. It was revived in 1984 and is a magnet school today. Its alumni, in addition to Salk, included Nobel prize winners Herbert Hauptman and Julius Schwinger; authors Paul Goodman, Herman Wouk, and Sidney Kingsley; musicians and lyricists Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Richard Rodgers; actors Clifton Webb and Edward G. Robinson; and political figures Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court, Senator Robert Wagner Sr., and Adam Clayton Powell.
The Bronx High School of Science has been operating far longer, and its list of prominent alumni is equally impressive. It has never been merely a science school, and alumni include journalists Joseph Lelyveld and William Safire, who had long careers at the New York Times; other writers such as E. L. Doctorow, the literary critic Harold Bloom, the journalist Martin Peretz, and the historian Kevin Phillips; Secretary of Defense Harold Brown; SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure); the singer and actor Bobby Darin; and Herbert Stempel, who had to throw his last match to Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One.
And before we leave New York, let's take a look at Salk's other alma mater, City College. In addition to a number of people we have already met, its alumni include the financier Bernard Baruch, New York Mayors Abraham Beame and Ed Koch, public intellectuals Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe, Henry Kissinger (who attended only briefly before switching to Harvard after the Second World War), actors Judd Hirsch, Zero Mostel, and Eli Wallach, engineer George Washington Goethals (who built the Panama Canal), and authors Walter Mosley, Bernard Malamud, Upton Sinclair, and Mario Puzo. Hunter College was once the female partner of City College--both are now co-ed--and its alumni have included Congresswomen Edna Kelly and Bella Abzug, Nobel Prize winnders Gertrude Elion and Rosalyn Sussman Yallow, and actors Ellen Barkin, Ruby Dee, and Esther Rolle.
The oldest high school in what is now the United States is Boston Latin, whose alumni include Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a number of members of the Adams family, as well as generations of Boston aristocrats (Lowells, Cabots, etc.) who found it more than adequate for their children. More recently they include abolitionists Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips; Joseph P. Kennedy and John Fitzgerald, the father and maternal grandfather of JFK; CNN correspondent John King; anti-terrorism specialist Richard A. Clarke; and actors Christine Elise and Julia Jones.
These lists tell me, at least, that these public institutions did an extraordinary job of giving gifted young people the opportunity to develop their talents and prepare themselves for success in a wide variety of fields--exactly what American education is supposed to do. What has happened to them now?
CCNY and Hunter abandoned their role as elite academic institutions many decades ago. Their tuition remains one of the lowest in the country--$6,930 for New York state residents and $18,600 for out-of-staters.
The competitive high schools of New York and Boston, meanwhile, have come under enormous pressure to change their admissions processes in recent years because their competitive examinations produce student bodies that are almost entirely Asian-American or white, with only a few students from the black and Hispanic communities that make up the majority of their districts. In Boston, where I am more familiar with what is going on, the pandemic, which made in-person testing impossible, became at least a temporary excuse to start admitting students based upon even distribution around the city. While I regret this decision, I also recognize that Boston Latin has not been the nearly pure meritocracy that it once was for a long time. Expensive test preparation does play a big role in who gets in. In addition, I was very disturbed to learn some years ago that many of the white kids at Boston Latin, and some others undoubtedly as well, spent the first 8 years of their education in private schools. I personally would have no objection to restricting admissions to public school students, but legally, that might be impossible. In New York, admission by examination to three elite high schools has been for some time required by state law. In recent years the number of Asian admits has been steadily increasing and the number of black and Hispanic ones has fallen to new lows. Something similar, by the way, has just happened in Fairfax County, Virginia, where its elite Thomas Jefferson High School--whose student body has also been dominated by Asian-Americans in recent years--is being forced to admit a representative demographic mix, which will in that county work mainly to the advantage of white students.
I think that for two reasons, it will be extremely difficult to maintain public educational institutions that choose students based solely on intellectual performance in today's United States--much less to create new ones. There are two related reasons for this. One is that with inequality at historic highs--and with inequality more and more correlated to levels of educational achievement--the stakes of getting into elite institutions seem so high that political pressure to make them broadly available will increase. Fewer and fewer Americans are satisfied with being ordinary--and not without cause. The second reason is that at least two generations have now been socialized to value group identity over individual identity. The idea that we can create a society in which every individual can rise according to their talents has given way to a vision of competing groups, in which the wrong groups have been winning for too long. Significantly, that view is strongest within American higher education. This will work to the disadvantage of the kind of young person that Boston Latin, Bronx Science and the rest were designed for. Writing Baseball Greatness, I discovered that among 20,000 men who had played in the major leagues since 1900, about 100--.5 per cent--were much better than anyone else. I think the same is true of any complex field of endeavor, and certainly of intellectual endeavor. A tiny minority of very gifted people is, I truly believe, scattered almost at random throughout our society. The meritocratic schools were the best means of identifying them and allowing them to develop their talents for the good of us all. The example of Jonas Salk is one of many suggesting that they worked.