America has always had two rival traditions when it comes to its foundational doctrine of equality of opportunity. The first emphasizes the opportunity part of the formula: Everybody should be provided with equal opportunities to reach their natural level, but those natural levels will be unequal. The Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, talked of “natural aristocrats.” W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding father of the civil rights movement, wrote about “the talented tenth.” Cold War warriors stressed the importance of recruiting talent to beat Russia in the intellectual arms race. In his address to Amherst College in October 1963, John F. Kennedy said that “I look forward to a world which is safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

The second tradition puts its emphasis on the equality part of the formula. Populists from Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan to Donald Trump have led rebellions against the fancy-pants “sneering elite.” Horace Mann declared that common schools would be “the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Recent educational reform movements, most notably George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, have all focused on improving the performance of the disadvantaged.

The American public education system has been profoundly shaped by the second tradition. Out of some 24,000 public high schools, only 165 admit students on the basis of academic promise rather than catchment area. Twenty states don’t have a single such school. The country’s only federal program for the gifted received all of $12 million in 2019, a tiny fraction of the money spent on the disadvantaged. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, is convinced that even this nugatory provision is too much. In one of his last acts as New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio tried to close down both the city’s elite schools and its gifted education programs. The city governments of both San Francisco and Boston are trying to kill off their leading selective high schools (Lowell High School and Boston Latin School, respectively) by forcing them to replace entrance examinations with lotteries. Universities across the country are replacing standardized tests with “holistic assessments,” which rely on things like teacher evaluations and extracurricular activities.

This one-size-fits-all tradition is actually not very good at promoting its stated aim of equality. Parents of the middle class and higher can do everything in their power to stretch their (sometimes talented) children to the maximum—algebra classes in the evening, academic summer camps, weekend violin lessons. Gifted children from more humble backgrounds can expect none of this and may be destined to turn into what the poet Thomas Gray called “mute inglorious Miltons” and economists now call “lost Einsteins.” Though the one-size-fits-all approach might have been well-suited to the age of mass production and identikit managers, it is incompatible with one in which high ability drives a disproportionate amount of economic growth.

The U.S. responded to Sputnik’s 1957 launch with a raft of initiatives from both the public and private sector to counter the USSR’s success. Congress declared “an educational emergency.” The federal government passed the National Defense Education Act to increase the supply of brainpower and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958 to reassert America’s mastery of the heavens. Funding for the National Science Foundation more than tripled. John Gardner, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, noted in 1962 that gifted children who had once been treated with “an almost savage rejection” were now feted as agents of national survival.

Today, in the face of the multifaceted economic and technological challenges posed by the ascent of an autocratic China, the U.S. needs to adopt the same seriousness about intellectual leadership that it mustered following the beep, beep, beep heard round the world. Massively increase spending on gifted children. Improve selection into gifted programs so that they choose the truly able rather than the socially advantaged. Expand the academically selective schools like Lowell that did such a formidable job of providing opportunities for poor immigrants after the great wave of immigration in the late 19th century. Understand that diversity is a tool of excellence, not its antithesis. Force universities to broaden their social catchment as a condition of keeping federal money.

Official America seems to have concluded that the pandemic is over: CEOs are preparing assaults on the “work from home” culture; central bankers are preparing to raise interest rates; the federal government is removing income support. But normality is likely to prove illusive. Workers have more power now than they have had for decades. The immigration spigot is harder to turn than before. Universities are not churning out enough homegrown first-rate technologists. The age of unearned plenty is over. To thrive in the coming age of talent shortages and meet the challenge posed by China, America will have to reengineer what first made it great.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a writer at the Economist. His latest book is The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.

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