Are You Smart or Lucky?

Rosseau believes that inequality in society comes from those with less ability exerting power over those with superior ability. He thinks this results in a bad social contract that enforces unequal property relations in which a citizen’s status revolves around what they own instead of their natural abilities. According to Rousseau, those with less natural ability are jealous of people with better abilities, thus they claim property, and establish a social contract to protect their power.

Many view education as an institution that rewards those with superior natural ability. We might argue with Rousseau by pointing to the correlation between education and income, suggesting that those with superior ability are more successful in school and thus make more money  (see chart). In fact, education is becoming more and more important in the job market. Thus, because of education, we might think that those with superior natural ability do end up with the power in our social contract. However, superior natural ability plays a smaller role in one’s success in our education system than we think. Rather, our education system heavily favors the wealthy. One example of this is private schools, which generally can only be attended by the wealthy. Furthermore, most public schools are partially funded by local property taxes, meaning the schools in richer neighborhoods are generally of higher quality. Additionally, tuition costs have been on a steady rise, making higher education out of reach for many.

In this article, Luis Small discusses how children born into wealthier families are advantaged in our education system because of “cultural capital.” He argues that richer parents better understand the skills to succeed in our education system and can pass these down to their children. He also talks about how differences in parenting techniques can lead to a substantial gap in cognitive test scores for young children. With education having such a strong correlation to income, is it fair for so much of one’s success in education to result from the luck of having wealthy parents rather than one’s natural abilities?

Rousseau believed the government should protect natural variation in ability being the cause of unequal distribution of property. However, in today’s society, the socio economic status in which someone is born is possibly more important than natural variation in ability in predicting one’s future income and power. This is becoming an even more severe problem with growing income inequality in the United States. To keep alive the American Dream of social mobility based on ability and determination, we need to adress the way our education system disadvantages the poor. What do you think? Do you believe the advantages to the wealthy in our education system are as extreme as I have proposed? What, if anything, should be done to adress these issues? Do you believe the American Dream is being threatened?



Small, Mario Luis, David J. Harding, and Michèle Lamont. 2010. “Reconsidering culture and poverty.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Education Indicator.



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8 Comments on “Are You Smart or Lucky?”

  1. mrau188 Says:

    I don’t feel that the extremes to which you felt our education system have come to are to the level that you are explaining. But i do think however that we are in a situation that will just make the problem worse over more and more time. There are certain places that are providing people that are able to go on and be something in the world and be able to move back to their hometowns and provide back to their respective high school. I don’t know how we can necessarily go about fixing the problems that are happening with our current public education system. However, i do believe that it is in the power of the kids to want to teach themselves and make themselves better students. In our world today we don’t put enough emphasis on the individual at young ages in school. All we seem to care about is the school’s overall national ranking and that is not what is really important. The individual is what is going to matter in the long run and need to make sure that everyone is in a position that if they try hard enough they can do anything they want. Thus creating the american dream and it for sure is not dead people every day will continue to better themselves and need to improve on themselves if they are going to remain successful in this ever changing world that we live in today.

  2. aecorwin Says:

    I do agree that luck does play a factor when regarding the family and community we were all born into, but I do not think that this issue is nearly as extreme as you do. It is possible to succeed in poor public schools, I believe the greater problem is the cost of higher education. Tuition costs are extremely high and unattainable for many. There is correlation between the amount of money a family has and the rates of their children going on to higher education, but only because these are the people that are able to afford it and do not need to enter the work force right away. While I am not saying there is no difference between public schools in a rich neighborhood and public schools in a poor neighborhood, I believe it is possible to still work hard and be successful in the schools in the poor neighborhoods.

  3. bonannianthony Says:

    Obviously luck plays some sort of a role into which family you are born into. What is reason why I was born in suburban Detroit rather than in the Horn of Africa. I don’t really know if I agree with one hundred percent of this post. I do agree that most of the time the public schools in wealthier areas are, for the most part, better schools statistically. However, when it comes to colleges I don’t agree. Many private schools give out scholarships and help to all people which actually makes the cost of attendance to those colleges equal if not less to attending U of M. So, the private schools as well as the top notch public schools could be reached by any student; no matter what type of high school they went to and in what area that school was in.

  4. isobelkraft Says:

    There is definitely something to be said about the wealthy getting the upper hand in education. It has been this way for a long time. Starting when higher education was first instituted, only 10-15 white males from prestigious attended university. However, I feel that universities try to make sure that they are helping those in need of financial support, granted they do well in school. I have a large number of friends here at the University on scholarships and grants due to their parent’s lower income, which they can keep provided they maintain a certain GPA. I love that they are given the opportunity to attend an expensive school, but it does seem a little unfair that I am able to attend (through my parents money) and have it be my prerogative to keep a high GPA.

    However, I have seen some cases where a very intelligent individual gets excepted to a prestigious ivy league school but cannot attend because they don’t receive enough, or any, financial help from the school and are forced to attend their lower cost (and less prestigious) back-up schools. I do believe that wealthier students have an easier time with higher education, granted they have the smarts to get in. It is unfortunate, especially in this economy, when the university can not provide the means for an deserving, less fortunate student to attend.

  5. mpogoda3 Says:

    While I do believe that luck plays a HUGE role in determining ones success, I do not think it is the most important factor. Personally, I believe that becoming successful has to do with inner will and the influence of parents, which, of course is related to luck. As someone stated above me, while it is more difficult to attend higher education from a poor environment, it is not impossible. For example, we look at most parents in a lower socio-economic state and, for the most part, they are in that position because they did have the education nor influence to achieve. While most parents would guide their children in the same manner, the few who recognize their mistakes can change the lives of their children.

    While I do believe that your argument is a bit extreme, I do not see an immediate change that is possible in a democratic country. Even though the rich will always have more opportunities than the poor, it is our duty to try to close the gap in terms of education in public schools. There will always be the few who are privileged enough to attend private schools, but everyone else should have equal funding for their education.

  6. nnvirani Says:

    This is a very old debate in economics, psychology, etc… Nature vs. Nurture. What plays a bigger role in success: genetics or how you are raised? There is no answer set in stone to this question. When it comes to wealth, children with richer parents will usually have more success in their future. However, rich parents does not mean you are going to be smart. Those who are fortunate enough to have resources available to them will be better off than those who do not (assuming they are the same intelligence level).
    Having parents who have money is only of half the issue; more importantly, parents who want their children to have the best possible education will have the most well-off kids. They will get their kids tutors, put them in after school programs and make sure they stay on the right track. One of the most important responsibilities for a parent is to make sure that they do the most for their child because they are not only their child, they are a child of society. Assuming a parent wants to better their offspring to the best of their ability, this is where the “Lucky vs. Smart” debate comes into play. Those who are lucky will get all the resources to help them if they are not naturally smart enough. However, those who are not as well off will not be offered the same opportunities, therefore putting them at a disadvantage.
    The final thing to consider is if you have two smart children, one from a rich family and one from a poor family, the kid from the rich family will be at more of an advantage because he can afford to go to further schooling. Sure, some people are blessed with brains and riches and those people will probably succeed in life. It is still worth noting that there are multiple smart children from poor families doing better than kids from rich families who are not-as-smart or have less ambition. Personally, I think educated parents who have earned their wealth will naturally teach the same to their children. In the future, I know that I will do all I can to make sure my kid is not at a disadvantage and will encourage him to reach the highest level of education he can. Hypothetically, if all children had the same intelligence, the parents influence would play the biggest role. Conversely, if all people had the same resources, natural intelligence is the X factor. There is no correct explanation.

  7. abswang Says:

    While Rousseau’s ideas are to try and even out the benefits in our world and make everyone equal, it wouldn’t be realistic in nowadays society. Some people work extremely hard to get to the financial situation where they’re at now and it’s not fair to have the government redistribute the property. Besides that, if everyone was guaranteed to have wealth redistributed, then there’s no reason to work hard anymore because you’ll be taken back down to the same level as someone who might not try as hard as you.
    With the education aspect, colleges take into account the difficulty of the school when looking at applicants, so it’s not impossible for someone who doesn’t go to an expensive, prestigious school to still get into Harvard. It’s the government’s job to make sure that public schools are up to par, but the way to fix that situation isn’t to take personal wealth into account, but to redirect funds from the government’s budget.

  8. Brian Hall Says:

    The American Dream has never really existed. Only if you look at society over many generations do you see something resembling opportunity for everyone willing to put in a hard day’s work and who has natural ability (and then it only results in benefits for their distant descendants). The closest we had to the American Dream was when the West was still unsettled, but those days are long gone. The way things turn out is largely based on prior circumstances and maintenance of tradition. The problem is that over time these trends reinforce themselves; those with rich parents are at such an advantage over those who grow up in the slums that there is virtually no chance of class mobility. Frankly, I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done about it that doesn’t directly threaten the stability of society or else take an extremely long time to painstakingly implement.

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