Jewish Mothers, Tiger Moms, Immigrant Geniuses

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 01, 2011, issue of June 10, 2011.
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Immigration advocates don’t get much of a break in the great national policy debate these days, so there’s an understandable buzz surrounding a new study with some astounding numbers on immigrants, their achievements and their contribution to America.

The study, “The Impact of the Children of Immigrants on Scientific Achievement in America,” covers a very small field, but it appears to carry some big news: “While only 12% of the U.S. population is foreign-born, 70% of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants.” To be precise, 28 of the contest’s 40 finalists in 2011 had parents born in other countries. Only 12 had two American-born parents.

The conclusion, says the study’s sponsor, the Virginia-based National Foundation for American Policy, is that immigration brings the country a wealth of valuable talent. “Liberalizing our nation’s immigration laws,” therefore, “will likely yield even greater rewards for America in the future.”

Well, all this seems obvious, but a closer look shows there’s something else going on. Don’t get me wrong: the Intel finalists’ list has important lessons. It only amounts to 40 high school kids per year, but it’s often called a sort of junior Nobel, and rightly so. Contestants, about 2,000 per year, go through a grueling, year-long process of mentored study and research before submitting an original project. The results have proven over the contest’s 80 years to be a powerful indicator of future excellence. So when particular demographic markers show up consistently, they’re worth watching.

The idea that immigrant parentage is a significant marker of success is older than the contest itself. It’s the usual explanation, for example, for the lopsided presence of Jews among the science contest finalists going back to 1942 (it was sponsored by Westinghouse until 1998, when Intel took over) as well as Nobel laureates for a century and in other fields such as Hollywood and literature. Today, with the great Jewish immigration a distant memory, it’s deemed natural that Asian immigrants have taken the lead.

You could look back through past years’ lists of science finalists, as I have done, to see the trend line (by counting Jewish names — it’s a crude science, but not nearly as crude as you might think). In fact, I was asked in 1991 by another publication to report on the question, “What ever happened to Jewish genius?” using that year’s 40 Westinghouse finalists. They included five Jews (down from 12 in 1965 and 18 in 1950) and 17 Asian immigrants and immigrants’ children (up from roughly zero through the 1940s and 1950s). Q.E.D., right?

I made the requisite phone calls to aging Nobelists teaching at Ivy League colleges. They all said Jewish genius was history. The kids who raised their hands in class were all Asians now.

Then I went back through the contest lists, year by year, and got a big surprise. It turned out that the number of Jewish finalists hadn’t declined at all. Mostly what it did was fluctuate wildly: from 18 in 1950 down to five in 1954, up to nine in 1955, 15 in 1972, five in 1974 and so on. There was an overall consistency, though: The average over the decades was about 10 Jewish finalists per year. Today, 20 years further on, the average is still 10 per year. Immigration has nothing to do with it.

There is a big story here, though: The rise of Asian immigrants and their children. There were barely 10 among all the finalists through the first 30 years. In 1974, for the first time, there were three, then six the next year. Since then it’s been lurching upward. In 1984 there were 13 Jews and seven Asians; in 1986, six Jews and 11 Asians; in 2003, 12 of each.

I’m citing “Asians” specifically rather than the more general “children of immigrants” because the increase consists almost entirely of youngsters of Chinese and Indian origin. Those two countries each account for between 4% and 5% of America’s total yearly immigration, but almost all of Intel’s vaunted immigrant surge. Mexico supplies five times as many immigrants as China or India, the Philippines and Vietnam about the same number, and Cuba, El Salvador, Canada and South Korea only slightly less, but those populations almost never figure in the Intel finals.

The only other immigrant groups that show up regularly are Russian, Moldovan, Iranian and Israeli. Virtually all of those finalists have been Jewish, which is how I’ve counted them. There are isolated Vietnamese, Koreans, Poles and some others, but none show a trend.

In other words, immigration doesn’t explain the changing demographics of the Intel science contest. Ethnicity does. Put differently, the Intel contest is a story comprising, in roughly equal proportions, Chinese, Indians, Jews — each accounting for 1% to 2% of the American population — and everyone else.

I can hear your blood boiling out there. If it’s not immigration, what is it — genetics? Am I trying to say that these three groups are genetically superior?

Well, no. Actually, that makes no sense at all. Consider: Indians and Pakistanis are genetically indistinguishable. They were a single population for millennia until fairly recently in history. There are nearly as many Pakistani as Indian immigrants. Yet I found no Pakistani Intel finalists. The relationship between Chinese and Vietnamese isn’t much different.

As for Jews, a massive genome study released last year found that because of historical migration patterns, Ashkenazi Jews — who account for nearly all the Jewish finalists — are genetically very similar to northern Italians. There are tens of millions of Americans of Italian origin. They came in the same historic immigration waves as the Jews. Yet they do not appear as finalists in disproportionate numbers.

So what’s the difference between Indians and Pakistanis, or between Jews and Italians, or between Chinese and Vietnamese? Answer: culture. Parents pushing children. Jewish mothers and tiger moms.

There are other factors at work. Fully 24 of the 28 immigrant families among this year’s finalists had entered America on H-1B visas — granted to certain specialized professions, many of them in science. In other words many of our science whiz kids are scientists’ children. No big surprise there. But there are lots of scientists, and only a few have whiz kids — the ones who push.

Here’s what the list shows: Jews from Minsk push their kids, and so do Jews born in Great Neck. Indians from Bangalore and Chinese from Canton push their kids; whether Indian- and Chinese-Americans continue to do so in two generations remains to be seen, but I’m betting they will. Culture is a powerful thing.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and read his blog at

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