In the first part of her book God, Grades, and Graduation, Ilana Horwitz puts forward a simple argument: religious children do better at school than their nonreligious peers. Michal Leibowitz praises Horwitz’s “uncommonly good” research, which manages to disentangle religion from socioeconomic factors, and combines quantitative analysis with the qualitative data that come from numerous interviews. But Leibowitz is less convinced by Horwitz’s other conclusions:
In the less impressive second half of her book, Horwitz discusses her other, “paradoxical” finding: that the same intense religiosity that boosts educational achievement across all socioeconomic groups also lowers academic ambition among some, making more affluent religious teens likely to attend less-selective colleges.
Religious girls, she tells us, “yearn for the comfort of the familiar.” They are “happy doing what is expected” and content to follow “the path laid out for girls” in their families and communities. But girls raised by at least one Jewish parent, [another cohort the book examines], couldn’t be further from this, she tells us. They are ambitious, career-driven, and free-thinking and display an early focus on attending a highly selective university. Consider teenager Stacy, who wants to attend “a good college—like an Ivy League kind of college” and then law school. How adventurous! How bold! Surely this ambition of Stacy’s arose spontaneously, was freely chosen and pursued? No, of course not.
Throughout the book, Horwitz operates within a paradigm in which education is always good, more education is always better, and education at a selective institution is always best. (Horwitz herself holds four degrees, including a masters from Columbia and a doctorate from Stanford). This leads to some unforced errors. . . . The backdrop of intellectual and cultural assumptions that Horwitz clearly shares with most of her peers blinds her to what should have been obvious without any statistical study: not every American high-school student is a rational prestige maximizer when it comes to education.