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Essay review of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann. New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Pp. Vii+406 Hb $27 Pb $15

by Robert M. Young

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The Rise of the Meritocracy:1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958) is a very well-known yet widely unread book. I bought a copy of the Penguin edition in 1974, and it remains unopened. We all know that it advocates a society in which advancement is based on merit, and Tony Blair has recently said that he wants Britain to be a meritocracy. Actually, that’s the opposite of what the book said. It is not about an ultimately fair society; it is about a dystopia, as the author, Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington, main author of the Labour Party’s first post-war manifesto, begetter of the Open University, of Which and of much else) has recently stressed in an article in The Guardian.

I learned that I carried about this very widely-believed wrong assumption about the original meaning of meritocracy from a remarkable book by a very thoughtful author, Nicholas Lemann, whose essays I first encountered in the 1970s when he was writing for the Texas Monthly , where I read an essay which in many ways points the way toward the book under review, ‘Sherwood Blount’s First Million’, about how a working class boy becomes a football star and a successful real estate broker by virtue of being a good ole boy. (It is reprinted in a collection of his essays, The Fast Track: Texans and Other Strivers). Lemann went on to become a staff writer for The Atlantic and, more recently, The New Yorker. He is also the author of The Promised Land, a moving book on the migration of blacks from the American South when the mechanical cotton picker eliminated their livelihoods. I have felt for a long time that if something has been written by Nicholas Lemann, I will almost certainly benefit from reading it.

The book in question is The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. You may respond to this title with scepticism, but I think it is appropriate. In particular, it is a history of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) at Princeton, New Jersey, the people who originated and administer the College Board Exams, the Graduate Record Test, the Medical School Aptitude Test (all of which I have taken), as well as many other tests of aptitude and achievement which play central roles in the gateways to various American educational institutions, the military and many other settings. This story is intrinsically interesting, but it is particularly so now, since there are forces at work seeking to bring these tests to Britain as part of a reform of university admissions at our own elite universities in the wake of a very talented woman’s being turned down by and Oxford college and going to Harvard. The book is, I suggest, a cautionary tale for us.

At the centre of Lemann’s story is the idealism of James Bryant Conant, who, on becoming President of Harvard in 1933, encouraged one of his deans, Henry Chauncey, to embark on an ambitious programme of educational testing. Chauncey is the central figure in the ETS story. Conant and Chauncey had a vision, admirable in its essence, that the future of American democracy crucially depended on opening up its elite educational institutions to a much wider constituency of talented people than the scions of the rich who gained most of the places in Ivy League (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc.) and similar colleges and universities. They embarked on a huge project of social engineering – find talented young people and open the best institutions to them. Their aim was to create, as Lemann puts it, ‘a scientized social utopia’ by applying a ‘standard gauge’ to people (p.58).

I, like many others, was a beneficiary of this approach. I was plucked from relative obscurity of a state school in the suburbs of Dallas which had never sent anyone to Yale and given a full scholarship. We found ourselves mixes with graduates of the great private secondary schools – called ‘prep (for preparatory) schools’ in America, e.g., Groton, Exeter, Andover, Lawrenceville, Deerfield in New England, along with some less well-known private schools dotted around the country. Their graduates were certainly better prepared than we, and some of us had to attend remedial courses and to work like stink to keep up. Soon, however, we found ourselves on the Dean’s List of the top ten percent and even the Dean’s Honors List of the top ten people in academic results in a given year. What we lacked in urbanity we made up for with industry. In my second year my roommate (from a Los Angeles state school) and I had an arrangement whereby one of us was always awake and rolled out the other after four hours of sleep. We had a lot less money than the preppies, and we certainly appreciated the opportunity we had been given. Both of us went on to medical school. He practiced pathology in St. Louis, and I went to Cambridge and trained as an historian of science and taught there for over a decade, was an admissions tutor at one of the ancient colleges, King’s, and eventually became a psychotherapist and university professor. I suppose the social engineers would say that we were successful products of the strategy to ferret out talent from new places. I relate the personal side of this, partly to convey some of the fruits of the new educational policy, partly to make clear why I should find the book so interesting.

Yet it is much more than a history of an educational strategy and a social experiment. The story the author tells centres on the lives and careers of a few individuals who exemplify the themes he is exploring. One is about race and positive discrimination. The story he tells about this theme is complex and murky, and the outcome is by no means unequivocally progressive. It takes us a long way from the elite universities to the great state university systems, in particular, that of California, which had both educational opportunity for all and a policy of fostering certain very privileged institutions for the brightest students. Many conundrums and contradictions occurred as a result of the social engineering embarked upon by the leader of the California university system Clark Kerr. Admirable social goals, for example, positive discrimination and rewarding educational achievements) came into sharp and prolonged conflict. The Ivy League schools on the East coast had their own contradictions. Fostering people like me and my roommate meant having quotas limiting how many Jews from New England could be admitted, no matter what their educational attainments. Much of the book is concerned with legal and policy issues surrounding positive discrimination in university education and employment.

The largest issue considered by Lemann, however, is a tremendously serious one which is hard to fathom. ‘Merit’ meant ‘ability’, and the ETS set out to measure it by putatively value-free tests. The most important of these is the College Boards, and the ETS social engineers made every effort to make the tests measure ability independent of knowledge. They were attempting to construct a meritocracy, even though they were blissfully ignorant of why Michael Young opposed this. His reason was that if you measure and reward talent/ability/merit independent of values, goals, beliefs, character, politics and all that determines how we deploy our gifts, you will generate a group of mandarins who are not particularly interested in how their talents are made use of. They want ‘success’, money, status and are not likely to be particularly worried where they get it. I read a book recently which claimed that 80% of one year’s graduating class from Yale in the 1980s applied to work for the investment bankers, Lemann Brothers, the subject of the satirical and cynical book, Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis, which probed the amoral world of selling securities, gaining big bonuses and striving for the biggest accolade of all, being called ‘a big swinging dick’. A mandarinate without moral rudders is reminiscent of the people who did as they were told in dictatorial regimes and other who just did not make waves and endanger their positions in questionable companies and other institutions. My experience is that the places where I have worked in television, publishing, academia and the helping professions are full of such rudderless careerists.

 Another sobering theme in Lemann’s story is that the testers were suffering from a very bad case of complacency in their mistaken belief that they could measure ability independent of cultural bias and educational attainment. There is a large literature showing that IQ tests are not culture-free or independent of educational attainment. It was also claimed by the testers that one could not prepare for their tests. There was a man in New York who set up a crammers. He coached people for the College Boards. Each was told that if he or she brought back a question from the exam, the reward would be a pizza. He soon built up a useful file of the sorts of questions that were asked. The very upper class elite who Conant and Chauncey were trying to outflank found their way to the crammer’s, and his methods were soon widely emulated. The well-placed were fairly quick to learn how to play by the new rules. The aristocracy and its new meritocratic recruits have managed very well in seeing that their children get into the best universities. In the meantime, the moral education of young people has taken a back seat to the search for merit, an amoral category which brings you the clever careerists who dominate public life and the institutions which govern our society.

The book is written with admirable care, letting the issues emerge but remaining free from polemics. At the end, however, the author becomes forthright about his own conclusions. Here is a passage which particularly struck me: ‘The American meritocracy was founded on a linked chain of presumptions, which people aren’t familiar with today because they weren’t stated openly at the start. The first is that the system’s main task is to select a small number of people to form a new elite – the goal of giving opportunity to all Americans was added later, less as an essential element of the system’s design than as a way of generating public support for it. The next presumption was that the means of selection should be intelligence tests, as a proxy for superior academic talent; the definition of “merit’, in other words, is a purely intellectual, educational one. Finally, the purpose for which these students are being selected to enter into the modern version of what Thomas Jefferson called “the offices of government” – that is, administrative and scholarly service to a modern bureaucratic state. What the founders of the system envisioned was closer to the elite civil-service system of a country like France or Japan than a meritocracy in the way the word is used today.

‘Over time the American meritocracy has developed into a more general way of distributing opportunity to millions of people, fitting them into places in a highly-tracked university system that leads to jobs and professions. And its assumed purpose has changed from being a way to obtain highly capable and well trained public officials to a way of determining fairly who gets America’s material rewards. These changes were, substantially, accidental, the result of both expansionist impulses within both ETS and the universities and the privatism of American culture, but they have altered the moral calculus.

‘Let us say you wanted to design, from scratch, a system to distribute opportunity in the fairest possible way. Would you design the American meritocracy as it now exists? You would only if you believed that IQ test scores and, more broadly, academic performance are the same thing as merit. That’s a defensible position, but it ought at least to show itself openly to be debated, rather than being presumed. If it did, the arguments against it would quickly emerge. Merit is various, not unidimensional. Intelligence tests, and also education itself, can’t be counted on to find every form of merit. They don’t find wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense or independence, or determination - let alone moral worth. Perforce they judge people on their potential, not their actual performance over the long term at the work for which they are being selected’ (pp. 344-45).

Turn the page, and you find: ‘…the idea of having a general-purpose meritocratic elite generated through university admissions is an idea we should abandon’ (p. 347).  

To appear in Science as Culture


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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