The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy , by Nicholas Lemann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 406 pages, $27.
Most of us are painfully aware of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the subject of Nicholas Lemann’s new book. We spent a few hours one day filling in little dots on a piece of flimsy paper; these jottings in good part determined which colleges we might attend, and so which jobs we might get, and so what kind of life we might have. The creators of the S.A.T., when they concocted it a half century ago, meant it to be like a photo snapped in the street, a picture of personal aptitude that caught its subjects naked and unprepared. By now nearly no one blithely wanders into the testing room. Prep books, tutors, practice tests: With all these tools the adolescent sweats to manipulate the picture focused in the S.A.T.’s lens.
Mr. Lemann’s book has the great merit of forcing us to think about this ordeal in a new way. Rather than just ask whether this test of mathematical and verbal ability is culturally biased, or whether you can really measure someone’s ability with a number, Mr. Lemann wants to explore why the S.A.T. (and all its ugly children, the aptitude tests for law school, medical school and graduate school) were created in the first place. In doing so, he enters on a large and complex social issue: how the ideal of meritocracy has taken hold in American life.
Mr. Lemann’s story starts at Harvard University in the late 1930’s. President James Bryant Conant was a proper-enough Bostonian who believed Harvard’s advantages ought to be available to more than the children of the New England elite. Conant subscribed to Thomas Jefferson’s belief in a “natural aristocracy of talent”; the problem was how to find these aristocrats. Diamonds in the rough in Utah were unlikely to come to Harvard’s attention, since very few of them attended Andover, Exeter, Groton and the other prep schools that fed the university. (We are talking about Protestant boy-diamonds; the access of Jews and Catholics to the Ivy League at that time was still rigidly restricted.)
A test would find them. And as it happened, Conant knew a young Harvard man who could devise it. Henry Chauncey was another proper Wasp who had become interested in psychology and intelligence testing; like Conant, he also believed in the natural aristocracy of talent. In 1943, Conant summoned Chauncey from Cambridge to Washington to create in two months a trial run, the Army-Navy College Qualification Test; his aim was then to adapt the same test for the Ivy League schools. By chance, however, Chauncey was soon offered a much bigger job, head of the College Board in Princeton. In 1945, he took it; he would, in Mr. Lemann’s words, run “the one big testing organization for the whole country … testing every American on every human quality.”
If this seems loony, you have to remember what reformers like Conant and Chauncey were up against a half-century ago. Most Ivy League institutions were male finishing schools, as were Oxford and Cambridge in England. It was considered a little vulgar to flourish academic aptitude, if you were so endowed–and you certainly didn’t need to be in order to gain admission. Mr. Lemann doesn’t stress strongly enough, I think, the complacency, decay and uselessness that reformers sensed at this time among their upper-class peers; as in Britain, Americans who had fought as equals in the war weren’t about to go back to an older system of mindless privilege. And like the Progressives of an earlier era, these Brahmin reformers thought science, objective measures and factual evidence provided the key to finding the people who deserved to be at the top.
The elite cooked this up on their own, and perhaps no one would have objected if the technology of finding diamonds in the rough had not spread beyond the Ivy League. But the advent of the S.A.T. increasingly focused all higher educational practice in the United States on test performance. Before the 1960’s, students tended to wander haphazardly through college courses, even in the sciences. The need to find talent, especially after the Sputnik launch in 1957, alerted Americans to the scientific achievements of the Russian enemy and put new pressure on America to organize the educational system. The mass of students by the 60’s thus came to be subjected to the same rigor of measurement that hauncey and Conant had designed for a small elite.
In the 1950’s the English writer Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” to describe a state of affairs in which an elite of brains, through the control of education, manipulated and debased the masses. Mr. Lemann is much too sophisticated to imagine as scheming Machiavellis the worthy Chauncey and Conant, or after them Clark Kerr, who reorganized the public university system in California according to the same kinds of controls. The educational meritocrats were civic-minded and sociologically innocent, like the “best and the brightest” gearing up for the Vietnam War. Mr. Lemann believes that, as a society, we simply stumbled into meritocratic values based on testing. Our idea was to do away with unearned privilege but we never thought through the new privileges we were creating. That’s what, in The Big Test , Mr. Lemann now invites us to do.
I very much like the low-key, evenhanded way in which he issues invitation. He portrays people such as Asian-Americans who benefited from this new order, and also people from monied backgrounds who forged for themselves a new sense of personal merit
by their educational achievements. He is careful to point out that the new educational regime indeed serves an old American ideal, the dream of individual upward mobility. But here is a conundrum: Upward mobility through testing is based not on actual achievement but on the possibility of achievement; testing determines whether you will be allowed to develop your talents in the first place. Again, Mr. Lemann is careful; he knows college and graduate school admissions depend on much more than test scores.
However, from serving as finishing schools, elite universities have indeed become more like race tracks. In the last half-century, most higher education has focused on testing and sorting out young people for the future. Mr. Lemann deplores the fact that “our universities have evolved into a national personnel department.” But whereas most of us encounter personnel departments only in adult life, the educational tests of ability occur before young people have had much experience or developed mature judgment. Thus a regime originally designed to parcel out privilege to a few has become every adolescent’s burden: Each must prove that he or she should be given the opportunity to prove himself or herself.
The last and most brilliant part of Mr. Lemann’s book is about the battle in California over Proposition 209, which was, essentially, an anti-affirmative-action amendment to the state’s Constitution. He has a fresh and incisive take on the debate over affirmative action itself: He sees it as an attempt, finally, to vote on the meaning of meritocracy. Who deserves the privilege of going to the best schools, like Berkeley or U.C.L.A. in California? If future accomplishment is defined by the promissory note of the test, doesn’t that in fact condemn the diamonds in the rough? Mr. Lemann observes that the “influences of parentage, of background culture and class, are at their highest and most explicit during a person’s student years.” Therefore, meritocracy defined by tests is racist and sexist, since the age of testing is when a person is most bound to his or her circumstances.
The moral of Proposition 209 might be that we should wipe out words like “deserving,” “ability” or “merit” from our civic vocabulary. But Mr. Lemann is no leveler. He believes in the full development of people’s abilities, put to the common good. He would like to see, in a truly civic meritocracy, “the richest rewards of money and status … devolve to people only temporarily, and strictly on the basis of their performances; there would be as little lifelong tenure on the basis of youthful promise as possible.” Of course, for this to happen you would have to change how people work, as well as what happens to them at school, but that’s perhaps another story.
This one is challenging enough. America has always prided itself on being a society of opportunity, and lied to itself that class doesn’t matter here. In hope and in blindness we have tried to sustain the belief that people can get what they deserve if only they try hard enough. Mr. Lemann is trying to penetrate this morass of fantasy by showing how and why most Americans are not given the chance to try. In its rich detail, its calm clearsightedness and its truthfulness, The Big Test is an invigorating book.