The Meritocracy Trap

The Meritocracy Trap

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
by Nicholas Lemann
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999, 368 pp.


In respectable American opinion, perhaps the Constitution is the only institution treated with more obligatory reverence than the elite university. In a society devoted to the enthusiastic pursuit of the bottom line, the university is the exception, in theory at least; to quote Allan Bloom, it is a haven “dedicated to a higher purpose . . . not merely to shelter or manufacture or trade.”

An institution so venerated must answer two questions: Who deserves to be numbered among the elect community of its members? And how can the rewards it confers be justified? Perhaps it’s not surprising that entrance into this privileged world should be contingent on a test thought to measure the elusive, intangible quality of “aptitude,” not ability, an exam invested with the mystic power to cut through the vagaries of birth, place, status, and parentage to measure innate capacity for learning.

How the United States came to use such oblique methods for assigning slots in college—and how elite colleges themselves came to hold such an honored position in American life—is the subject of Nicholas Lemann’s new book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. In the unhurried style of an essay from the old New Yorker, The Big Test tells the story of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the nonprofit, quasi-public agency that produces it. It’s not subtitled a “secret history” for nothing; Lemann, unlike other researchers, was awarded access to the ETS archives, so much of the research is new. It’s a good thing, too, because for every well-wrought phrase and interesting anecdote there is an absent argument; the book meanders through memos, letters, speeches, and interviews while remaining strangely reticent about the point of it all.

Yet among the details, Lemann does have some ideas: The Big Test is, on some level, an interpretation of the postwar liberal project. After World War II, according to Lemann, the real project of the influential American liberals who devised the SAT wasn’t to expand the university system so more people could go to college. It was to rehabilitate the elite, which had been discredited in the Great Depression and alienated by the New Deal. In the new “meritocracy,” the most intelligent would rule. Higher education would take the place of the frontier in the nineteenth century, as a realm of competition in which the fittest would rise to the top.

Lemann’s story begins in the early years of the century, with the development of the intelligence quotient test (IQ), first widely used in America to assign jobs in the army during World War I. Progressive Era eugenicists produced innumerable tracts purporting to show that dark-skinned people have lower IQs than light-skinned people, and thus deserve their lot in life. Among these was the author of the first SAT, Carl Brigham, who trafficked happily in the eugenic nostrums of the day. His 1922 A Study of American Intelligence was a passionate argument for the restriction of immigration from the swarthy parts of Europe. Brigham recanted his racialist interpretation of IQ in the 1930s, writing, “The test movement came to this country some twenty-five or thirty years ago accompanied by one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely, that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without training or schooling. I hope nobody believes that now. The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else . . . The native intelligence hypothesis is dead.”

Among the liberals who brought the SAT to its present prominence as a college admissions tool, though, the “native intelligence hypothesis” was alive and well. They were not, however, overtly interested in using SAT scores to “prove” racial differences and trod down the downtrodden. Instead, their fire was turned the other way, against inherited rank and privilege. The Big Test opens with a description of the ETS’s first president, Henry Chauncey. An assistant dean at Harvard in the late 1930s, he saw in IQ tests the secret to an ordered society. For Chauncey, the standardized examination fulfilled Alexander Hamilton’s promise to reduce the role of “accident and force” in life—especially in the creation of social class. Instead of awarding wealth, power, and status to individuals because of who their parents were, tests could be used to make sure that people would end up in the social position they deserved—and to make sure that the elite was really composed of the most talented, intelligent people in society.

Lemann suggests that the ideal of a meritocratic elite took hold during the depression, when the wealthy and powerful in America seemed entirely discredited by the crash. Instead of an upper echelon composed of rugged men who won their wealth in the marketplace, the elite during the depression seemed to consist of arrogant young men with servants, partying at Princeton while the rest of the country waited on bread lines. Institutions of higher education catered, or were thought to cater, to aristocrats, not men on the make. Elbert Hubbard, self-help guru of the early twentieth century, wrote that Andrew Carnegie gave no money to universities because “all the great and fashionable universities are given over to cigarettes, booze, bromide, and the devious ways of dalliance.” At about the same time, Thorstein Veblen wrote that “A ‘gentleman’s college’ is an establishment in which scholarship is advisedly made subordinate to genteel dissipation.”

The SAT found one of its first prominent supporters in James Conant, the president of Harvard during the 1930s and 1940s, whose raison d’être during those years, according to Lemann, was to “depose the existing, undemocratic American elite and replace it with a new one made up of brainy, elaborately trained, public-spirited people drawn from every section and every background.” Conant, who started the first merit-based scholarships in Harvard’s history, believed that the United States, historically a classless society, had developed a “caste system” in the teens and twenties. In the wake of the depression, this aristocracy could become an easy target for “European radicals” in the United States. To prevent such attacks, it was essential to find a way to “reorder the ‘haves and have-nots’ every generation to give flux to our social order.” By selecting for merit alone, without regard to background or class, the school system could be used to “wield the axe against the root of inherited privilege” and create a new frontier of equal opportunity for all. Conant was so deeply convinced that class hierarchy was the real danger facing America that he even argued the government should “confiscate (by constitutional methods) all property once a generation”—though, fortunately for Harvard’s endowment, he did not pursue this idea as aggressively as he pursued the development of the SAT.

The SATs quickly expanded from Harvard to include most other Ivy League institutions. World War II provided the opportunity for Chauncey and the College Board—with Conant’s support—to demonstrate that standardized SAT-type tests could be given to hundreds of thousands of students at the same time.

So what are we to make of these strange liberal defenders? Lemann’s attitude toward Chauncey and Conant wavers between bewilderment and outright hostility. One moment he endorses the general principle of meritocracy, the next he mocks the hubris of liberals who think that rational organization is the salve to all social conflict. On one page, he implies that the real problem with the SAT is that it is a narrow, biased measure, which doesn’t “find wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination—let alone moral worth.” A few pages later, he suggests that the SAT did create a kind of meritocracy, but one that is as stratified as the society it replaced: “You can’t undermine social rank by setting up an elaborate process of ranking.” At one point Lemann quotes Clark Kerr: “How may the contribution of the elite be made clear to the egalitarians, and how may an aristocracy of intellect justify itself to all men?” “Good question,” Lemann responds in the sardonic, tough-guy voice he affects throughout the book. But his sarcasm has no real target. Though he doesn’t like the postwar liberals much, it’s not clear who or what he would like better.

Lemann’s confusion about meritocracy becomes more apparent as the book goes on. The Big Test shifts focus halfway through; the second part is based on a series of interviews with lawyers like Alice Young (an Asian-American woman) and academics like Jerome Karabel (from a working-class background) who attended elite universities in the postwar era, and who presumably are representative of the new “meritocratic” elite. In what appears, to Lemann, to be something of a contradiction, most of the men and women he interviews have been crusaders in support of affirmative action for African Americans. How could the same liberals who claimed to believe in meritocracy also favor affirmative action? Lemann suggests that postwar liberals, in their desire to create a just and “representative” elite, knew they’d have to relax their standards a little bit for blacks—but they didn’t mind doing so, because creating an elite that seemed representative was more important to them than strictly meritocratic principles.

If the educational system was to be used to select society’s leaders, then “one could simply bend the rules of the meritocracy for Negroes, so that they’d get a little more than they’d be entitled to simply on the basis of test scores. This would help them advance and help to integrate the new elite, thus making it better equipped to manage racial conflict in American society. Affirmative action was not a profound betrayal of the idea of meritocracy but a quick (and, its inventors assumed, temporary) fix for one of its obvious shortcomings.”

But the circle could only be squared for so long. The liberal goal of meritocracy ultimately came into conflict with the goal of ensuring progress for black Americans: “Two widely held national goals, equal opportunity for all and a better deal for Negroes, were now, thanks to the completion of the national testing and statistics-keeping apparatus, explicitly, openly contradictory.” It was this “direct, long-building, historic conflict between black progress and meritocracy-by-testing” which ultimately led to populist political attacks on affirmative action—and, Lemann implies, on the entire postwar liberal consensus that what mattered was creating a just elite. In Lemann’s much-praised last book, The Promised Land, which followed a number of poor black families from the South to Chicago’s housing projects, he managed to absolve the Kennedy liberals while supporting the “culture of poverty” thesis (the argument was that black families imported a dysfunctional culture from the sharecropping plantations to the inner city that proved impervious to the too-short-lived War on Poverty). The Big Test once again suggests that the liberal project ultimately founders on race.

In pointing to affirmative action as an insoluble contradiction for the meritocracy, Lemann fails to come to grips with the argument that affirmative action actually advances the cause of meritocracy. Affirmative action seems like a perversion of meritocracy only if you assume that the big test has done its job: that in the absence of affirmative action, privilege would be doled out on the merits—and affirmative action’s smartest proponents have never believed this to be the case. Fifty years after Conant, the children of Harvard alumni are still twice as likely to get into their parents’ alma mater as everyone else. If family and connections still matter—and could anyone who’s ever looked for a job deny it?—then affirmative action looks more like a way of making sure that smart kids whose parents don’t have fat Rolodexes get a chance.

This ellipsis on affirmative action points to the biggest blind spot in The Big Test: Lemann’s conclusion that the meritocratic project was successful, and that a new elite of the intelligentsia was created in the postwar era, albeit one which “looks more and more like what it was intended to replace.” It may be true that for the professional middle class, college degrees are the primary means of passing status from one generation to the next, but the real American elite propagates itself the good old-fashioned way: through inheritance. Approximately one-half to three-quarters of all personal wealth in the United States can be traced to inheritance, according to Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood. Lots of wealthy kids still go to Princeton, and for them it’s pretty much the four-year summer camp cum beer garden it was before the SAT. Their wealth won’t come from a law practice, it’ll come from Mom and Dad. Before worrying about how Clark Kerr’s “elite of the intellect” warps democratic sensibilities, Lemann might ask whether they’re really running the show at all.

Lemann closes his book with a stirring call to expand and improve education at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college. Denouncing the “culture of frenzy surrounding admissions” as “destructive and anti-democratic,” he calls for replacing the SAT with tests demonstrating mastery of the high school curriculum, while permitting “the richest rewards of money and status” to “devolve to people only temporarily, and strictly on the basis of their performance; there would be as little lifelong tenure on the basis of youthful promise as possible.” But most of all, he believes in expanding and improving schools for all: “The best and most distinctive tradition in American education is the tradition of pushing to educate more people.”

All of this is dewy-eyed Deweyism, a refreshing counter to conservatives who suggest that black and Hispanic kids who need remedial classes shouldn’t be in college at all. But expanded education and fairer tests won’t in and of themselves create a more egalitarian or democratic society. Though he’s in favor of the GI bill while they believed in the SAT, Lemann shares the postwar liberals’ vision of universities as cities on a hill, which can be a light unto the nation. This ultimately limits his vision as much as it did theirs. The gap in American society he bemoans is not, fundamentally, one that has much to do with education (let alone intelligence or merit), and so it isn’t one that can easily be redressed through the school system or through a better system of testing. Taxes on inheritance and wealth, fairer labor laws, and a higher minimum wage will do far more to create the democratic society he hopes for than any number of new classrooms or any new big test.


Kim Phillips-Fein is a contributing editor of the Baffler and a writer in New York.