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Issue No. 18 (October 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Seriously, folks do we really need a meritocracy?

Everybody thinks the tension between “winners” and “losers” is increasing in this country, but nobody knows how to respond.

Oh, there are proposals for narrowing the gaps between winners and losers -- proposals for fairer taxation, broader access to medical care, etc.

But among progressives and conservatives alike, it’s heresy to suggest there’s something fishy about the way most middle class people become “winners” in the first place. Surely most non-wealthy people who become doctors, lawyers, top-tier college professors, etc., reach those vaunted stations in life in large part because of their talents and abilities?

And it’s beyond heresy -- beyond even the worst Sixties claptrap -- to suggest that we don’t need “winners” at all. Isn’t it?

In an extraordinary book released this month, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus, 406 pp., $27), Nicholas Lemann -- one of our most prominent “neoliberal” journalists, Washington Monthly, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, etc., by no stretch of the imagination a socialist, or even a Sixties idealist (he’s still in his 30s, and a rather snide sort) -- challenges the received wisdom in ways that even C. Wright Mills didn’t dare.

It’s a book that obviously “just grew.” It has more byways and detours than I can recount here, and its most engrossing aspect may be its constant stream of penetrating Dreiseresque observations about class in America. Here’s Lemann on the difference between the founders of the Kaplan and Princeton Review prep courses for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT): “Kaplan . . . was eternally lower-middle-class, with [a] reverence for authority [and] stiff unstylish suits. . . . As [the Princeton Review’s] Katzman put it: ‘[Kaplan’s course] had the sheen of being for losers,’ and no Manhattan prep-school kid wanted to be identified with [it]. But a course that accomplished the same goal of raising scores . . . while at the same time taking the position that SATs were pernicious, meaningless bullshit foisted upon America’s youth by a greedy corporation -- that was what Katzman’s constituency was looking for.”

And here’s Lemann on an upper-middle-class Ivy League law student (and, I strongly suspect, on himself as well): “She wanted very badly to make it, to earn her way to a berth in the American elite, but at the same time she wanted to fix the country’s flaws, which burned her up. The ideal was to occupy a top position in a fair system. Thus . . . she became inexorably attached to the idea of a perfected American social order.”

As you can see from the above, Lemann tells his tale from the point of view of individuals. On one level the book is a series of 10 to 15 interrelated biographies, and the human implications of Lemann’s argument will never be lost on you. The book is the best example I’ve seen of the new, Gen-X style of reporting that seamlessly combines history, social science, biography, and gossip.

At the heart of it all, there’s a coherent thesis: The Great American Meritocracy shouldn’t depend on aptitude tests, or colleges that segregate us on the basis of those tests. There’s also a latent thesis: Meritocracy is bad for us, and we can do better.

“The big test” exposed

According to Lemann, the people’s elected representatives never “decided” the SAT test would determine the life chances of hundreds of millions of Americans. The SAT triumphed because of the misguided idealism of a handful of elite Americans around the time of World War II -- especially Henry Chauncey, head of the Educational Testing Service, and James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard.

Chauncey and Conant were appalled that the best and the brightest all seemed to come from the social upper class. What could be more unfair? Worse still, what could be more inefficient, more wasteful of the talents and energies of middle class Americans?

So Chauncey and Conant sought to promote a test -- the SAT -- that would produce a different kind of elite, a “meritocracy,” if you will, a fairly-chosen elite of bright and capable people who’d run the complex organizations of the late 20th century.

And they pretty much succeeded. The SAT is now the test most admissions officers look to when deciding who gets into our best colleges. And its graduate- and professional-level variants are what get us into the schools that are the transmission belts for the meritocracy.

You might think that’s a good thing -- how else can bright kids without money or connections get ahead in life? -- but Lemann thinks otherwise. The whole first third of his book is a diatribe against the SAT, by turns bitter, funny, and fascinating.

Probably his most important argument is that the SAT is really no more than a glorified IQ test. In other words, it measures just one trait -- intelligence -- and fails to measure other important traits, such as “wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination. . . .”

I find this argument unpersuasive. Anyone who’s taken the SAT knows that it measures a lot more than God-given intelligence, that you don’t develop verbal and mathematical proficiency without a lot of hard work -- e.g., without doing your schoolwork diligently for years. And doing your schoolwork diligently (in the context of the 1,001 distractions young adulthood offers) is a pretty good rough measure of many of the traits Lemann enumerates. The rest are surely best left to letters of recommendation.

Another Lemann objection to the SAT is that African-Americans as a group do relatively poorly on it. But Lemann fails to make a persuasive case that the present-day SAT is culturally biased. He says Jews do well on it because, “by lucky accident,” the Jewish religion is based on book learning. (As distinct from Christianity and Islam?) He doesn’t explain why Asian-Americans do well on it.

University coup-de-grace

What the SAT starts, the colleges and universities finish off, Lemann says, by “tracking” and otherwise segregating students according to their SAT scores -- a practice that he says became much more systematic once Clark Kerr became head of the University of California in the 1950s.

Lemann has no trouble demonstrating that different schools tend to admit students with significantly different SAT scores, grade point averages, and ambitions. Each year millions of Americans buy U.S. News and World Report’s special issues, Best Colleges or Best Graduate Schools, which reveal these differences in painful detail.

What Lemann fails to do, though -- an amazing oversight, given his thesis -- is demonstrate that this segregation is bad for the students. Surely it isn’t good for kids to always be the best or poorest students in their classes; surely it’s best to put the smartest kids in the most challenging environments they can handle.

Affirmative reaction

The final third of Lemann’s book is an intimate look at the fight over Proposition 209 in California (the anti-affirmative action initiative). The meritocracy now understands that it can’t rely just on the SAT to replenish itself, that it has to come up with some socially acceptable way to bring blacks on board as well.

Prop 209 won, the affirmative action forces lost -- and they lose as well in Lemann’s book. For all his even-handedness, they come across as stupefyingly snooty and knee-jerk, and when the black former baby-sitter of one of Lemann’s protagonists realizes she can’t read well enough to get into law school -- this after affirmative action plus “caring” instructors have carried her through to a Berkeley B.A. -- you realize the whole affirmative action system has got to go back to the drawing boards.

The alternative revealed

You’re also thoroughly sick of the whole meritocratic game, and ready to consider Lemann’s alternative, as follows:

1.) Teach students a nationally agreed-upon curriculum, and test them on it rather than on “aptitude.”

2.) Adopt the goal of sending most people all the way through college.

3.) Close the gap between the more and less selective colleges.

Do these things and you’ll be in a position to build a society where the “essential functions and the richest rewards of money and status would 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. The elite would [have] a constantly shifting . . . membership. . . . Successful people would have less serene careers, but this would give them more empathy for people whose lives don’t go smoothly.”

I don’t buy it. There’s already an excellent curriculum test (the ACT or “Iowa test”), and students who do well on it tend to be exactly the same students who do well on the SAT. Instead of sending everyone to college, we could much more profitably upgrade our high schools. And the idea of watering down our best colleges and graduate schools for the sake of equality is absurd, more Maoist than Mao.

A much better solution to the problem of an illegitimate meritocracy is implicit in one of the byways of Lemann’s text, a passage he never returns to. He says there are actually three meritocracies, those of the Mandarins, the Lifers, and the Talents.

The Big Test concentrates on the Mandarins, the beneficiaries of the competitive educational system. The Lifers are those whose college educations were “more routine” and who went on to beginner jobs in large organizations and tried to rise to the top. The Talents are “uncredentialed but lively people who tried to get ahead in some disorganized entrepreneurial field like small business or entertainment.”

To make sure everyone gets a fair shake in life, don’t do what Lemann does and pin all your hopes on the Mandarins. Focus as well on whether the Lifers are being promoted fairly by their big organizations. And make sure that the most promising Talents have access to capital.


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