The Book Club

Personalities and Issues

Dear David,

Thank you for the sensational news: It is really bouleversant. I, too, found our exchanges affected by daily events, in this case Dan Seligman’s review of The Big Test in the Wall Street Journal. On substance, he is about where we are, except that he raises the dread question of heredity, about which I will say a few words later. But he reminds me about one point of form in The Big Test I was planning to raise, and that I think of as a kind of New Yorker phenomenon: the remarkable detail Lemann has on individuals. I know some of them–Jerry Karabel was a graduate student of mine at Harvard, and he appears in the book as a professor of sociology at the University of California Berkeley who tried desperately to get the Democrats to go for a counter-proposition to the California CCRI rather than fight it head on and lose. On the one hand, I am irritated at having to spend all this time on personal background when I am trying to get at the issues; on the other hand, I am fascinated to discover, for example, that Molly Munger’s father is a partner of Warren Buffet, and so on. It seems as if it has been decided, both by writers and publishers, that you can’t get people to concentrate on the issues if you don’t build up the personalities involved.

You raise some interesting questions about changes over the decades. I was involved in the genesis and publishing of some of the books you mention, and why styles and tastes change over the years is a question it is hard to answer. I think one answer is the rise of academia, which leads to more specialized books, narrower books, reaching small specialized audiences. Almost none of the people you mention as writing those important books of the past were professors–I think of Jane Jacobs, Edmund Wilson, W. H. Whyte–or if they were, they became professors late in life, after having been editors, and the like, for example Dan Bell, and me too. As an editor I dealt with some of those books.

Yes, the story in Lemann is well researched, indeed impressively so, but the issues are left hanging without sustained analysis, which would have been possible.

A final point, heredity. One cannot be conclusive on this but I am impressed at the degree to which serious people–among them for example Christopher Jencks, but also others–were convinced this is an important factor. When we say that social background determines in large measure one’s scores and indeed, I would say, one’s tested intelligence, how do we separate out the effect of hereditary factors from income, education, etc.?

I think one can’t. And yet if these factors play some role, and I am sure they do, whatever means we try to get to equal opportunity–and we should use all of them, in principle–won’t ensure it.

Now that we are reviewing reviews of The Big Test, I wonder how much more there is left to say? Any last words?

Nat Glazer