The Book Club

The Big Test

Dear Nat,

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, and I find myself impressed, annoyed, and disappointed. I’m tremendously impressed by the first chunk of the book, which is a description of the emergence of the SAT-tested meritocracy. Lemann is emerging as our leading chronicler of hugely important but under-reported events. And the social transformation he captures here is momentous. It is nothing less than the death of one elite–the WASP Establishment–and the rise of another–the meritocratic establishment.

We all sense that this transformation occurred sometime after World War II. Lemann won’t like me invoking them, but in The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein include one fact that starkly illustrates the shift. In 1952, the average verbal SAT score for incoming freshmen at Harvard was 583. Ninety percent of all applicants whose fathers had gone to Harvard were admitted. By 1960, the average verbal SAT score was 678. The middle student in the 1952 class would have been at the bottom of the 1960 class. The WASP gentlemen had been replaced by brainy strivers.

What many of us didn’t appreciate until Lemann book is that the Protestant Establishment committed suicide, for the highest of motives. Lemann identifies two key players, James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard, and Henry Chauncey, a Harvard administrator who went on to become the head the Educational Testing Service. Conant was alarmed by the thought that America might be developing a hereditary aristocracy. He sought to replace it with a Platonic class of guardians who would be selected by merit and who would selflessly serve the public. Henry Chauncey didn’t have this sort of grand social vision, but he was enthralled by the possibility of testing, with the thought that human beings could be measured and sorted by these fantastic new scientific evaluations. Like Conant, Chauncey was a member of the Protestant Establishment, a graduate of Groton and Harvard, a man from Puritan stock. These unsung men helped push through the changes that are the basis for our current social setup.

While telling us about Conant and Chauncey, Lemann keeps reminding us about the fundamental issues at stake and the central problems inherent in a meritocracy. The new SAT-based system gave some people more opportunity but also closed off opportunity for people who couldn’t ace the tests. Furthermore, weren’t Conant and Chauncey just undermining one system of social rank and replacing it with another, and possibly even more rigid, one? I am much friendlier to the current elite than Lemann is, but he is right to raise all these issues.

Having described this fundamental change, the decline of the elite based on blood and breeding and the rise of the elite based on brains, it seems to me the next obvious question is: What does this mean for America? What culture and values get adopted by a meritocratic elite? How do they see themselves? What does a society led by brainiac strivers look like? I confess I read this book with some trepidation because I have just completed a book that attempts to answer just these questions. So it was with some relief tinged with disappointment that I found Lemann veers off and avoids them.

The next big chunk of the book is about Clark Kerr and the California university system and the fight over the California Civil Rights Initiative. There must be some law somewhere that says when a liberal starts talking about merit he must immediately move on and talk about race. Obviously, the affirmative-action debate is an important if well-worn controversy. But it is not central to the issues Lemann raises in the first third of the book, which are the problematics of meritocracy. As Lemann admits at the end of the book, both sides in the affirmative-action debate accept the assumptions of meritocracy, “that it’s good for the country to have a designated, educationally derived elite.” So why does he let this book on meritocracy get taken over by affirmative action?

This section on CCRI is a journalistic account about some of the liberal activists who fought CCRI. The story is told through their eyes, and it is a biased account. I am a nervous opponent of affirmative action, and through this whole section I felt my point of view was not being treated fairly. When I read it again, I got angrier. It is incredibly unfair to Ward Connerly, a leading opponent who is treated like a hollow front man. It treats other opponents of affirmative action as oddballs. So one opponent is described living in “an isolated mountaintop aerie” and spending his days “talking in a low confidential mumble on the telephone.” Another is a “ferociously quiet young man with a shaved head.” What does “ferociously quiet” mean? Would Lemann use such a menacing phrase to describe a liberal? Lemann is generally not crudely biased, but liberal readers will find themselves flattered and conservative readers will find themselves feeling that they are victims of an injustice.

In the final pages of the book, Lemann gets off race and returns to the core issues. He asserts that our meritocratic system is unfair, that it is an affront to our egalitarian ideals. He asserts that our system measures only a narrow set of skills, and selects people too early in their lives. These are fair assertions, but he never really makes the case in the center of his book. This last section is only 8 pages long, and contains none of the sociological data or journalistic reportage that would flesh out his assertions. He says we should close the gap between selective colleges and non-selective ones. That might be fine for English majors, but what about scientists and engineers, who are rarely discussed in this book. Won’t the ramifications be grave if elite institutions like MIT are disbanded? Not everybody on earth is a lawyer or a journalist, despite the impression we journalists often give. Lemann doesn’t have time in this final tacked-on section to address such issues.

The Big Test is worth reading for the superb section on Bryant and Conant. I learned a lot. But I come away thinking Lemann let his narrative sidetrack him from the issue he cares about most: The huge question of whether our current meritocratic system is just or unjust, and what we can do about it?

I’m looking forward to your reaction to the book.

Highest regards,