The Book Club

The Meritocratic Revolution

Dear David,

I, too, was very impressed with the first part of The Big Test. I also thought better of the second part, which starts with Clark Kerr’s role in the creation of the three-level California higher-education system, and ends with Lemann’s detailed account of the political battle over the California Civil Rights Initiative, than you did, but I’ll get to that later.

I will confess I began the book with the weary expectation that the SAT and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) would be attacked again, as they have been so often in the past–by Banesh Hoffman because of the ambiguity built into short-answer tests, by Ralph Nader and Allen Nairn because ETS tries to keep its test questions private, and by many because of the common charge that all the tests do is to confirm the advantages of those from good schools and with educated parents. The book is after all subtitled “The secret history of the American meritocracy,” which arouses the suspicion that there is something disreputable that has been kept secret and will now be revealed. But of course the large outline of this history of how academic qualifications became the key consideration for college and university admissions isn’t very secret at all–it’s been told by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman in The Academic Revolution, more than 30 years ago, and in other studies of American higher education, and part of the story is also told in The Bell Curve, as you suggest.

But the detailed story of the SAT and the ETS that Lemann has constructed on the basis of really impressive research in the ETS archives is indeed new. In view of earlier attacks on the ETS, I would have been interested in knowing if Lemann had any problems in gaining such full access to ETS archives.

There is no question that the shift to meritocracy in college admissions, combined with the growing significance of college as the entry point to key professions and occupations, does amount to a revolution. If college had remained less important–it once was: Andrew Carnegie for example was dismissive of college graduates–it would have mattered less just what the standards for admission were.

I do think a few nuances in this well-told story have been neglected by Lemann. James Bryant Conant and Henry Chauncey play key roles, and clearly the effect of the shift to an exam like the SAT is to make it possible for those with fewer social advantages and who have not attended high-status prep schools to successfully compete for places like Harvard if they are academically able. Conant and Chauncey truly wanted to create an elite based on merit, and in doing so were reducing the opportunities of people of their own class and background. But when this story begins in the early 1930s, as Conant becomes president of Harvard and is thinking of ways of selecting able students from the Midwest and elsewhere outside of Harvard’s traditional recruiting area, Harvard and similar institutions were still to some degree discriminating against Jewish students. Indeed, one reason Harvard was extending its reach beyond the Boston and New York metropolitan area from which most of its students came was in order to reduce the number of Jewish students. Going national had its own good reasons, but were Jews being overly suspicious in thinking that one reason, which they did not think was so good, was to recruit from areas in which fewer Jews lived? I would have been interested in knowing whether Lemann, on the basis of his research, believes this factor was at work in trying to recruit a more nationally representative student body.

I would also note that the meritocratic process was not only self-initiated by colleges and universities. There was also pressure from the Jewish community, resulting in a New York state law banning discrimination on the basis of religion just after World War II, and this law was fought by Columbia and other private universities. One effect of the law was to forbid colleges and universities to ask for pictures of applicants. Other states followed New York state in passing such laws. Colleges and universities had good reason for preserving their right to make their own decisions in admissions, but was one reason the effort to reduce the number of Jewish students who would have qualified on academic merit alone?

This is prehistory but not entirely irrelevant. One reason Jewish organizations were opposed to affirmative action in admissions in the ‘70s was because it had not been so long since they had been fighting discrimination against Jews. Indeed, even in the early ‘70s Jews were not all convinced that this was only history. I recall that a group of Harvard faculty members met with the director of admissions at Harvard because some of them wondered whether any vestiges of these practices remained. The director of admissions did at one point say there was a problem of an oversupply of good students from the suburbs of Boston and New York, the doughnut, as he called it, and it was Henry Rosovsky, I recall, who commented that to some of those present that it was not a doughnut but a bagel. But it was not long before Rosovsky himself ascended to the second most important position at Harvard and Jews became presidents of the leading Ivy League universities.

At the time, to replace non-academic criteria of any kind with academic criteria–and the SAT is an academic criterion: Doing well on it means that one will do well at the things one does in college–seemed a gain for justice and equality, and there was no one ready to attack this development. But then almost immediately, the question came up: It might be justice, but was it equality? And we began to struggle, and we still struggle, with the fact that blacks do not do well in these tests. At one point Lemann uncovers an early effort, in the ‘80s, to create an adjusted score on the SAT that takes into account the socio-economic background of the test-taker. It stands to reason that if test results are correlated with income or other measures of social background, that students who do better than “expected” on the basis of their socio-economic background, may be stronger than their test results indicate. The adjusted score would be called the MAT, measure of academic talent. This is surprisingly similar to recent efforts in ETS research to create a “strivers’ score.” But neither the MAT, which did not take account of race, or the new “strivers’ ” score, which may, would have solved the problem created for a meritocratic system by low black achievement on the SAT, because that is not accounted for by the lower economic and educational background of black test-takers.

That problem was there at the beginning, when meritocracy appeared to have triumphed, whether at the University of California or Yale, and it is still with us. So it made sense for Lemann to move from the history of ETS to the history of affirmative action, as it affected higher education admissions. He tells this story in a rather different way from the history of ETS, with an emphasis on the role of some activists, lawyers and others, who entered college and university at a time when meritocratic considerations were not yet affected in a major way by racial considerations, and when a number of young Japanese- and Chinese-Americans had opportunities to attend elite schools they would probably have not been able to in the pre-meritocratic age. Some of them became leaders in the effort to maintain affirmative action in California. Themselves the beneficiaries of meritocracy, they were now ready to reduce its weight for those who did not do well in the tests created to serve meritocracy. This part of the story is based more on interview and less on research in archives, but I think it is told well. I think, David, you are being too prickly in responding to it. It is true it is told from the point of view primarily of those who tried to save preference, and one may be able to take issue with some of the journalistic flourishes, as you do, but aside from characterization of the participants I don’t detect bias.

But I agree with you that when it comes to the upshot of the whole story, those scanty last few pages on what it all means, Lemann just throws up his hands, and leaves a lot dangling. If not these tests, which? None? Aiming at what kinds of characteristics? How do we discover them? Are there really any alternatives?

But this letter is long enough, possibly too long for the format, so I will leave discussion of Lemann’s attempt to sum up to the next letter. I would be interested in knowing more of what you make of this last chapter, and his position. He seems to be struggling between some distaste for the role of the SAT and an inability to formulate an alternative.

Nat Glazer