The Book Club

Two Cheers for the SAT

Dear David,

I do look forward to your book, some of which, or at least some of the research reports for, I have been reading in the Weekly Standard and elsewhere. It is a strange situation we have with our current elite, as you point out. In some other countries where there is affirmative action, it is a majority that imposes affirmative action for itself, for example, the Malays in Malaysia. Here we have it for a small minority (the key beneficiary is the black population, 12 percent of the total) and university presidents, almost all major foundation heads, etc.–defend this system vigorously even though it reduces, perhaps only minimally, its own advantages. You point out quite correctly that at the very top levels the resentment is very muted and hardly visible (see the huge majorities of students in elite colleges who say diversity is a good thing and we should have more, in the Bowen and Bok book, The Shape of the River). It’s the people educated at Yale, in Lemann’s account, who are the most vigorous defenders of affirmative action in California. There is not only Molly Munger but also Bill Lann Lee, now the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights. The resentment seems to be somewhat greater at the University of Texas and the University of Michigan, which are certainly elite within their states but fall short of the very top national elite level. And as you point out, it is the middle classes, and I would add, the upper working class, that seem most resentful, even though the children of the latter will go neither to the Ivy Leagues nor the flagship state universities. At the places their children will go to, racial preference doesn’t play much of a role. Clearly self-interest is not playing the decisive role in the struggle over affirmative action. I would suggest it is ideology that makes for the division, and yes, the ideology of the elite is equality, and that of the middle classes is opportunity. There are some oddities here, not the least of which is that the struggle over affirmative action is waged most vigorously over admissions to colleges and universities, and one hears less and less about important cases in the area of employment. But it is there, I would think, that those who voted against CCRI would feel the bite of affirmative action more, because of its commonness in employment for policemen, firemen, and much other public employment, and its prominence in the hiring and promotion policies of big corporations.

In view of the fact that the present system for selecting elites selects one that is critical of the system, concerned about inequality and greater opportunity, one wonders why Lemann is complaining. He writes that the most unfair system of distributing opportunity would be one “in which all roles were handed down explicitly by inheritance.” But then, “the second most unfair system … could well be one that allowed for competition but insisted that it take place as early in life as possible and with school as the arena.” His discomfort with the SAT is that it’s an intelligence test that primarily selects people who are good at test-taking and school. His real problem is to define a less unfair system.

As a matter of fact, he is unfair in describing the present system. It is not totally dependant on the tests. There are the athletes and the alumni children and the occasional student who is very good at something even though his test scores are not at the top. And, of course, there is affirmative action in most selective institutions, and that may be as many as 20 percent of all colleges and universities, for blacks and Hispanics and American Indians. So it is a meritocratic system considerably modified.

So what is the problem? Unfairness because of early selection? Actually, if we made the selection even earlier, the differences between the majority and minority students would probably be smaller. And by international standards, we don’t make the selection so early. In England there used to be (maybe there still is) an 11-plus exam that makes the selection at a very early age; on the continent, too, students are divided between secondary schools that lead to university and those that do not at an earlier age than 17 or 18. Secondly, there are opportunities here to get into the system later. There are community colleges, from which you can transfer all the way to the elite campuses of the state university. Few do, but there is the opportunity.

Is the problem that the arena is school? Here Lemann has a stronger point, but no society has been able to figure out a better arena, even though school is not the best place to learn how to become an entrepreneur or a politician, run a business or a country, become an artist, etc. How the school system became the great selector, even though it selects people on the basis of talents that are not directly related to many important social roles, is a mystery to me. But it’s happened everywhere, in the most diverse cultures. I recall that even in ancient China, administrators of the empire were selected on the basis of competence in the ancient classics. The only justification for the present system is that intelligence is useful in any task, and that the only fair and systematic way we have of determining intelligence is by way of a uniform test, poor as that may be. Lemann’s task is to define the alternative.

At the end of his account of Molly Munger’s fight against the CCRI, and her deflation when after all her efforts it succeeds, Lemann tells us that she has left civil-rights work and has started a new organization devoted to improving education for the poor. Lemann, while he is only reporting this, seems to approve. So maybe the only problem, or the main problem, is not the test, not selection on the basis of verbal and mathematical competence–which is all the test does–but trying harder to get those who ordinarily do poorly on such tests to do better. But that opens another can of worms, and Lemann’s stab at the enormously difficult problem of improving education at the lower levels is not too encouraging: “We should adopt the goal of sending most people all the way through college … To get more people through college, we shall have to establish greater national authority over education. High schools should … [teach] a nationally agreed upon curriculum.” One wonders if he has been following the efforts to create national standards. Of course, this is only a somewhat tacked-on addendum to what is on the whole a good book, but it does confront us with the question: What is the alternative to the present system?

This has not been much of a debate, I realize. We seem to agree that whatever its flaws in logic and in practice, we can’t think of a clearly better system. I have the impression, if we had a talk with Lemann, he might agree, and we wouldn’t disagree with him when he insisted that the main thing to do is to improve education. But we would probably disagree over the specifics as to how one does it.

Nat Glazer