The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy / Edition 1

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Overview

A major work of social history that asks profound moral and political questions about what is right for American society.

This brilliant book shows us for the first time the ideas, the people, and the politics behind a fifty-year-old utopian social experiment that changed modern America.

The experiment-launched by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the brand-new Educational Testing Service (ETS)-was to use the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students in order to create a new democratic elite that would lead postwar America to progress, strength, and prosperity. No writer before Nicholas Lemann has gained access to the archives of the all-powerful ETS, and none has understood the significance of this extraordinary drama. But now, in a remarkable synthesis of vibrant storytelling, vivid portraiture, and thematic analysis, he reveals this secret history.

Predictably, the utopian experiment did not turn out as planned. It created a new elite, but it generated conflict and tension, and American society's best-educated, most privileged people are now leaders with no followers.

Lemann shows that this American meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly. He concludes with his own keen assessment of what the future may hold.

Notes/Index

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Editorial Reviews

Dan Seligman
In The Big Test, Lemann makes this tale immensely readable.
7#151; Wall Street Journal
Hardy Green
One of the most astute and disquieting efforts of the season. What begins as a chronicle of the evolution of standardized testing ends as a penetrating commentary on today's frantic skirmish for a place in the professional upper middle class. Business Week
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Until recently, the operations of this Princeton, New Jersey-based institution [ETS] have been shrouded in an almost CIA-like secrecy. But some of [its] secrets have now been laid bare in a long-awaited book by the journalist Nicholas Lemann. [But when] Lemann turns from institutional history to a broader discussion of testing itself, his book sheds whatever character it has as a fact-finding excursion and increasingly takes on the appearance of an ideological tract. Lemann turns out to dislike test based meritocracy altogether.
Commentary Magazine
Andrew Sullivan
The story he tells -- and often beautifully -- seems such an obviously progressive one that framing it as a case study in failure seems willfully perverse...[H]e does an excellent job of evoking characters in thumbnail sketches and a few memorable scenes.
NY Times Book Review
Caleb Crain

There was little outcry in 1966 when Harvard Law School relaxed its test-score standards in order to admit more black students. The year before, Lyndon B. Johnson had signed an executive order quietly launching affirmative action, and no one had objected to that, either. The moves were so politically palatable that newspapers and voters scarcely even noticed.

The public would not be so indifferent today. In 1996, in a bitter, headline-grabbing fight, California voters approved Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in the state's public colleges and universities. Washington State voters and a Texas federal appeals court soon followed the California example. Why?

In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, journalist Nicholas Lemann offers a provocative answer. Affirmative action galls, Lemann suggests, because it depends on a premise that is not only unappealing but deeply un-American: At the top of the United States today sits a meritocracy, an elite who believe that their intellectual achievement earned them their high status. Meritocrats think of themselves as progressive and antiracist, but they are certified into the elite by the SAT, an IQ-like test on which whites and Asians consistently outscore blacks and Hispanics. Thus, as a compensation, faith in affirmative action has become one of the group's shibboleths. In The Big Test, Lemann explains how the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the nonprofit corporation that administers the SAT, arrived at the center of America's educational culture. He suggests that the recent setbacks to affirmative action have thrown the meritocrats' assumptions about themselves into disarray. And then he argues that the meritocracy -- and ETS -- should be dislodged.

This is quixotic, but it makes for a good read. Most writers on affirmative action have given numbers and argumentation; Lemann gives personalities and plot. There is Henry Chauncey, president of ETS from 1945 to 1970, an affable Episcopal scion of one of the strictest Puritan families of 17th century New England. A former assistant dean at Harvard, Chauncey excelled at ETS thanks to his prowess at bureaucratic judo and his fervent, unskeptical love of all mental tests. There is James Bryant Conant, ETS's godfather. When the dour chemistry professor became Harvard's president in 1933, he undertook to turn the college's idle-rich-boy culture on its head, forcing the gentleman's C to defer to the scholar's A. There is Princeton psychology professor Carl Brigham, at first an ardent eugenicist, then the author of the first SAT, and finally a skeptic who recanted his earlier faith in intelligence as an inborn trait, writing instead that "test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else, relevant and irrelevant." Allan Nairn -- in the news recently as a journalist arrested and released in East Timor -- has a cameo as a young apprentice to Ralph Nader in the 1970s.

Focusing on changes in the admissions policies and academic cultures of Harvard, Yale and the University of California system, Lemann documents a historic shift that is hard to appreciate today, so completely do we inhabit the current dispensation. "The machinery that Conant and Chauncey and their allies created is today so familiar and all-encompassing," Lemann writes, "that it seems almost like a natural phenomenon, or at least an organism that evolved spontaneously...It's not. It's man-made." This "machinery," Lemann emphasizes, is not even necessarily what its creators had in mind. It appalled Conant, for example, when the Selective Service hired ETS during the Korean War to identify the most intelligent American college students and reward them with a draft deferment. Even Chauncey had his moments of dissatisfaction, dreamily wishing for a test that measured something broader and more humane than the IQ-like characteristic captured by the SAT.

It's refreshing to read about the flip-flopping opinions and open-minded debates of ETS's founders, because today the discussions have become harshly polarized -- Dr. Pangloss meets Ebenezer Scrooge. Take, for example, the storm that broke out last month, when the research department of ETS revealed that it was experimenting with a new way to report SAT scores to colleges. The new formula would have identified "Strivers" -- students who scored 200 points higher on the SAT than their socioeconomic background would predict. One version of the Strivers formula would have accounted for race, and upon editorial-page writers, this had the effect of blood poured into a shark tank. Within days, even the president of the College Board, the association that oversees ETS, was disparaging the innovation.

The Strivers were burked, but not quickly enough to prevent a hail of statistics and canards from pelting the media. "When you look at a Striver who gets a 1000," ETS vice president Anthony Carnevale told the Wall Street Journal, "you're looking at someone who really performs at a 1200." Nonsense, countered Harvard professor Abigail Thernstrom in the New Republic. In fact, Thernstrom wrote, it was "one of the buried but depressing facts" in William Bowen and Derek Bok's pro-affirmative-action book, The Shape of the River, that black students already "earn substantially lower grades in college than their SATs would lead us to predict."

Thernstrom was right about the academic underperformance of blacks, and she was right to call it depressing. But she was wrong to say that Bok and Bowen "buried" this fact. Actually, the 1998 book is so forthcoming with facts it could bliss out even the most hardened empiricist. "Black students with the same SAT scores as whites tend to earn lower grades," Bok and Bowen point out, and they accompany this observation with an 18-page analysis and an easy-to-read chart.

Bok and Bowen's book does reward close reading, however; as former university presidents, the two are men of tact, and so there are facts they do bury. My own favorite is in Table 5.1, which compares the average 1995 earned incomes of a group who entered college in 1976. The data are sorted by race, gender, SAT scores and the selectivity of the college attended. You would expect whites to earn more than blacks, and they do. You would expect men to earn more than women, and they do. You would expect graduates of more prestigious colleges to earn more than those of less prestigious colleges, and they do. You would expect people who score high on the SAT to earn more than those who score low.

They don't. As it turns out, the highest wages belong to the white men with the lowest SAT scores at the most prestigious colleges. This is a remarkable statistic. Opponents of affirmative action like to talk about academic merit, and overall, black and Hispanic applicants to selective colleges benefit from an admissions handicap of about 0.67 GPA points and 400 SAT points. But Table 5.1 suggests that on the margins, where the white would-have-been-admitteds confront the black wouldn't-have-been-admitteds, the disparity in academic standards is dwarfed by the disparity in future earned income.

Originally, "SAT" stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," later changed to "Scholastic Assessment Test." According to Lemann, today the letters "literally don't stand for anything." Whatever the test measures, SAT scores in and of themselves do not have all that much to do with earning potential. They have a great deal to do with what college you go to, however. And the next link in the chain is where the correlation pays off: Where you go to college has everything to do with your future income. Conservatives from time to time float the specter of the minority student whose life was ruined because affirmative action threw him into a rigorous academic environment he couldn't handle. No such animal, statistically speaking: Attending a selective college substantially improves a minority student's chances of graduating. It also adds a bonus to the minority student's future income. The trouble is that, as Bok and Bowen's Table 5.1 demonstrates, it also adds a bonus for whites, in even greater dollar amounts.

Nonetheless, elite colleges unexpectedly and rather doggedly prefer a black alumnus who earns $86,700 a year over a white alumnus who earns $132,700. Their motive, according to Bowen and Bok, is enlightened self-interest. Elite institutions believe that the nation as a whole will prosper politically if its minorities have educated leaders, and that it will prosper economically, too, because black and Hispanic executives will be better able to sell to minority consumers and motivate minority workers. Unfortunately, this high-capitalist rationale doesn't sit all that well with the whites shut out of elite colleges. In fact, as California's Proposition 209 demonstrates, its condescension is fiercely resented.

For good or ill, race was the last thing on anyone's mind while ETS was building its machinery, according to Lemann. But the institutional politicking was nonetheless fierce, and it is in accounts of euphemism, logrolling, double-dealing and gamesmanship that Lemann shines as a reporter. The complexity of his chronicle makes it easy to see how the original principles (and doubts) of the machinery's inventors were mislaid along the way. As a private, nonprofit corporation, ETS has never been under government supervision, and it has always had to make money to survive. Thus its evolution has been insulated from politics but buffeted by economics, and as Lemann's book advances, the reader can't help but notice how many cruxes in the testing machinery's development were resolved on economic grounds. (It is cheaper to test for IQ than for knowledge of a set curriculum; it is cheaper to pluck out a few promising students than to improve public education generally.) The story of ETS begins to sound like the story of capitalism begetting upon itself the means of selecting its ideal executives. It does not, after a while, seem at all wonderful that this efficient, bland entity could have shuffled the membership of the American upper class more thoroughly than anything since industrialization.

Lemann admires the rise of ETS, the way one admires a crocodile that had to eat a number of its siblings. But Lemann worries, too, because no one ever voted for the crocodile, and yet it seems to be in charge. The SAT was first administered in 1926, and today it is so deeply embedded in the self-image of the American elite that any change would be resisted with the ingenuity and tenacity of a legislator under threat of redistricting. Nonetheless, as Lemann observes, meritocracy is just a neologism for aristocracy, and America shouldn't have one. "How may an aristocracy of intellect justify itself to all men?" the University of California's Clark Kerr once wondered. "Good question," Lemann comments drily. Much has been given to the new meritocrats, Lemann notes. "And what [have] they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority, other than to get high test scores and good grades?"

In Lemann's opinion, the meritocrats deserve a comeuppance. To some extent, he believes, they find it whenever they venture outside their narrow fields of specialization. At large in America, meritocrats discover they are not the only kind of elite. In fact, meritocrats are the least popular sort. The general public has much more respect for the elites that Lemann refers to as Lifers (who earned their eminence by long and loyal service, such as Colin Powell) and Talents (who won their places with unusual achievements, such as Steve Jobs). But a comeuppance is supposed to induce self-scrutiny, and skirmishes with the Lifers and Talents haven't forced the meritocrats to question their assumptions.

Here Lemann's narrative takes a sudden, hazardous turn. The single greatest comeuppance of the meritocrats, he believes, has been at the hands of the masses, in a slap delivered just when the meritocrats thought they were being most altruistic. The recent setbacks to affirmative action, Lemann suggests, have been salutary for a complacent would-be ruling class.

The big test of The Big Test turns out to be not the SAT, but the meritocracy's 1996 ordeal in California. The last third of the book charts the rise and fall of race-sensitive college admissions. Here, too, Lemann excels as a reporter, revealing unlikely alliances, unexpected motives, clandestine political bargains and yet more evidence of the Clintons' slipperiness. But there is a strange hollowness to the struggle, at least as Lemann describes it, because his heroines -- the two women leading the fight to save affirmative action in California -- lack any abiding faith in their cause. Even before its demise, attorney Connie Rice has "concluded that, as a solution to the problems of black America, affirmative action was a joke." And soon after the liberals lose, Molly Munger decides that affirmative action was "the wrong fight to be in." Lemann agrees. "The right fight," he writes, in an approving echo of her thoughts, "was the fight to make sure that everybody got a good education and a chance to live a life of decency and honor."

This is a logical error, of the form "Sex is better than cookies; therefore, cookies are bad." Cookies are not bad, even if sex is better. Of course a campaign to improve the country's elementary and secondary schools would in the long run be far superior to affirmative action. But that does not mean that affirmative action is not worthwhile in the interim.

"The project of picking the members of [the] elite properly does not confer an aura of justice on the whole society," Lemann writes. This is true, and worth saying, if only to prick the meritocrats' moral smugness. It's grandiose of the meritocrats to justify affirmative action as if it were charity, when the expense is only partially theirs. But affirmative action is more than the meritocracy putting on airs; all the numbers indicate that the power of an elite college education is real. The more familiar temptation in America is to downplay the hand you were dealt. If a group of people have admitted to a privilege so great they feel obliged to offset it with a responsibility, it probably isn't wise to refuse them just because we know they could do better.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a country obsessed with educational opportunity, the principal institution for overseeing the distribution of access to higher education, the Educational Testing Service, was founded in "an atmosphere of intrigue, corruption, competition, and disorder." So contends Lemann (The Promised Land) in this enthralling, detailed story of how the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) became enshrined in U.S. culture. Although the idealistic, patrician pioneers of testing may have wished to displace the entitlements of birth and wealth for what they saw as the more democratic entitlements of scholastic aptitude, at the end of the 20th century "their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace." This story is compelling in itself, but Lemann's exploration of how the politics of American meritocracy turn on the issue of race makes his history absolutely indispensable to current affirmative action and education debates. Lemann's treatment of the 1996 battle over California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 convincingly shows how what is nominally a democratic process actually works. The current crises in American education have deep roots: "America had channeled all the opportunity through the educational system and then had failed to create schools and colleges that would work for everybody, because that was very expensive and voters didn't want to pay for it." The real costs of this situation are now clear; anyone concerned about it should heed this book. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book treats two distinctive but distinctly interrelated themes in which Lemann (The Great Migration) has evinced sustained interest: educational opportunity in America as it determines socioeconomic success and (in)equity as it reflects educational opportunity. Lemann does not altogether succeed in integrating these two stories. For lengthy stretches, this book is about the ostensible development of an objective elite through standardized testing and the establishment of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and its major product, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), as an American state religion. Lemann shows how a handful of eccentric, Depression-reared members of the WASP elite went about reforming access to Ivy League education by pushing their confidence in the quantitative social sciences to the point where SAT scores, not family origin, became what mattered most to young adults' chances. As Lemann relates that history, he interjects the personal stories of a later generation of eccentrics at Yale and Harvard Law in the 1960s who fought to make access to higher education yet more inclusive. Finally, Lemann makes clear that the SAT and civil rights come out of egalitarian impulses that might each resist the other. Lemann's work in the archives of ETS is commendable, and overall this is an important contribution to American sociology by a lay journalist. Recommended for academic, public, and high school libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]--Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Lemann, a longtime journalist with , , and other magazines, describes the attempt to set up a new social order in the US during the second half of the 20th century based on standardized testing. He traces the origins of the idea and how it was put into effect, as well as broader issues relating to the value of testing and the meritocracy it created and sustained. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
David Karen
In The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann has forced us to recognize that the SAT is not simply a "natural" means of selection; it has a history that could have been different. He has produced a book of broad scope and much original research. He reminds us that any plans for redistributing opportunity in society must be willing to address issues of race and class.

The Nation

Erin Kelly
[R]ead Nicholas Lehmann's facinating and thoughtful new book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. It documents how the SAT has changed our lives and our country...His new book is written with his usual grace and is told movingly through the lives of the people involved; The Big Test makes you look at your world, your successes, and you high school boyfriend's mother a bit differently.
— Fortune
Kirkus Reviews
Enlightenment is available here for anyone who has struggled to understand why their future depended upon filling in little ovals with a #2 pencil in response to odd questions about vocabulary. Lemann (The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, 1991) describes a project whose purpose was nothing less than the replacement of family background with intellectual capacity as the basis for social and economic hierarchy in America. The SAT's originators saw it as the scientific path to the optimal utilization of society's human resources, matching abilities with educational options and guiding individuals into suitable employment and social positions. Such social utopian convictions today seem naive and possibly dangerous, but in the post-WWII environment the leadership of the Educational Testing Service and its meritocratic allies were able to put the machinery of this system in place, and testing became "the all-powerful bringer of individual destiny." However, while testing advocates championed equal opportunity for all against the patrician social status quo, the tests they administered reapportioned opportunity rather than expanding it; the criterion for social discrimination changed, not the fact of its existence. Most of the antagonisms engendered by this new system of sorting winners and losers could be deflected by claims of scientific objectivity, but testing advocates didn't foresee the race factor. Blacks were particularly ill-positioned to do well on tests measuring capacities, such as vocabulary skills, dependent upon education and environment; consequently, testing reinforced racial inequity. Lemann follows the story through the ups anddowns of affirmative action and concludes with an unusually cogent analysis of what an educational system should be in a democracy and what a genuine American meritocracy would look like. Lemann has produced a suitably big book, sprawling across most of a century and multiple major issues, told through the lives of numerous fascinating figures, and ultimately providing an original, perceptive, and powerful analysis of institutions that are too often taken for granted.
From the Publisher
“I use The Big Test in my Perspectives on Secondary Education class. It makes students come face-to-face with issues of race, class, and inequality in secondary education, and since everyone has taken ‘the big test,’ it really hits home.” —Susan Semel, Associate Professor, Hofstra University

“An engaging, enlightening historical analysis of the idea of the SAT, dramatized by the stories of the people who designed it, the students who benefited from it, and recent battles over standardized testing and affirmative action.”—Wendy Kaminer, The Boston Globe

“Engrossing . . . . The narrative of The Big Test is carried along by a string of life stories [that] once more display Nicholas Lemann's talent for distilling social analysis out of personal history.”—Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374299842
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.35 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in New Orleans in 1954, Nicholas Lemann has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He lives in Pelham, New York.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Henry Chauncey's Idea


It is February 4, 1945. A man named Henry Chauncey is sitting in an Episcopal church in Cambridge, Massachusetts—an old, gray, simple, graceful building on the Cambridge Common, where George Washington first took command of troops in the American Revolution. It's the Sunday morning before his fortieth birthday. He is perfectly at home here. Descendant of Puritan clerics, son of an Episcopal minister, graduate of the country's leading Episcopal boarding school, Chauncey, in his tweeds and flannels, wearing his gray hair neatly plastered across his forehead, is a full-fledged, born-in member of a distinct American subculture. In the seventeenth-century graveyard next to the church lie his forefathers.

    One of the central tenets of this particular subculture is that you don't put on airs. You imagine a kind of ordinary decency to be your chief quality. Chauncey's life, like the life of everyone else who is in the church this morning, has its good points and its bad points. He is trying without complete success to switch from cigarettes to a pipe. Money is a bit of a problem, and so, in all honesty, is his marriage. On the other hand, he is optimistic and he believes in things, which is a great temperamental blessing. He never complains; one doesn't. He is a respectable man trying to do his best.

    Bursting through the tight seams, though, is something grander and more ambitious in Chauncey. First of all, he looks like more than what he is, which is merely an ill-paid assistant dean at Harvard College. He's tall, barrel-chested,big-jawed, and moon-faced, almost simian, with bushy black eyebrows and a commandingly vigorous physical presence—the kind of person who ought to be put in charge of something. Notwithstanding the appealing modesty, his group, as every one of its members knows very well, occupies a highly favored—from today's point of view, almost unimaginably favored—position in American society. High-Protestant men of the Eastern seaboard occupy the White House, all the great university presidencies, the captaincies of finance and the professions, and many other leading positions, and each has rough access to the others. What any member of the group, including even Henry Chauncey, thinks and wants matters a great deal more than what members of other groups think and want.

    The Second World War is now drawing to its conclusion, which, it is clear at last, will be a total victory by the Allies. The war has made the United States into the greatest power in the world, the central and essential civilization that, Americans hope, will serve as a model of how to organize a society properly. The United States is not only unusually influential at this moment but also unusually malleable. The war has put the country into flux, and basic arrangements can be altered now in a way that would be impossible in normal times. For a man of Henry Chauncey's social class, entering the prime of life, with direct experience of the drama and scale of wartime, the mind fills practically unbidden with utopian dreams about the shape of the postwar world and the part one might take in realizing them. Chauncey knows that big changes in American society are coming, and that they are going to be made swiftly, out of public view, by a tight group of men quite a number of whom he knows personally. The imminent prospect of joining in this is exhilarating. So, as he prays and listens and sings through the comfortable and familiar service, Henry Chauncey is thinking expansively about his future and the country's.

    After the service he goes home, takes out a diary he has recently begun keeping (and filling with portentous, idealistic musings about the new age that is dawning), and writes:


Finally, I decided to take the plunge. From a safe and respected job I am embarking on an opportunity whose development depends very much on what I do.
During Church this morning a thought occurred to me which though not new was amplified in its implications. There will undoubtedly in the near future be a greater emphasis on taking a census of our human resources in terms of capacities for different kinds of employment.... This project requires consideration from a lot of angles but men of vision in the field of testing, vocational guidance, government, economics, education could be consulted individually and eventually in groups and a program eventually developed. Men with whom this might be discussed might even be so high in authority as ... President Roosevelt himself.


    This is what Henry Chauncey wants to do in (for, really!) postwar America: he wants to mount a vast scientific project that will categorize, sort, and route the entire population. It will be accomplished by administering a series of multiple-choice mental tests to everyone, and then by suggesting, on the basis of the scores, what each person's role in society should be—suggestions everyone will surely accept gratefully. The project will be called the Census of Abilities. It will accomplish something not very different from what Chauncey's Puritan ancestors came to the New World wanting to do—engender systematic moral grace in the place of wrong and disorder—but via twentieth-century technical means. The vehicle through which he hopes to achieve all this is an aborning organization called the Educational Testing Service, purveyor of a test called the SAT. You've heard of it? The residue of the Census of Abilities is the standardized tests that you took in high school and college, that you probably prepared for and sweated over because it seemed they would determine your fate in life. Right now, Chauncey is about to become the first president of the Educational Testing Service. That's the plunge he's taking.


The way that Henry Chauncey's thoughts were running near the end of the Second World War is pertinent not just as an example of the tenor of that moment, and not just because Chauncey was on the point of founding an important American institution. American society was, in fact, at a crossroads—Chauncey may have been dreaming, but he wasn't fantasizing. A quiet but intense competition was taking place over the future structure of the country. Chauncey had a part in it, generally because he belonged to the group that decided things back then, and particularly because he was connected to a powerful patron, James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University.

    Chauncey believed in progress and wanted to be part of it. He was sure that an expansion of mental testing, which seemed to him to be a science with limitless possibilities, was the proper avenue. But he was an agnostic on the question of what form, exactly, the progress should take. Conant was not. He had a plan fully worked out, which he had recently proposed in a series of righteous, almost inflammatory magazine articles: to depose the existing, undemocratic American elite and replace it with a new one made up of brainy, elaborately trained, public-spirited people drawn from every section and every background. These people (men, actually) would lead the country. They would manage the large technical organizations that would be the backbone of the late-twentieth-century United States and create, for the first time ever, an organized system that would provide opportunity to all Americans. Conant assumed, in fact, that picking a new elite in just the right way would enhance democracy and justice almost automatically. It was an audacious plan for engineering a change in the leadership group and social structure of the country—a kind of quiet, planned coup d'état.

    Chauncey's wishes and Conant's both came true: the United States did embark on the world's largest-scale program of mental testing, and one consequence of this (though not the only one) was the establishment of a new national elite. The machinery that Conant and Chauncey and their allies created is today so familiar and all-encompassing that it seems almost like a natural phenomenon, or at least an organism that evolved spontaneously in response to conditions. It's not. It's man-made. The organized way we have of deciding who winds up where in American society exists because, in the intense maneuvering of the period before, during, and just after the war, one particular system triumphed over other, alternative systems.


Here is what American society looks like today. A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. This line gets brighter all the time. Whether a person is on one side of the line or the other is now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw: region, race, age, religion, sex, class. As people plan their lives and their children's lives, higher education is the main focus of their aspirations (and the possibility of getting into the elite end of higher education is the focus of their very dearest aspirations). A test of one narrow quality, the ability to perform well in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don't have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later.

    The placing of such a heavy load on higher education has had many other effects. A whole industry has grown up to help people get into college and graduate school. Educational opportunity has become a national obsession. There is a politics of it, a jurisprudence of it, and a philosophy of it—none of which was the case fifty years ago. To improve it is the fundamental promise made by most candidates for public office. It is the fundamental good that parents try to get for their children. Preoccupation with it is the chief theme of the first quarter of Americans' lives. It is the object of elaborate work, hope, scheming, manipulation, and competition.

    Those who do best under this system make up a distinct class, with its own mores and beliefs and tastes and folkways. They don't serve as the unquestioned leadership of the United States, as Conant and Chauncey would have expected; they're at least as much resented as admired. They aren't perceived by others as people who have earned their position in completely open and fair competition (though that's the way they perceive themselves) or who are primarily devoted to the public interest. But still, they are Conant's and Chauncey's children, precisely the products of the ideas they had and the moves they made after the end of the Second World War.

    One way to understand the current shape of American society is as its being the result of Conant's, Chauncey's, and their allies' concerted attack on a specific problem, which was so successful that the problem no longer exists. So much force was marshaled against that one problem, though, that in addition to its being solved, practically everything else was changed, too—which created new problems. The story of what happened has to begin with the original problem, or else it doesn't make sense.


Here is what American society looked like, from the point of view of Conant and Chauncey, at the close of the Second World War.

    They took it as a given that the essence of American greatness was a quality that Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked upon early in the nineteenth century: social equality, of a kind that would be unthinkable in any other country. Because the United States didn't have a rigid class system, it could take full advantage of its people's talents and at the same time generate intense social cohesion across a range of physical space and a variety of ethnic origin that elsewhere would have been considered insuperable.

    But during the early twentieth century American society had taken an ominous turn. Conant and Chauncey accepted without question the view of Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian of the American West who was a Harvard professor in their younger days, that what had made the United States democratic and classless was the availability of open land on the Western frontier. Now the frontier was closed, the country had become industrial, and the cities were crowded with immigrant workers, many of whom were socialists—or who, at the very least, believed that group unity, rather than individual opportunity, was the highest good.

    Even worse, a distinct American upper class had emerged. It was very much on display at Harvard and other leading universities, where, up to the start of the Second World War, rich heedless young men with servants, whose lives revolved around parties and sports, not studying, set the tone of college life. The plurality of Harvard students had come from boys' boarding schools in New England, the kind where parents could register their sons at birth; pretty much anybody who went to one of these schools, and was not "a little slow," and could pay the tuition, could go to Harvard, or to Princeton, or to Yale. Even the faculty was disproportionately made up of proper Bostonians, rather than modern academics.

    Harvard and institutions like it fed into another series of institutions: law firms, Wall Street financial houses, the Foreign Service, research hospitals, and university faculties. These, too, had begun to look like the province of a hereditary upper class. All the good places were reserved for members of a certain group—the all-male, Eastern, high-Protestant, privately educated group to which Henry Chauncey belonged. No Catholics or Jews were allowed, except in rare cases that required of them a careful extirpation of any accent or other noticeable expression of their alien culture. Nonwhites weren't in close enough range of membership in the elite to be excluded. And even the fieriest social reformers of the day didn't think to suggest that women ought routinely to participate in running the country. Snobbishness, small-mindedness, and prejudice were the worst aspects of the elite institutions, but even at their best they were preoccupied with a vaguely defined personal quality called "character," and tended to ignore intelligence and scientific expertise. But these, precisely, were the traits Conant thought most vitally necessary in postwar America.

    What could you do to dethrone this upper class and restore the United States to its true democratic nature? It was a question without an obvious answer. Using the educational system to create a fair society, which seems today like the way to do the job, looked then like a distant, unrealized, possibly unrealizable dream.

    At the close of the Second World War, the United States had been the world's leader in trying to educate a large part of the citizenry for more than a hundred years. During the nineteenth century Americans created, not without a struggle, the free public elementary school as a basic social institution and, during the first half of the twentieth century, the high school. These institutions weren't well enough established to be taken for granted as they are now. In 1940 the country still hadn't passed the milestone of graduating more than half its teenagers from high school. The idea that there might be a way of evaluating all American high-school students on a single national standard and then making sure that they went on to colleges suited to their abilities and ambitions—most people would have regarded that as a wild, futuristic fantasy, although Chauncey and Conant were among a handful of people who knew that, technically, it could be done.

    Colleges were the same story as public schools. The United States provided far more people with higher education than any country ever had—about one in four young people entered college and one in twenty stayed long enough to get a degree. But these students were the ones whose parents had enough money to send them to college; American higher education's size didn't mean that it was open to everyone. Neither was it established that professors should be respected, well-compensated, formally trained experts dedicated to advancing the frontiers of knowledge by conducting rigorous, objective research. During the late nineteenth century, hundreds of American scholars had gone to Germany to receive strict academic training (because that was the only country where it was available) and came back imbued with the goal of setting up German-style research universities here. It was an appealing picture, Herr Doktor Professor as scientific figure sitting atop a formal university hierarchy and consulted by government and industry, but by the Second World War it had scarcely been achieved.

    Most leading private universities, like Harvard, drew their students and faculty from a local or regional pool and had a genteel, belletristic quality. In most cases their students were male. In private higher education, women usually went to women's colleges whose announced purpose was to prepare them for supporting roles in life. Most African-Americans who went to college went to black colleges, which were also segregated by sex. State public universities were, in contrast, open to just about anyone (except those in the South), but most were expected by their state legislatures to impart the educational basics to all comers first, and conduct advanced research second.

    Within the inner and higher chambers of American society a struggle was under way to reform—literally re-form—schooling at all levels. It had been going on all through the Depression and war years, spiritedly, sometimes bitterly, without attracting public notice. All the participants shared Chauncey's and Conant's assumption that education was going to change dramatically and was going to turn into the mainspring of American society, the repository of the country's distinctive greatness.

    This book tells, for the first time, the story of the new system that emerged after the Second World War: where the ideas animating it came from, how it was put into effect, what other choices were rejected, what compromises were made along the way, and how the new leaders' lives and their roles in the country's drama turned out.


Whatever Tocqueville thought, the United States has always been a country with an elite, or a series of elites, overlapping, competing, and succeeding one another. Henry Chauncey did not share Conant's animus against the American elite of the mid-twentieth century. That was because he was a member of it. Indeed, the story of the Chauncey family makes a good capsule history of the progression of elites in America.

    The Chauncys (as the name was originally spelled) were never just ordinary folks, and they were never holders of a simple unprepossessing idea of the world. Originally they were Norman noblemen who came to England in the conquest of 1066 and wound up as barons in Yorkshire. In the 1400s they were dispossessed and moved down a notch, into the ministerial class. The Chauncy who moved to America, Charles Chauncy, born in 1592, was educated at Cambridge and became a professor of Greek there, but he was mainly a devout and opinionated Puritan minister who spent his life getting into disputes with church authorities. In 1629 he was hauled before the high commission court for publicly criticizing the Church of England's policy of allowing sports, games, and recreation on Sundays. In 1635 he was thrown into prison for publishing a lengthy treatise protesting the placing of a railing around the communion table. He won his release by writing a weak recantation—though according to a family history written by one of his descendants, he "deeply bewailed his sinful compliance" until his dying day.

    In 1637 Chauncy left England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where, even in a community of fellow Puritans, he stood out as a vehement critic of what he regarded as excessive religious laxness. He created "much trouble," in the words of Governor John Winthrop, by expressing the view that "the children ought to be dipt and not sprinkled" at their baptism. In 1654, worn down by that controversy and other tribulations of American life, Chauncy resolved to return to England, where the Puritans had taken power and the bishop who had tormented him "had given his head to the block." He changed his mind, however, when he was made president of Harvard College, on condition "that he forbear to disseminate or publish any tenets concerning immersion baptism."

    Everybody thinks of America as a country where people came to escape formal social structures—a place with a genius for disorganization. Charles Chauncy represents another strain that has been present in American society all along. No amount of anachronistic pretzel-twisting can make him into a populist or a democrat. He was self-consciously a figure at the top of society. He did come here to escape an order that he found oppressive—but only because he hoped to help create a new order that would be stricter and therefore more virtuous than the old one.

    But where Puritans like Chauncy do connect to the modern American creed is in their idea that the state of grace was individual and irrespective of social rank. This was a radical notion, and it led in the direction of a society run by people who had earned their places by good works, rather than by an upper class selected by birth. The last controversy of Charles Chauncy's theologically combative life was over the Halfway Covenant, a Puritan doctrine that granted the privilege of automatic baptism to the grandchildren of members of the elect. Chauncy was dead set against it. Initiation into the state of grace, he felt, ought not be conferred by inheritance.

    Charles Chauncy died in 1671, having well established his family in New England. The best-known Chauncy of the 1700s was one of his great-grandsons, also named Charles Chauncy, who for decades was minister of the Presbyterian First Church of Boston. This Charles Chauncy was the leading opponent of the Great Awakening, the ecstatic revival movement that was led by the young, charismatic, showy Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards out on the wild frontier surrounding Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1742 Edwards published his credo, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England. The next year Chauncy published a censorious rebuttal, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, which lengthily disapproved of preachers like Edwards who, in dealing with their flock, "aimed at putting their Passions into a Ferment."

    The Chauncy sternness is unmistakable. The family remained in its traditional position of being as ambitiously idealistic as anybody about the national enterprise, about the quest for the good, but in believing that there had to be a disciplined, orderly, restrained means to that end. Jonathan Edwards represented a trust in the good instincts of all people, however unruly that mass might be; Charles Chauncy, belief in a trained, systematic elite. By this time, though, most of the descendants of the original Puritans, including Chauncy, were bound up in the prosperous commercial culture of New England's cities and towns. They were migrating from their original Congregationalism into more conventional Protestant denominations, and from the ministry into trade.

    In the nineteenth century the Chaunceys (as they now spelled it), without losing their moralism, became rich. They were early exemplars of what one of their twentieth-century relatives, Joseph Alsop, the Washington columnist, called "the WASP ascendancy." The first family member named Henry Chauncey, who was born in 1795, went into foreign trade. During the 1830s he moved to Chile. As if to provide evidence for Max Weber's future theories about the connection between Puritanism and capitalism, he took pains to persuade his family back home that his main concern in business was with virtue, not money. He wrote his father-in-law in 1835: "Be assured that I have not been influenced by a desire of great wealth, no part of my ambition is to be thought rich, if I have enough to give my children a good education, to carry us through and a few dollars to help those that are in need is all I require." Nonetheless, Chauncey returned to America with a substantial fortune. He lived in a mansion on Washington Square in New York City.

    Henry Chauncey left his money to his children, which ruined them. They lived splendidly in New York, whiled away days at their clubs, and pursued expensive hobbies. His son Frederick, the grandfather of our Henry Chauncey, created a series of beautifully illustrated little notebooks about his recreations—Birds Shot, Fish Caught—and worked as a merchant. In 1884 his business failed because Frederick's partner had secretly and disastrously speculated with its funds. Frederick soon caught pneumonia following a game of racquets and died at the age of forty-seven. His wife and four children fell into a pathetic existence that sounds like the subplot of an Edith Wharton novel. Socially impeccable but broke, they lived in a modest apartment on the Upper East Side, supported by subventions from relatives. Mrs. Chauncey took the position that because of their misfortunes, none of the children should ever marry or leave home.

    The only one who disobeyed her was Henry's father, Egisto Fabbri Chauncey (named, before the terrible truth came out, after Frederick Chauncey's dishonest partner). He entered the ancestral family profession, the ministry, although as an Episcopalian he was affiliated with the American branch of the Church of England, the very institution the Puritans had come here to escape. His son Henry Chauncey was born in 1905. In his baby book, carefully preserved, there was a place to write down what "people are reading"; Mrs. Chauncey listed Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (one of the books on which the movie Birth of a Nation was based), Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and Jack London's War of the Classes, indicating a country that was still, despite the best improving efforts of two and a half centuries of Chaunceys, in a state of upheaval over matters of race, class, and social exclusion.

    The Chaunceys, however, were not in the slightest daunted in their quest for a perfected, orderly America. The year after Henry's birth Egisto Chauncey received a call to become rector of St. Mark's Church in Mount Kisco, New York, a bosky country retreat for the rich. This was where Henry Chauncey spent his early childhood, impecunious compared to everybody else, but righteous. The Reverend Chauncey built a new home for St. Mark's—a substantial (but not luxurious) bluestone structure in the Gothic style, designed by the firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson, the leading church architects of the day. Over one of the doorways he had painted a motto, taken from the Book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision the people perish."

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Foreword to the Paperback Edition
Bk. 1 The Moral Equivalent of Religion
1 Henry Chauncey's Idea 3
2 The Glass Slipper 17
3 Native Intelligence 27
4 The Natural Aristocracy 42
5 Victory 53
6 IQ Joe 70
7 The Census of One Ability 81
8 The Standard Gauge 96
9 In the System 109
10 Meritocracy 115
Bk. 2 The Master Plan
11 Rah! Rah! Rah! 125
12 Chauncey at Yale 140
13 The Negro Problem 155
14 The Fall of Clark Kerr 166
15 The Invention of the Asian-American 174
16 Mandarins 185
17 The Weak Spot 198
18 Working 212
19 The Fall of William Turnbull 218
Bk. 3 The Guardians
20 Behind the Curtain 235
21 Berkeley Squeezed 241
22 Molly's Crisis 255
23 The Case of Winton Manning 268
24 Surprise Attack 278
25 No Retreat 293
26 The Fundis and the Realos 300
27 Changing Sides 309
28 Defeat 323
Epilogue 337
Afterword to the Paperback Edition: A Real Meritocracy 342
Notes 352
Acknowledgments 391
Index 395
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2002

    interesting history but hard t follow

    The first book of The Big Test went into great depths about the life of Henry Chauncey. The author, Nicholas Lemann, gave us much insight into Henry Chauncey¿s family and the life he led. Knowing this information allowed us to see the influences on Chauncey¿s life that gave him his values and belief system. Chauncey had some big ideas for testing and knew some very powerful people that helped him achieve many of his goals. Many of Chauncey¿s ideas are naïve by today¿s standards. I think he knew how to get what he wanted but I don¿t think he always thought what was best for society. His idea of a social utopia was that through testing, everyone would have their place in society and be happy with whatever that place happened to be. I find it odd that he was not able to see that a lot of people would not be satisfied to be ¿stuck¿ in life according to what a test told them. I found the author to be very thorough in describing all of the character¿s but at the same time, it became difficult to keep up with all the names and personalities. It is amazing when we look at the college prep tests today to think of all the people involved, all the changes made over the years based on what was going on in the world and the politics involved. It is also fascinating to see all the changes our higher education has taken over the years. We take so much for granted now and do not realize all the hard work people have put into legislation. I was surprised to learn that at one time you could go to college for free for the first two years. Even though it seems unfair now, we have to realize that more people are able to go to college now that they were years ago. This book made me think about issues that I had not considered before. One of the biggest is the issue that is debated throughout the book and that is; how do we determine who goes to college and which college? I do believe that everyone deserves an equal education but at the same time I think that those who are willing to really work hard and make good grades should go to a school that will challenge them. Many of the heads of Universities wanted to have only the top percent of graduating high school seniors in their Universities. I think that idea would be ok if there were also schools that the other percentages of students could attend and still get a good education. It would be sad in our country if we didn¿t have some elite crowd that others would aspire to be. I definitely think everyone should be treated equal but at the same time, we are all individuals and have different aspirations. Another big issue that arose several times throughout book one was the importance of IQ testing. Chauncy and Conant were big advocates of IQ testing being the main factor in shpaing our nation. In my opinion, there are too many other aspects to look at in a person¿s life besides their IQ. Testing is important but it should just be a guide and only one small part of looking at the whole person as far as college or job placement is concerned. As I stated before, those with high IQ¿s should be justly rewarded; just like those with other non-academic talents are rewarded. I thought book one covered a lot of history and definitely gave a lot of insight into major benchmarks in our nations climb to providing education for all and the tests that helped us get there. I enjoyed learning more about the important figures in education and the hard work they put into their cause. My overall opinion of this book though, is that it is very difficult to read and to stay focused on what they author is trying to convey. I found myself many times having to go back over paragraphs to try and understand the information. There were so many different people talked about that it was difficult to keep straight their roles. I think if this book was organized into sections within the chapters that titled the main points, it would have been a lot easier to read. B

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