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The Myth of Meritocracy

In his new book,The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann argues that the structure of educational opportunity in America is inherently flawed -- and must be rebuilt

October 7, 1999

The Big TestFew can imagine America's educational system without the SAT and the other standardized tests that serve as engines of advancement through our schools. These tests have become the primary means of distributing educational opportunity in the United States, and they are the foundation of a system that has radically changed the way American society is organized. Yet, as Nicholas Lemann argues in his new book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, this system was instituted relatively recently by just a few men, with no public debate or consensus. Around the time of the Second World War, James Bryant Conant, then the formidable president of Harvard University, devised a plan to "reorder the 'haves and have-nots' in every generation to give flux to our social order." Rather than cull students from a narrow stratum of New England society on the basis of their family connections or wealth, he would seek out the brightest people from all over the country and from all backgrounds. To this end, Conant's protégé, Henry Chauncey, founded the Educational Testing Service, which eventually became the primary organ of the selection process. Both men believed that they were helping to create a just society, one based on Jefferson's ideal of a "natural aristocracy" of merit, in which those selected would dedicate themselves to public service.

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From The Atlantic's archives:

"Education for a Classless Society: The Jeffersonian Tradition," by James Bryant Conant (March 1940)
"In my opinion, our newly erected system of public education has potentialities of which we little dream. In this century we have erected a new type of social instrument. Our secondary-school system is a vast engine which we are only beginning to understand. We are learning only slowly how to operate it for the public good. But I have hope that it will aid us in recapturing social flexibility, in regaining that great gift to each succeeding generation -- opportunity, a gift that once was the promise of the frontier."


"Mobilizing American Youth," by James Bryant Conant (July 1942)
"The method of selecting officers for the Army and the Navy has significance for the postwar period as well as for the war. To the extent that a college education is a road to promotion, and to the extent that a college education is a privileged position based on family finances, we are hardening the social strata as we expand our Army and our Navy."


"Wanted: American Radicals," by James Bryant Conant (May 1943)
"In this country we must invoke our radical ancestors and with their spirit attack the problems of a stratified society, highly mechanized and forced to continue along the road of mass production. Without further apologies, therefore, I recommend to the attention of all who are interested in preserving freedom the need for the American radical -- the missing political link between the past and future of this great democratic land."


"Education in the Western World," by James Bryant Conant (November 1957)
"It is fascinating to see how, today, many nations are struggling to solve the basic problems connected with the selection and education of future members of the professions"


"The Tests and the Brightest": How Fair Are the College Boards?" by James Fallows (February 1980)
Each year some 2.5 million high school students match wits with the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The results go a long way toward determining who gets into the most selective colleges. The tests are the subject of a growing debate. Do they really discover the best and the brightest? Or do they chiefly identify the richest and the most expensively educated?


"The Structure of Success in America," by Nicholas Lemann (August 1995)
In America perhaps only race is a more sensitive subject than the way we sort ourselves out in the struggle for success. At the center of that struggle are higher education and ETS, the Educational Testing Service. Herewith an inside look at the history and workings of one of the most familiar yet least public of American institutions.


"The Great Sorting," by Nicholas Lemann (September 1995)
In this second part of a two-part article the author describes how the Scholastic Aptitude Test -- with a big assist during the Korean War from the U.S. military, which needed criteria for awarding draft deferments -- emerged as a national standard for evaluating millions of people.


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Of course, things didn't work out quite the way they had planned. As Lemann writes, "fifty years later, their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace": the old, hereditary aristocracy has shifted to a would-be meritocracy in which "education tends -- and is explicitly, energetically, used by parents -- to transfer status between generations, not to alter or upend it." In The Big Test, Lemann, who was the first journalist to be given access to ETS's archives, shows how our modern meritocratic system was formed, and examines its unintended consequences. He profiles beneficiaries of the system who have risen to the top of society as a result of their performance on tests and in school. He examines the clash between affirmative action and the ideals of a society in which opportunity is decided by testing. And he looks at why the meritocratic elite has not taken up the leadership role in government that Conant envisioned it would -- and why its leadership is not wanted by the rest of society.

Lemann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent from 1983 - 1998. Two of his articles for The Atlantic -- "The Structure of Success in America" (August 1995) and "The Great Sorting" (September 1995) -- went on to form significant sections of The Big Test. Lemann is also the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America(1991). He spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.



Nicholas Lemann
Nicholas Lemann   

You mention that fifty years after the founding of ETS, "its past had nearly disappeared." How did people at the organization react to you writing about their history?

To make a really long story short, my relations with ETS have been a tiny bit tense, but basically okay. They are known in journalism for not opening up very much. They've opened up more to me for various reasons than they have to other journalists, and I'm grateful for that.

Could you talk about the ways in which our meritocratic society falls short of what James Bryant Conant, Henry Chauncey, and others had envisioned?

In answering this question, let me just stipulate at the beginning that anytime you write a nonfiction book you're put into the realm of the village preacher. I'm happy to play that role, but it's also important to me to play the role of the historian. I want to distinguish between what I think and what they thought. So now we're talking about what they thought, not necessarily what I think.

Chauncey, of course, is still around to comment on the system, and Conant is not. Conant had a much more elaborately articulated vision for what he wanted the system to be [which he expressed in a piece for The Atlantic, "Wanted: American Radicals" (May 1943)]. Conant had in mind a system for identifying and training public servants. I think that what would have most surprised him about how the system has turned out is that the standardized tests leading to the best slots in universities are seen as a way to make it in America, maybe even theway to make it. He thought he was finding people who would devote their lives to national service, as he had devoted his. And the idea of the system generating political conflict, particularly around the issue of race, would have bothered him a lot. He didn't see that coming at all.

Was he naive about what the system he created would do?

He wasn't a naive man in general, and would have thought of himself as a hard-headed realist par excellence. The point is, not many people come up with a plan as ambitious as this one. So in a sense what's notable about him is not so much his naiveté as the breadth of his ambition. When you come up with a plan this all-encompassing, you're just not going to be able to think of every possibility. It's easy to make presentist, anachronistic, historical judgments about people who were acting in real time. I want to shy away from that.

Here are the things I think are fair to fault him for in retrospect: He seemed to operate on the conviction that if you got rid of the existing elite and replaced it with a different and better elite, a good society would flow from that automatically. Another problem is that if you set up a selection system that puts people in line for fantastic rewards, how do you ensure that these people will be public servants, as opposed to pursuing only their private interests? He did not build any assurances into the system for answering that problem. The people he was selecting weren't given any explicit obligations. To his credit, within minutes of setting up ETS he was fighting for universal military service, partly to solve just this problem, but of course that was a fight he lost. It was very important to him that his "American radicals," his natural aristocrats, be devoted to public service and the public good, but it seems he was so sure they would be that he didn't feel the need to build a guarantee of it into the system. I think Conant mistakenly assumed that the meritocratic elite would want to lead in this particular way, and that the rest of the country would want to be led by them. Neither side of that equation has proved out exactly.

As for Henry Chauncey, he's not a man plagued by doubt; he doesn't beat up on himself. I think he would say that selecting students for elite universities is phase one of the operation. Phase two of the operation is providing meaningful educational opportunity for all Americans. The disappointment is that phase two has not been completed yet. But, Henry would hasten to add, it will be soon.

Do you think it will be soon?

The signs of the past few years are actually pretty encouraging. Soonseems optimistic, but I don't want to take a cynical position and say that it's never going to happen. I think the country is waking up to the need to provide educational opportunity to everyone. I just don't believe in the theory that once you set up a meritocracy for the elite, then the whole notion of social justice goes out the window.

What signs are there that opportunity for all is happening?

The main sign is this big, broad-based, and fairly bipartisan national movement for upgrading education and setting up national standards. There are a lot of political pitfalls to it, but there really has been significant movement toward equalizing funding in education and making sure that the schools at the bottom meet a standard. Texas has been a leader in this. What's happened there is almost amazing, especially for a very conservative state. Texas has pretty radically equalized public school funding across districts, in a Robin Hood kind of way. (This is what liberal Vermont will not do.) The other thing they've done is to put in standards and accountability systems that make a difference in what kids in the worst-off schools are learning. They've essentially told those schools that they're going to judge them and fund them on the basis not of their average performance, but on how the worst students at those schools perform on those standardized tests that are tied to the curriculum. The schools get punished if they don't do something to ensure that everybody is learning basic skills. The SAT system in its initial design was supposed to do something almost exactly the opposite of that, which is ignore everybody but the top few and pull them out of this system into national universities.

What are the problems inherent in using testing to create opportunity?

The SAT is intended to do a very specific thing in regard to educational opportunity, which is to make great opportunities available to the very high scorers -- the top one percent of the distribution. And it has done that. But it hasn't done that much to provide educational opportunity for the other 99 percent. People who are in the top one percent tend to think, Well, it worked for me, so it must be working for everybody.Serving the top one percent is not in itself the sign of a good system that provides opportunity to all.

In the mid twentieth century there was an instinctual belief and trust in societal institutions like ETS. Has that trust dissipated? If so, how has that affected the way we think about testing?

The great beneficiary of that erosion of trust has been the test-prep industry. Up until 1957 students were not even told their SAT scores. Instead, there would be this scene where your college guidance counselor would call you in, and he would be looking at this piece of paper that you couldn't see. And then he'd say, "Now, I'd recommend that colleges like these would be right for you." In those days people were more willing to take at face value ETS's assurances that test prep didn't work. Now there's skepticism toward the idea that this is all pure technology that shouldn't be questioned, and that the results should just be gladly accepted. The tangible result of the distrust is everyone taking test prep, trying to turn the system to their advantage. Everyone in high school these days hates the SAT and the college-admissions process. The shift I'm talking about is from attitude A, which is, these tests are here to help me, to attitude B, which is, these tests are crucially important to my life, but they're not benign, and I need to have a combative, advantage-taking attitude toward them.

Right now the meritocratic system that we have is based on one measure of intelligence. What do you think of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences?

His theory is appealing in the sense that it pushes us in the direction of a rounder view of human merit. But I'm a little worried about the problem of trying to solve the shortcomings of testing by having more testing, and that has happened a lot over the years. In other words, if you start to develop and give standardized tests for all these other kinds of intelligence -- I think he has eight -- and particularly if the tests have large real-life consequences, you run the risk of replicating or even multiplying the problems you see with the system now.

I'm generally in favor of getting away from the idea that meritocracy equals educational selection processes, and that you can have a better meritocracy by having more elaborate educational selection processes. Schools have to select somewhat, so I don't want to say that testing should be completely banned, but the operative principle should be to get as many people as educated as possible, and to use tests to make sure people are learning, as opposed to using tests to select people to go on to the next level. So the real question about these other kinds of intelligence is, Will there be tests developed for them, and to what use will the tests be put?

I feel bad talking about Gardner's theory when I'm not that familiar with it, and I assume he answers some of these questions in his upcoming book. My fear about it is that our reliance on the IQ and SAT tests is so ingrained that now there's an attitude that you've got to fight fire with fire, and the only way you can get teachers and schools to wake up and teach kids is by producing some quotient that proves they have potential. I worry that the multiple intelligences theory could be used, particularly in the primary grades, as a way around acquisition of basic skills. I would hope that if a kid is found to have very high motor-type intelligence, it doesn't mean that he then doesn't have to learn his multiplication tables.

In The Rise of MeritocracyMichael Young posits that if a society sorts itself through large-scale educational testing, a high-IQ ruling class will emerge. Has that happened in the United States?

It's a really interesting book and an interesting idea, but the thing about Michael Young is that he assumes that you cannot have a meritocracy without IQ testing, and that if you have a system based on IQ testing, you're not missing any other sort of merit. It's the epoxy-like bond between meritocracy and IQ testing that I question. You can have a society that is meritocratic based on some other quality than IQ.

I would argue that what has happened in America today is a little more complicated a picture than what Young envisioned. If you set up a system where IQ-like tests are the hurdle that everyone has to clear to do certain things, then after a generation everybody who does those things will have a high IQ. That's happening for demand-side rather than supply-side reasons. In The Bell Curvethe authors essentially say that the reason lawyers have higher than average IQs is that you have to be really smart to be a lawyer. But you can also argue that the reason lawyers have higher than average IQs is that you are legally barred from becoming a lawyer unless you do well on an IQ test. It is an oversimplification to say that high-IQ people now are the ruling class of America, because there are all sorts of prosperous, influential people out there doing things that you don't have to pass tests to do. We have no way of telling what their IQs are.

Could you comment on the Strivers program -- through which SAT scores could be readjusted to account for disadvantages stemming from race or class -- that the ETS may or may not go ahead with?

The Wall Street Journalbroke the story, and that story is a self-negating prophecy. Apparently there was a huge reaction, and as a result ETS is running away from the program. I think it's pretty clear that there will never be a Strivers program. It's just too hot to handle. There's a de facto Strivers program, and there has been for a long, long time, but an official one makes everything too evident and obvious, and therefore it doesn't seem to be politically sustainable.

Do you think it was a good idea?

The spirit behind it is right; the argument against it is based on what happened, which proves that it's better to do these things subtly. I think the real reason for doing it was to give some cover to state schools. They don't have the time to really examine applications -- they don't have the big admissions office, and they operate under a lot more public scrutiny because they have legislative oversight. I would guess that the thinking behind it was, let's give the UVAs and Berkeleys of the world a number that they can use to justify taking some of these kids.

Do you see a way that the clash between a testing-based meritocracy and affirmative action could be successfully resolved?

It's very hard to reconcile the racial test-score gap. It has shrunk a lot during the twentieth century, which is encouraging, but it's still pretty big. The best way to get rid of the affirmative-action dilemma is to get rid of the test-score gap, which you would do by making massive changes in American education -- changes that everyone is for in theory but doesn't want to make in practice. Affirmative action seems to have lost, for the most part, its public support, although the battle's not over yet. There's going to be a big Supreme Court decision on this in the next few years, so maybe the line will hold.

And then the other answer is to build an educational system where testing and educational selection are as unimportant as possible.

It's hard to imagine that ever happening.

A big change in the last generation, and particularly in the past five years, is this tremendous glorification of the business entrepreneur. That's going to create some erosion in the meritocratic elite, I think, because if this heavily tracked career existence starts to seem like it's a little second rate, then you'll begin to see people defecting out of it and doing something independently.

If the book does one thing, I would like it to decouple the idea of meritocracy from the idea of educational selection. If you are going to commit to having a meritocratic society -- by which is meant, roughly speaking, people getting the jobs they deserve -- that doesn't necessarily mean you have to start sorting, classifying, and selecting at a very early age. School is an instrument to help everybody.

The word "meritocracy" should be banned. It's such a bedeviling word. It means so many different things to so many different people; it doesn't do you much good, really.


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Katie Bacon is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

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