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THE BIG TEST The Secret History of the American Meritocracy By Nicholas Lemann; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 406 pp., $27

October 24, 1999|ALAN WOLFE | Alan Wolfe is the director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author of "One Nation, After All."

Nicholas Lemann tells many fascinating stories in "The Big Test," and he tells them with an unusual combination of lively prose and discerning intelligence. But the subtitle of his book is misleading. The stories he relates are not all that secret, they do not add up to a coherent history and only some of them are about the American meritocracy.

Just as democracy means the rule of the people, meritocracy means rule by the talented. It is supposed to work like this: The best places and the best colleges and therefore the best jobs ought to go to those who have the highest "raw" intelligence. Implied in the idea is that we can measure intelligence and that it ought to be valued over other methods of choosing an elite, such as a reliance on the old boys' network of personal connection.

Lemann's book basically begins with the founding of the Educational Testing Service in 1948. The brainchild of Harvard's James Bryant Conant and Henry Chauncey, the ETS was viewed by its founders as a fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson's hope that a "natural aristocracy" of talent would emerge in

the United States. Launching a revolution against their own class of privileged white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Conant and Chauncey wanted to put in place a system that would skim off the best brains from all social classes, educate them and place them in positions of power and responsibility. (That they were opponents of privilege did not make them democrats. Conant in particular argued against measures such as the G.I. Bill which, in opening higher education to the many, created more opportunity for more people than this country had previously.)

The only effective way to create such a natural aristocracy was through a "big test," an exam valid enough to sort out the genius from the run of the mill and reliable enough to win the trust of those who took it. A believer in the predictive power of social science, Chauncey developed plans for a census of abilities, an effort, in Lemann's words, "to mount a vast scientific project that will categorize, sort, and route the entire population."

Though Chauncey never realized the full ambitions of a vast census of abilities, the ETS, and especially its Scholastic Aptitude Test, became a fixed feature of middle-class life in America. Lemann's account of its early years explores the many, often duplicitous, ways that the ETS became a commercial monopoly in the guise of presuming to be a nonprofit organization offering a public service. Along the way, Lemann offers captivating portraits of key individuals. Among them is Carl Brigham, the inventor of the SAT and one of the first people to recognize that what it measured was not some innate and unvarying neurological phenomenon called intelligence. Stanley Kaplan, actually a great admirer of the ETS but a man who proved that preparation could indeed improve scores, is profiled with loving care. Clark Kerr, the man who used intelligence tests to build the hugely successful University of California system of higher education, is clearly not someone Lemann admires, but his treatment of Kerr is sympathetic and engaging.

Lemann writes as if the story he tells has never been told before. Americans, he suggests, blinded by their faith in science, have been naive about the plans these covert meritocrats had for them. That may have been true in the 1950s, but Americans are now as cynical about testing as they are about other sources of authority in their lives. Lemann offers fascinating details but not much that is original about the big picture. If anything, his book confirms the general impression most Americans hold about the meritocracy: It is an improvement on the old days of the WASP establishment, but it has its own biases and contradictions.

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Nor is "The Big Test" a consistent history. Halfway through the book, Lemann shifts the focus of his account from the ETS itself to the lives of a number of young "meritocrats," individuals who made it during the 1970s and 1980s through Harvard or Yale on the strength of their intelligence and determination. Coincidentally each of these individuals would play an important role in the struggle against Proposition 209, which abolished affirmative action in California government. Because these are people who went far on raw ability, their life histories raise important questions, Lemann argues. What kind of meritocracy do we want? Should it be based purely on intelligence? Or should our leadership reflect the diversity of the country?

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