Do you want to read a 400 page book (plus an index) all about your friends at ETS? Well, maybe you should! This month I read Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” Writing in a fairly accessible tone, Lehman describes the founding of ETS in the 1940s and the goals that the creators of the standardized testing movement had in mind when the radically reformed how American universities (especially the good ones) admitted students. These reforms were borne out of a desire to foster a “meritocracy” of talented people which they hoped would emerge from the universities and shape the post-war nation. Needless to say, things didn’t work out as well as they hoped they would, but the ideas behind their plan still loom large in American society. Part of the book examines the movement for affirmative action at American universities, which Lemann seems to think came about as a result of their heavy reliance on SAT scores.
This is a valuable chronicle of a unique part of American history which I don’t think has been sufficiently documented. As Lehmann notes later in the book, all of this stuff was put into place without political purview or open debate. Instead, a small number of men made some important choices that have had a major impact on American society for almost eighty years. And counting.
A few passages of the book are worth repeating here. Just for fun.
Regarding ETS founder Henry Chauncey:
“He didn’t believe that he and his colleagues had been explicit social engineers; they were simply trying to help the country” (120).
Though the book was written 23 years ago, much of it sounds chillingly contemporary:
“The psychological side [of being a new-style meritocrat” was… a powerful experience – being constantly evaluated as you grew up and then being admitted into a special group. One’s impulse was to go through life repeating the fundamental cycle of gratification: selective admission, followed by membership in a tight, reassuring (though rivalrous) cadre of similarly chosen people. […] At the same time the idea that you might be a national leader was still alive. You wanted assured success and security, but not just that. The most popular professions were not dentistry or certified public accountancy. You also wanted to matter, to be admired, to take a part in shaping American society.” (186)
“By the 1970s there were already signs that the meritocratic order was not going to be so popular in American society as its founders had anticipated. […] The people selected for the elite were starting to look less like selfless leaders. They were on their way to making a lot of money, they took advantage of the tradition of draft exemptions for the brainy to get out of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, they held themselves apart. And what had they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority other than to get high test scores and get good grades? The astonishing rise of Ronald Reagan demonstrated that political careers were being built by people who were exploiting public resentment of this new elite.” (187)
Those of you interested in buying a copy should seek out the paperback edition, which includes a new afterword. That afterword takes the form of a fairly scathing indictment of using IQ tests like the SAT to select who gets put on the path to joining the “elite” of society. I won’t type it up here as I suppose I’ve quoted too much already. But seek it out. It is quite an essay. Heck, if you call me on the phone I’ll read it to you.
A good companion to this book is “None of the Above” by David Owen. It was written about 15 years earlier and covers some of the same territory, but with a more irreverent tone. I reviewed that on Goodreads some months ago. Perhaps I’ll paste that review into the blog in April.
I fear I’ve ruined the “You Should Read More” series! It wasn’t supposed to be a book review column! But I did read some magazines this week. Here are a few article recommendations to hone your academic reading skills:
- The February 2022 issue of “Apollo” has a wonderful article about the history of Kabuki in Japan. Articles about history are commonly used in the reading section of the TOEFL, and I think dance has come up a few times.
- The January 24, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” has an interesting article about the book which the movie “Bambi” was based on. Turns out that the book is quite unlike the film. The fun thing about most articles on the New Yorker website is that you can listen to them, read by an actual human being (not a computer voice).