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Summary: This brilliant book shows us for the first time the ideas, the people, and the politics behind the fifty-year-old system that determines the course of Americans' lives.
It began as a utopian experiment--launched by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the brand-new Educational Testing Service (ETS)--to use the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students fairly and dispassionate ...show morely 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 the secret history of this major effort to unseat the quasi-hereditary male white elite that had run America.
Lemann's narrative goes across a huge range of subjects, places, and times--from Cambridge and wartime Washington to contemporary California, from the think tanks and policy centers where educational testing was invented to the schools and classrooms where the test forms are handed out. And he describes the consequences, for individual lives and for society as a whole, of this effort to create a new meritocracy.
For the utopian experiment didn't turn out as planned. It created a new elite but also generated conflict and tension, particularly over the issue of race, and America is now a society whose best-educated, most privileged, and most powerful people seem to be leaders without followers--prosperous, resented figures who don't hold the country together around their ideas yet who are trying, like the old elite, to perpetuate themselves down through the generations. Lemann shows that this American meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly.
The Big Test is superb social history and analysis that not only explains the origins of the inadequate system we are all living with but asks profound moral and political questions about what makes for a good society, and what condition the United States is in today. ...show less
Lemann, Nicholas :
Nicholas Lemann, born in New Orleans in 1954, began his journalistic career there and then worked at Washington Monthly, The Washington Post, and Texas Monthly, of which he was executive editor in 1981-83. A frequent contributor to national magazines, he was national correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly in 1983-98 and is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991). He lives in Pelham, New York, with his family.
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, inducing 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, 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, some times 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 promises 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 there fore 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-grand sons, 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.''
''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 debates.''
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux Publishers' Web Site, January, 2001
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