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