THE BIG TEST

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN MERITOCRACY

Enlightenment is available here for anyone who has struggled to understand why their future depended upon filling in little ovals with a #2 pencil in response to odd questions about vocabulary. Lemann (The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, 1991) describes a project whose purpose was nothing less than the replacement of family background with intellectual capacity as the basis for social and economic hierarchy in America. The SAT’s originators saw it as the scientific path to the optimal utilization of society’s human resources, matching abilities with educational options and guiding individuals into suitable employment and social positions. Such social utopian convictions today seem naive and possibly dangerous, but in the post-WWII environment the leadership of the Educational Testing Service and its meritocratic allies were able to put the machinery of this system in place, and testing became “the all-powerful bringer of individual destiny.” However, while testing advocates championed equal opportunity for all against the patrician social status quo, the tests they administered reapportioned opportunity rather than expanding it; the criterion for social discrimination changed, not the fact of its existence. Most of the antagonisms engendered by this new system of sorting winners and losers could be deflected by claims of scientific objectivity, but testing advocates didn—t foresee the race factor. Blacks were particularly ill-positioned to do well on tests measuring capacities, such as vocabulary skills, dependent upon education and environment; consequently, testing reinforced racial inequity. Lemann follows the story through the ups and downs of affirmative action and concludes with an unusually cogent analysis of what an educational system should be in a democracy and what a genuine American meritocracy would look like. Lemann has produced a suitably big book, sprawling across most of a century and multiple major issues, told through the lives of numerous fascinating figures, and ultimately providing an original, perceptive, and powerful analysis of institutions that are too often taken for granted. (First serial to Newsweek)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-29984-6

Page Count: 405

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1999

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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