THE BIG TEST by Nicholas Lemann

THE BIG TEST

The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
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KIRKUS REVIEW

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. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-29984-6
Page count: 405pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999