Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Magazine writer Nicholas Lemann once confessed that he had struggled to write what later became The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. In a 1995 essay for the scholarly journal American Historical Review, Lemann said he had long wanted to write a book about success in America—specifically, about how the Scholastic Aptitude Test had created a new social order, something called a meritocracy—but could never quite find the right storyline, or people whose lives would illustrate this change. So, sometime during the ’80s, he shelved the idea.

What got him unstuck was working on The Promised Land, his 1991 book on the great black migration to the North during the middle third of this century. His epiphany, he said, came while interviewing Constance Daniels, who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, quite possibly the world’s worst housing project. “Her apartment was only forty blocks south of the Loop; from the window were visible various social-service agencies and public schools. Often, I would leave the apartment wondering, ‘How can someone so smart be so much outside the system, especially when the system is physically so nearby?’”

If only Lemann included stories like this one, as enlightening for the reader as for the author, in The Big Test. But he doesn’t—which helps explain why, despite the fact that the book graced Newsweek’s cover in September, its reviews have been mixed. The Big Test does emit flashes of brilliance, shining light on an older American social order and parts of the current one. But it never really illuminates the problem with the system of mass mental testing that created opportunity for millions via higher education—and spawned a powerful new elite.

Which is not exactly what one expects from Nicholas Lemann, now a staff writer for the New Yorker. Over the years, Lemann has won a reputation as a keen social chronicler, in the tradition of Dickens, Dreiser, and Tom Wolfe, and the type of liberal who gets hosannas even from conservatives. Of The Promised Land, George Will declared he had “never learned so much about contemporary America from a single book.” (Full disclosure: I know Lemann slightly.)

Where The Big Test succeeds best is in relating how the SAT came about, and describing the elite that ran universities and, indeed, American life before it. Lemann depicts nothing less than the fall of the old elite: the WASPs, most people would call them, whom he more aptly refers to as the Episcopacy, reflecting their roots in the Episcopal Church.

As others have noted, the Episcopacy basically ran the country from after the Civil War to the mid-1960s. Although located exclusively on the East Coast—the “Eastern Establishment”—it enjoyed broad support, at least among white Protestants. Its members built institutions such as country clubs and boarding schools, and counted among their numbers people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They also exalted something called “character,” a mixture of private manners and public service.

It’s easy to see this creed as a convenient…adaptation of the Puritan tradition to the needs of the ruling group in a modern industrial society: there is the same core idea of a small, disciplined, elect group operating under a virtually theological mandate, but with the added note of obligation to exercise power over the mass.

What Lemann adds to the picture is his analysis of how the Episcopacy fell. In the main, he shows, it was toppled not by a bunch of radical left-wingers, but by inhabitants of its own clubby confines. Probably the two most important reformers, for example, were bureaucrats at Harvard University.

One of these was Henry Chauncey, who held a midlevel job at the school during the ’20s and ’30s. Chauncey’s great accomplishment was creating the Educational Testing Service, the secretive organization that ran the SAT. Now in his 90s and retired, Chauncey grew enamored of mental testing after he spent his freshman year in the early 1920s at Ohio State, a school that few members of the Episcopacy attended, because his family was relatively poor. From the ’30s through the ’60s, the ETS succeeded in winning contracts from universities, which viewed the SAT as a quick, cheap, and efficacious way of selecting students. Moreover, at Chauncey’s prodding, the ETS in 1951 landed a huge contract with the Selective Service System, which during the Korean War deferred thousands of college students from the draft simply because they scored well on IQ tests.

Another unlikely reformer was Harvard President James Bryant Conant. The son of a chemist, Conant laid out an alternative vision of college admissions in the mid-’30s, establishing a full scholarship for brainy public-school kids. What that meant was that (male) students were selected from the Midwest—and, later, the entire country—not just the Eastern Seaboard.

The other major actors in the Episcopacy’s fall were eugenicists, a largely discredited brand of scientists who believe that intelligence is innate rather than subject to social forces. The designer of the SAT, Carl Brigham, was a eugenicist, who, interestingly, later disowned the test as a false measurement. Nevertheless, the SAT became national in scope. Created in 1926, it soon spawned a host of other mental tests. The Law School Aptitude Test was first offered in 1948, the Medical College Aptitude Test soon after.

Besides providing intimate narratives about the major players, The Big Test makes a vastly underappreciated point about the transformation of the elite in American life: that the basis for success—for attaining a good job and social position—shifted from “character” to “intelligence.” Lemann is not the first one to seize on this change. But he does show how major universities became not only national institutions but also a “national personnel department,” becoming less like ivory towers and more like job factories.

But this is only the first third of the book. The long section on the rise of the meritocracy fares far less well, bogging down into a mishmash of people, plans, and institutions. Lemann extends his narrative across the country, tracing the expansion of the SAT. But he doesn’t show the stakes involved, and he adopts an annoyingly detached voice. We really can’t root for these people the way we could for characters in The Promised Land. There is no Ruby Haynes, the black heroine who migrated from the shacks of Mississippi to the public housing projects of Chicago, or Lyndon Johnson, who made the issue of race central to his presidency.

Instead, we get a host of lesser heroes. There is Clark Kerr, who in the ’50s singlehandedly made the University of California’s higher-education system world-class, laying out a “master plan” that enrolled more and more students. There are the decision-makers at Yale during the ’50s and ’60s, who began ditching requirements that students be virtuous and well-rounded in favor of intelligence. There are Asian-American characters such as Don Nakanishi and Alice Young, who, because of the new intelligence criterion, were allowed in the mid-’60s to join the professions. And there is a whole procession of people who fought for and against the 1996 California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), the successful anti-affirmative-action ballot measure.

Lemann calls the members of the new elite “Mandarins.” Coming from divergent ethnic and social backgrounds, Mandarins ace their SATs, attend top-notch schools, and become high-priced lawyers and consultants. There are two points that Lemann makes about them, both of which are intellectually exciting, neither fully realized. One is that the Mandarins aren’t the only elite in America. There are also the “Lifers,” such as heads of big corporations and government officials. And there are the “Talents,” such as entertainment stars and entrepreneurs. What’s more, Lemann posits that Mandarins aren’t the most powerful elite: “If any one category of people ran America it was the Talents.” This is the kind of systematic analysis that extends our insight into the current American social order, a taxonomy of the paths to success. The trouble is, Lemann devotes only a few paragraphs to these groups, sticking instead to his tales of individual Mandarins.

Lemann’s other, more vital point is that the elite that the meritocracy has created is becoming more and more like the one it was intended to replace. Specifically, the Mandarins made education as much a basis for success in America as the Episcopacy did property. That’s why the Mandarins devote their early lives to educational advancement—to continue on the path of self-fulfillment. The trouble is, the Mandarins thereby become self-serving. Instead of working for the public good, they work to get ahead. But they push for affirmative action. Why? Because a lily-white elite would subvert their claim to be America’s natural leaders.

Lemann’s major critique of the meritocracy—that it’s not really meritocratic—is dead-on. Yes, the system is, to an extent, open: It opened up the American elite to groups such as Jews, Catholics, women, and blacks. (Lemann, who grew up Jewish in New Orleans during the ’50s and ’60s, just as the Episcopacy’s power was beginning to wane, had reason to be sensitive to this shift.) But at the same time, it denies opportunity, apportioning success not on the basis of a spectrum of human talents, but only one: intelligence. As a result, it has created an ever-widening gulf between those who have been to college and those who have not—a gulf that is “now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw.” In particular, blacks have lost out under this system: “Race was the area that threw the contradiction between the idea of the system…and the reality of it…into the starkest relief.” Of course, the meritocracy can’t be wholly blamed for this situation—other changes in American life, such as the decline of the manufacturing economy, are equally to blame. Still, it’s clearly part of the problem.

This is strong as far as it goes. Yet Lemann leaves unanswered enormous questions. Clearly, the new system is more open than the Episcopacy, so what’s the problem? Lemann wants to show that those who don’t perform well on mental tests are horribly excluded. As he wrote in a 1996 New York Times Magazine story,

To argue that by late adolescence black people have run a fair competitive race and that if they’re behind whites on the educational standards they deserve to be permanently barred from the professional and managerial classes is absurd. It constitutes not just a denial of opportunity to individuals but a denial of talent to society.

Yet nowhere in The Big Test does Lemann illustrate life at the bottom of the success heap. This is not to say that the book needs victims; but victims need faces. Simply saying that the poor and minorities are the big losers under the current system doesn’t illustrate the problem in the way that showing us their lives in human detail would. (That’s why many reviewers have missed Lemann’s point and dismissed his concerns as so much bellyaching.) As a result, the book’s message becomes abstract, bereft of moral clarity and urgency. We don’t feel the emotional wallop of those excluded from the current social order, and therefore don’t grasp how a system that seems so open really isn’t. CP