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There was every reason to expect that in the eight years since The Promised Land, his bestselling, award-winning account of “the great black migration and how it changed America,” Nicholas Lemann would have gotten a bit full of himself. He’s a big shot now, and if he’d turned in 700 exhaustively researched pages on “the secret history of the American meritocracy,” no publisher would have dared stop him. Instead he’s managed to tell an extremely complex story—really a skillfully camouflaged suite of stories—in 350 turnable pages that don’t stint on seductive tangent or juicy detail. Tracing the fate of an exemplary Mississippi emigrant, The Promised Land was braver and, for most readers, less familiar—a subject hidden in plain sight for too long. But The Big Test is more compellingly told, interweaving the themes and characters its threads share, and devoting its last 75 pages to a single incident: the 1996 California anti-affirmative action initiative. This narrative pull not only enhances the book’s basic commercial advantage, which is that it’s about its target market—meritocrats read “serious” books, in hardcover. It also reinforces an argument that deserves the boost.
The Big Test is shaped like a barbell. It begins by recounting how James Bryant Conant’s dream of transforming the Ivy League from a way station for raccoon-coated wastrels into the training ground of a democratically chosen elite had its not particularly logical consequence in the SATs, the glorified IQ test that now wracks the academic aspirations of upper-middle-class adolescents nationwide. The protagonist here is the Educational Testing Service’s Henry Chauncey, the neither wealthy nor brilliant umpteenth-generation Puritan whose idealistic proselytizing and Groton connections made the SATs what they are today. Then the book narrows down to deal more cursorily with a dozen or so ’60s teenagers who were plucked out of public high schools by the SAT apparatus, as well as U. Cal’s Clark Kerr, chief architect of today’s meritocratic system. Finally it balloons back up into the closely observed Proposition 209 fight, with key roles for several of Lemann’s sample meritocrats, most prominently L.A. lawyer Molly Munger.
Just as fascinating as these main elements are the stops at the old Harvard and the new Yale, the tales of CCNY prodigy Stanley Kaplan’s system for improving supposedly inborn scholastic “aptitudes,” and of “the invention of the Asian American” by Don Nakanishi, the son of internment-camp parents who got into Yale by cramming for his SATs. So is Lemann’s continuing attention to the internal politics of the Educational Testing Service, which as recently as 1990, he reports, quashed an index designed by one of its tenured statisticians to correct results for class and race. Note, however, that it would be perfectly possible to explore meritocracy as idea and phenomenon while barely touching the ETS or affirmative action. Lemann was right to believe that testing was a great unreported story and race its Achilles heel, and right on to link them so inextricably. But he didn’t have to. He performed the trick because, even though he’s chosen the flaky profession of journalism, he wants to be Conant’s kind of meritocrat—the kind who serves the nation by leading it.
As The Big Test makes clear, this modern solon was an academic fantasy—professors are always overestimating the eagerness of Americans to be ordered around by eggheads from fancy Eastern schools. Anyway, in this country opportunity means the chance to get rich, and compared to professions like law and banking, government is no goldmine. When they do aspire to leadership roles, Conant’s meritocratic “Mandarins” must vie with two othergroups: the corporate-climbing “Lifers” who often end up CEOs, and such “Talents” as freelance entrepreneurs and entertainment moguls. I would add “Heirs,” but Lemann is too focused on how the rich beat the SATs with tutors and worse to give the power of capital its ugly due. His indignation at such naked exercises of privilege may also be why he barely acknowledges the stubborn theory that the test scores of black Americans reflect an “inborn” disability, a notion I’d love to see dispatched by this well-informed centrist liberal.
If anything, Lemann’s racial concerns have intensified since The Promised Land, where in his tough-minded refusal to mince words about anyone’s shortcomings he sometimes risked blaming the victim. One of The Big Test‘s strongest moments is a grimly laconic explanation of how its only significant “black” characters, half-Persian babysitters whom Munger sees into college, must defeat not just poverty but the social disadvantages specially reserved for Americans of African heritage. As Lemann understands, the SATs have given many a well-earned leg up. But they’ve also hurt a lot of people who deserve better, too many of them black. Most advocates of affirmative action are all too aware of its limitations as theory and remedy. But in a nation where only the best-endowed colleges are willing to screen students with instruments more accurate than multiple-choice questions, a nation where the ETS’s universal tracking system resisted any sort of class/race recalibrations until shortly before this book was published, it’s better than nothing. Molly Munger becomes Lemann’s special hero because her battle for affirmative action fulfills Conant’s dream. Leading by serving, she strives to mitigate America’s fatal flaw which, how about that, turns out to be American meritocracy’s fatal flaw as well. If her story sensitizes this book’s market to that cruel confluence, then Lemann will have deployed his sleight-of-hand in the best of causes.
Personally, I wish Lemann wasn’t such a straight, politically and culturally—the kind of guy for whom a feminist media event involving coffins is “loony-left.” I know lots of people who strayed from the meritocratic path to end up more modest, marginal, and weird than anyone he describes, and I’m interested in what such life choices might tell us about our land of opportunity. But the subject is vast—a million kids have aced their SATs by now. What Lemann has made of that brave new cohort is an excellent beginning to its chronicle.