Nicholas Lemann

The American Meritocracy

VTR Date: November 4, 1999

Guest: Lemann, Nicholas


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Nicholas Lemann
Title: The American Meritocracy

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I have been for quite a few decades. And no denying it, I’m rather long in the tooth.

But that’s why in focusing on today’s program about what my guest calls “The secret history of the American meritocracy”, I can thank my lucky stars that I had been admitted to college and to my professional career, before one had to run the gauntlet of psychological and achievement tests as a key to entre and survival.

I don’t quite think I would have made it in the world of S.A.T.s, G.R.E.s, L-SATs and MCATs; I’m convinced I would have been sorted out of — not into — the opportunities for achievement in modern America.

To be sure, the world would have little noted, nor long remembered such a loss, but in writing his new Farrar, Strauss Giroux book, The Big Test, journalist/historian Nicholas Lemann decries the fact that the testing that had begun after World War II as a truly Utopian experiment designed to unseat the almost hereditary white male elite that had run America earlier, has led to a new elite created in its place.

Not that my guest doesn’t embrace the idea of meritocracy. But ideally, he writes, it would look quite different from the current one spawned by these tests.

Ideally, Mr. Lemann writes, “The essential functions and the richest rewards of money and status would devolve to people only temporarily, and strictly on the basis of their performances; there would be as little life-long tenure on the basis of youthful promise as possible. The elite would be a group with a constantly shifting, rather than stable and permanent membership. Successful people would have less serene careers, but this would give them more empathy for people whose lives don’t go smoothly”.

And my guest insists that “space in the Mandarin compound should be as small as possible and the space outside it as large as possible”.

So in welcoming one who seems to despise the use that has been made of testing as much as I do, I want to ask Mr. Lemann just what he means by “that space in the Mandarin compound”.

LEMANN: Okay. You’re reading from the end of the book and you’re sort of picking up on lingo that I’ve been developing throughout the book. Let’s see … I thought … I’ve been working on this book for a long time and had, you know, sort of many thoughts along the way. And before … as I was working on the book and sort of starting on it, several books came out which were from all across the political spectrum, sort of putting forth the idea that the elite in America is now completely made up of really the products of the system that my book is about. The people who got high SAT scores, favorable college admissions, went on into the careers that that tracks into. I’m thinking of Charles Murray’s notion of the “cognitive elite” in The Bell Curve. But from the complete other side of the political spectrum, Christopher Lasch, just before he died, wrote a book called The Revolt of the Elites which some wags felt should have been called The Revolting Elites in which he writes about these people. Another, but closer to Lasch part of the political spectrum, Robert Reich, our former Labor Secretary wrote a book called The Work of Nations in which he uses this term “symbolic analysts”. Again, you know, there’s a kind of SAT and university generated elite sitting at the top of society running everything. All these books share the idea that there’s a new elite, it kind of runs everything, it has all the economic, political, cultural, social power and everybody else is being left behind. So, you know, from different political perspectives they all take that position. Now, I’ve thought about that a lot. My book is really a history of how that elite was created. But we’ll get back to that. But I thought … I think of the country as being more complicated. The people that I’ve been talking about, this elite …


LEMANN: … I call them the Mandarins. But as a kind of pretty serious parlor game I, I … in the book and elsewhere, have divided the country into three sort of success groups. And those would be Mandarins, these are the test-taker, university educated professionals. Talents … people who just kind of go out and do whatever they do … they don’t need any particular credential. You know, small business, big business if they started the business, entertainers … people like that. And Lifers who are people who go to work for big organizations and spend a long time and kind of rise up to the top. So, my theory is that there are these three groups … Mandarins, Talents and Lifers. They’re sort of distinct from each other. They compete with each other to run the country. Each controls some territory. I don’t think that these earlier writers are correct in saying essentially the Mandarins run everything. And all of America is Mandarin territory. But I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it would be … it would make this a better country if it were all Mandarin territory, which is what the founders of the system, you know, wanted and hoped for. I would like to keep the Mandarin track kind of small and focused and, and keep a kind of more unstructured form of opportunity the “norm” in this country. I don’t know exactly how much turf the Mandarins control, but to the extent that it seems to be increasing, I’d like to kind of ratchet back to a decrease.

HEFFNER: But you say “increasing”. Are you so sure about that?

LEMANN: It’s actually a big debate right now. It’s pretty complicated. I think on the one hand … let me divide it into political and economic. Politically the Mandarins were created almost in a test tube laboratory so that they could assume political power. The people who build this system assumed that the products of the system would be, you know, Plato-style philosopher/king/statesmen type. They … the Mandarins never really gained political power and if anything, I think their political power is decreasing now. It looked, at the beginning of this decade, it looked like the moment had arrived because the Clintons, you know, had taken power, and they were sort of the first Mandarins to come to the Presidency. And then there were all these other sort of SAT and Admissions characters around them, like Reich and Ira Magaziner and so on and so forth. There was a feeling in this class that, you know, our moment has arrived. But what I argue in the book is they didn’t successfully establish themselves as the political power in the country. And, indeed, they’re more important politically as an object of populist resentment then as the rulers. So that’s on the political side.

However, on the economic side I think the Mandarin space is increasing. In other words, one of the ironies of this system is a system that I just said was set up to generate political leaders is viewed by, you know, Joe Six-Pack or the American people, or whatever, as a system for handing out economic rewards. So, even as the system has, has failed in a sense, if it’s job is to produce a political leadership group, it’s succeeded enormously in being perceived as sort of the gateway to getting through the goodies in America. So that’s why you have, you know, 25,000 people applying for 1,500 places at Harvard and all these other elite schools. That’s why every time you get in the New York subway, there’s a Stanley Kaplan ad saying essentially, “if you take our course, we will guarantee that you will be rich and successful”. So the system is seen as a route to economic success and I think it is a route to economic success. Not all types of economic success, but it tracks into a type of economic success and in that sense it’s expanding, I think. So political contraction, economic expansion.

HEFFNER: But let me go back and ask you for your evaluation of … tell us the sympathies or lack of sympathy you have for those at the beginning who wanted The Big Test to do the right thing, presumably … Henry Chauncy, James Conant and others.

LEMANN: Well, [laughter], I guess Chauncy … I divide them into two categories. Chauncy is still alive and I’ve, in the course of working on this book, gotten to know him quite well. He turns 95 in a couple of months and he’s in remarkable condition for that age. All these people were idealists. I don’t agree with all of their ideals, but they were all idealists and it should be said that this system was started … it was not started in a kind of open way, with public debate. It was started privately by … these were all establishmentarians …

HEFFNER: And that bothers you, doesn’t it?

LEMANN: That bothers me, yes.


LEMANN: It’s too important to do something this big without public discussion. It affects too many people.

HEFFNER: How would it have been discussed? How could it have been discussed? Seriously. I mean it’s one thing to say, “they did this themselves. They did it behind their own closed doors”. How could it have been otherwise?

LEMANN: Oh, well, I mean, just … you know, we’re playing historical “what if” here.


LEMANN: I mean it’s very easy to play. You could say the educational testing service, rather than being a private, non-profit organization should be a government agency. As the, you know, national testing operations are in most advanced countries. It performs a public function, it allocates opportunity. It slots people into institutions that are either government owned, like public universities, or heavily government financed, like private universities. And therefore, it should be a government agency. So let’s have a piece of legislation, let’s set up this agency, and then have a debate on it, just the way you would when, you know, when we passed the Civil Rights Act. That’s sort of my model for how to have a national conversation. A bill is written up, the country goes insane talking about it, but by the end something passes. Compromises have been made, but there’s a kind of consensus reached on, on what the organization and its goals should be.

HEFFNER: Do you think at any point this country would have been prepared to have dealt with the question of an elite? That we would have admitted to ourselves what the elite was in this country? That we had a Mandarin group?

LEMANN: I don’t think necessarily. But I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad thing either. I’m not a great believer in the whole project of having kind of engineered elite selection. I mean let’s go … I want to go back to a earlier question because I got off the track …

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

LEMANN: … but I want to stay on this track for a minute. The period that is, that takes up the beginning of the book, you know, 1930s and 1940s, it was a kind of fight between two ideas about education and opportunity in America. One idea, which was the idea of the people who started ETS, like Conant was this very elite top-down idea based on intelligence testing. It was that college should be small, should serve four or five percent of the population, these people should be carefully picked, probably on the basis of their mental test scores, and kind of slotted for leadership, or picked for elite status. So that’s one camp. The other camp … the camp that lost in the fight over starting ETS at least, is the expansion camp. These people’s vision was, “Let’s” … and you know Truman appointed a commission on higher education in the late forties, and this is what its report said, even as they were losing in real life. “Let’s just expand higher education. Let’s make it big, with relatively open admissions, let’s not have any selection tests or very minimal selection tests. Instead, let’s have placement tests and let’s not use the education system to pick an elite. Instead, let’s use it to just try to equip as many Americans as possible with both the kind of Liberal ideas education and specific work skills and then kind of let, let the chips fall where they may”. And I find that idea much more attractive. So had the whole system been decided legislatively, where it would have come out, I suspect, would have been more along the lines of this presidential report that came out in 1948. Less along the lines of the Educational Testing Service regime that was established at the same time.

HEFFNER: And what do you think the result would have been?

LEMANN: Oh, boy. There would have been a lot of results. You would have had less of a big fight over affirmative action than you have now. That’s one thing. And you would have had a less distinct kind of Mandarin class of the kind that I talk about, for good and for ill. They would have been less of a sort of fortunate group in the society, but they would have been less controversial and less of a target also. I suspect that the elite universities would have been more … retain more of their sort of their “old preppie” tone, which probably is a bad thing. So that the good side of this whole revolution that I write about in the book is the change in the elite universities from sort of preppie domination or what I call in the book, “the episcopacies domination” to domination by a kind of academically chosen group. If you had to choose between those two … I’d choose the side that won.

HEFFNER: Well that’s clear in your book that , that you … and that’s why I say in my introduction …

LEMANN: Yeah. I’m trying to … I’m trying to sort of distinguish between saying this little thing that happened, comparatively, which is the change in the elite if, if forced to answer the narrow question “which do you like better?” (you know there’s a gun to your head), which do you like better ‘The old elite or the new elite’. I’d say “the new elite”. But where I’ve stopped is to say therefore all other issues that I deal with in the book are unimportant and must be set aside and we have solved all the problems of democracy and opportunity and class in America. It’s very dangerous to extrapolate from this small change to saying, “The country has utterly changed in a wonderful way.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me … you say now, you’ve said it twice “small change”. What is “small” about the change?

LEMANN: It doesn’t involve that many people …


LEMANN: … that’s what’s small. It’s a big change in a sense that, you know, if we’re talking about an “elite”, it has exaggerated importance. But it’s small in the sense that it, it just … there aren’t a lot of bodies involved. The number of people who go to these elite universities because they’ve, you know, done very well on these tests and so on, that’s just not a big number. It doesn’t, it doesn’t … it’s not big enough to sort of make a big splash demographically in the country.

HEFFNER: Of course when you say “it’s not a big number”. My concern as a teacher is that everything goes by the numbers now.


HEFFNER: Thanks to the big tests.

LEMANN: Yeah, right.

HEFFNER: And it’s a very distressing phenomenon for a teacher, for one who has been around a long time. Maybe to someone who has begun in this period, it’s old hat.

LEMANN: No, it’s changed, you know … I’m a product myself of the system described in the book. But on the other hand, you know, I have children in public school in New York and I see that things have changed from my childhood to their childhood a lot. In terms of the enormous importance put in school systems on all sorts of tests. Tests are just very much on top of everyone’s mind, not only throughout the school system, starting in first grade, but also in … you know I live in this sort of typical suburban town. The town revolves around test scores. When you go to real estate open houses and things like that, you know those sheets they give you on the house …

HEFFNER: Ah, yes.

LEMANN: Well, now there’s two sheets … there’s the house and then there’s the test scores. So, so they have taken on enormous importance.

HEFFNER: Do you think we can ever move away from, from that? Do you think there’s any possibility that at this stage of this nation’s life we can move away from judging by the numbers?

LEMANN: Here’s what I think. I’m going to give you a sort of qualified answer. I don’t come out on this … I do think, you know, Pandora’s Box is open, or the horse is out of the barn, or whatever image you want to use, it would be very hard to go from the situation we’re in now to life without tests. And I’m not for that. I think if we can get a more sophisticated understanding going of tests to where the debate goes beyond tests pro or con to what kind of tests, what do they measure and how they’re used, that’s where I think our discussion and debate should go. And once you go to that place, you see that, you know, within the word test there’s many, many, many things that can be done. In other words, just to give you a couple of examples. The SAT is an aptitude test that is meant for selection. In other words, what it originally is supposed to do and to some extent does do is say “we’re looking for a thousand kids or ten thousand kids every year who score very high on this test, not because of what they learned in school, but because of something that’s already sort of in their brain. We’re going to whisk them out of the school system and send them to elite universities on scholarship”. So that’s what the SAT does. At the other end of spectrum you have a test like, NAEP… the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Also an ETS test. It’s given in public schools in America, it’s given to a sample of students, there are no consequences for the students of the test score … it’s a random sample. The only purpose of that test score is to tell whether the schools in the state are doing a good job of teaching their students. So it’s a test for a completely different purpose which is to improve the quality of public education. The SAT is specifically designed not to address the quality of public education. So one is a test I feel much more warmly toward than the other. Another point that’s just sort of a general point about tests is, is there’s a chart and horse issue. Very often, and certainly in the case of the SAT and many other tests, what you have is some outside force requires a test of all students. And the test kind of lands like a flying saucer and everybody says, “oh my gosh, here’s this test and it has huge consequences and now let’s all adjust what we do in our lives and in our schools in order to try to produce higher scores on this test”. That’s putting the cart before the horse. What we should be doing instead is saying, “first let’s decide what we want our schools to do, what we want our society to look like”. And then once we’ve decided that and what we want to teach kids, then let’s design the test. Let’s design the test after making those decisions based on those decisions. Instead of kind of reverse engineering life to meet tests that are handed down from outside.

HEFFNER: And as the father … two sons, I believe?

LEMANN: MmmHmmm. MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: How do you conduct yourself in relation to the phenomenon of tests? Just in terms of what you just said? What do you do with your children in terms of what you know the schools will be doing by way of testing?

LEMANN: Well, I divide it into three categories. I mean … I’m glad to have the chance to answer this because, you know, they take enormous numbers of tests in school. They take these ETS tests that I write about, they take state mandated tests. All sorts of things. And here’s what I do. I want to use this as a chance to talk about the fact that there are tests and then there are tests. The test I like the best for my kids is the New York State Regents. And the reason I like the New York State Regents is that the message to the kid is at the end of this year … you start in the Regents course. At the end of the year you will be given a Regents exam. There’s no secrets about what’s on this exam. It’s a curriculum based test on whether you learned the stuff in the course. So I say to my son, “You know you’ve got a Regents exam at the end of year. You know what you should do knowing you have that? Study in biology and learn the stuff.” And he does, you know. It’s a really good system. It motivates the kid to study and learn and it’s also a way of measuring whether the school is performing on a State standard. So I like that test. The SAT I tell my kids, I mean they’re just getting to the age where they’re starting to take this stuff. I say to them, “ don’t study or prepare in any way, and let’s just go take the test and see what happens”. And if you get a high score we’ll never worry about it again. And if you get a low score then we’ll sort of plan our next move. But I don’t want of sort of start with the obsession. I only want to obsess if there is a reason to obsess. And the final kinds of tests are these State Reading tests and so on, State Skills test. There the objection is the State picks a test. They buy off the shelf from the test publisher, then they announce to the local schools, “this is going to be the test”. And then everything is distorted because the school starts teaching to the test. And what the kids does in elementary school becomes “test prep” for whatever tests the State decided to pick.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that very much like your approach to the Regents?

LEMANN: No. Because the Regents is the carthorse point. Key … key point. With the Regents and what I’d like to see happen with the reading test is first you decide what your curriculum is, then you design the test to be a test of the curriculum. With the State Reading Tests, both the old one and the new one, it’s the opposite. First they buy a test from a commercial test publisher. Then what happens under the school roof changes to produce a higher score on the test.

HEFFNER: Well, the commercial test publisher becomes the Board of Regents.

LEMANN: Right. Exactly. So I would be happy, I think there should be a state reading test in the third grade or the fourth grade, the two years that they’ve done. I’m all for that because you’re really, you know, you’re not … you’re “out of town” in America if you don’t know how to read. And we need to make sure, schools are teaching kids to read. But I say, “first develop a State reading curriculum, then develop the test. And that way you will not have separate from … what you have now in New York is, you have a reading curriculum in the school … And then you have as a separate literally, separate course in many schools test prep for the reading test. Now that’s bad.

HEFFNER: And those in Massachusetts? Or in Washington, DC? Or wherever in this country who watch this program. What are you talking about? New York as different from the country?

LEMANN: The general trend in the country is … I mean … the good news about America is the story I tell in this book is a story of people who basically said, “we’re not going to worry about the general quality level of public education in America. We’re going to worry about a different project. And that’s what all these tests and so on are designed for. What we’re see now, and this is the good news, is there’s a really widespread national movement … there’s a big movement, it’s bigger than people realize to up-grade public education is this country. Make sure that the kid who graduates from high school really knows a body of stuff and has a body of skills. There’s all sort of activities state by state, including both the buying of commercial tests and kind of imposing them on schools. And the better approach, I think, which is developing curriculum standards and then designing your own tests. Which is, for instance, what Texas has done.. That’s much better. But you know, the impulse is healthy which is to produce a sort of over all high quality level in public education with accountability and quality control. That’s good.

HEFFNER: The trouble is to get to that, you live by the numbers …

LEMANN: Yeah, you live by the numbers, but again I don’t end up after many years with this, with just saying “Well let’s just not have tests. Instead I want to sort of have a more fine grained debate and say, “Let’s have the right kind of tests, instead of the wrong kinds of test”.

HEFFNER: And if I may say, the point you make about testing is something that has to go on constantly … testing in life and not let a test taken at an early age mark someone, for good or for bad, for ever …

LEMANN: Right.

HEFFNER: I wish we had time now, but I’m getting the signal that we don’t to go to on the question of race and testing. Perhaps ;you’ll come back another time.

LEMANN: I’ve love to.

HEFFNER: Nicholas Lemann, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

LEMANN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.