secrets of the sat
photo of Nicholas Lemann
Nicholas Lemann: He is a journalist and author of The Big Test-The Secret History of the American Meritocracy which examines American meritocracy and how, after World War II, the SAT test became the ticket for entry into America's ruling class.
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How did our obsession with the SAT begin?

The story starts with the invention of IQ tests. That was 1905. Here's the brief history. Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, invents the first IQ test in 1905 in Paris. The second important thing that happens is that Lewis Terman, an American psychology professor at Stanford...took Binet's idea, used it in a slightly different way and really became a proselytizer for IQ testing and its widespread use in American education. And the reason was to pick people to become part of a new elite.

The kids who get into Berkeley not on the basis of SAT scores are still super outstanding kids who live...acing everything, and are considered by their high schools to be their best kids.  Berkeley is still operating on the principle of merit. They're just defining merit more broadly than test scores. The big milestone moment was during the First World War when IQ testers persuaded the army to let them test all recruits. Before that, IQ tests were given one on one. There would be a test administrator and a test taker. For the first time during the First World War, an IQ test was given to millions of people with ...mass results, so that was the real moment of arrival for the IQ testing movement. After the war, the people who had worked on these tests spread them throughout the country, made use of them in schools and so on, and some of the people who had worked on the World War I test worked on adapting it to use in college admissions.

One of those people was Carl Brigham, a psychologist at Princeton University. He had worked on the army test, and his adaptation of the army intelligence test, called the Army Alpha for use in college admissions, was the SAT. Carl Brigham is the guy who wrote the SAT, which at that time stood for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. So he was sitting in Princeton, he invented this test, marketed it, sort of test marketed it to various schools including the military academies, and some of the Ivy League schools. He was then discovered by Henry Chauncey and Bill Bender, two assistant deans to Harvard president James Conant, and they adopted the SAT for use as a Harvard scholarship test. That happened during the 1930s. Then it was used even more widely in the late 1930s as a scholarship test for all Ivy League schools.

And then, with the advent of the second World War, the army and navy gave an adapted SAT called the Army-Navy College Qualification Test to 300,000 people on the same day. That's a big event. Before the Second World War the SAT was being given to maybe five, ten thousand people a year, so it wasn't a big project. It's complicated to give a high stakes test under secure conditions to hundreds of thousands of people at sites all across America. So, this fateful day in 1944 was the first time that the people who were in charge of the SAT were able to show that they could give it on a mass basis.

Is our society obsessed with the SAT?

The kind of extreme SAT hysteria, such as spending tens of thousands of dollars on test prep, prepping for five years, that kind of thing--I think that's pretty much irrational.

When Conant set all this stuff up, two things didn't occur to him. It didn't occur to him that there would be this whole culture around getting admission. The whole system was supposed to just sort of do a scan that people weren't even aware what was going on and to just pluck out a few people.

And then, you weren't supposed to want to be picked so you could "make it," or so you could be a success or make a lot of money or get prestige. Conant explicitly said in his writings, 'these people would be no better than anybody else.' They would not get any special privileges. It would horrify him to see the way in which people regard getting high test scores and getting selected for these universities as a kind of way to get stuff--to get the goodies in America. That is not what the system was built for.

There are kids who are twisting their lives, and the parents, too, who twist their lives and rob themselves of their own childhood so that they can get into one of two or three or four schools. I think they're being irrational, or they're being obsessive.

Because, thank God, in America today it still doesn't matter that much where you went to college. I think it matters too much, and I hope it starts to matter less in the future. But it still doesn't matter as much as it does in England or in France or in Germany or in Japan or in Taiwan. Thank God. It shouldn't matter that much. There is no job in the United States that you have to have gone to x college to get--we're not at that point yet.

What was Henry Chauncey's role?

Chauncey worked for Conant, the President of Harvard. Chauncey and Conant had been playing around with admissions testing all through the 1930s, with the idea, really a small idea in mind, and that is bringing scholarship students first to Harvard and then to other Ivy League schools. You're really talking about a handful of people, and only a handful of people took these tests. In 1941 I found a fascinating thing in the Harvard archives, which is Conant in 1941 wrote a whole unpublished book at the outset of the war called "What We Are Fighting For". And he also wrote several articles on this theme, but never published the book. The most famous was called "Wanted American Radicals". It was published in 1944 in the Atlantic Monthly. So Conant, who was really running the testing operation, switched --and this is really important-- he switched from saying "This is all about picking a few scholarship kids to send to Ivy League schools" to instead saying "No, we have to revamp the entire American society". The level of ambition of his project just ratcheted up a hundred times, because he went from testing a few people to using testing as a tool to accomplish these incredibly grandiose goals. Conant believed America had previously been a democratic society and was now becoming a class-bound aristocratic society like England very rapidly. That was dangerous. It was going to destroy the country, possibly lead to Marxism taking over in the United States, and it had to be destroyed. You had to create a classless society, and the way to do that was through testing and higher education.

So, all this stuff was being undertaken with the idea of starting a kind of social revolution that would affect everybody in the country. And it did, although it didn't turn out the way Conant thought it would.

What was Conant's intent?

He had what he considered a kind of vision of radical democracy in the United States. There was a group of people who constituted the establishment at the time, and in the book I call them the Episcopacy. They were all male, all white, all Protestant, most Episcopalian. They were kind of high Protestant white men, very high-minded and decent people, but it's a very closed world and they're descended from basically the Puritans who came and settled this country. And, especially from Conant's point of view--that's who ran America, and they had it in a tight grip and nobody else could get any power in the country.

So he wanted to unseat those people and replace them. The idea he had in mind was an idea of Thomas Jefferson's that Conant had picked up on -- the idea of a natural aristocracy. He believed you would look out across America and you would find just out in the middle of nowhere, springing from the good American soil, these very intelligent, talented people. You would find a way to find them and let them run the country instead. So that was the quiet coup d'etat that he had planned, to engineer this natural aristocracy--identify them, train them, organize things so they got the power instead of this old group of people descended from the original settlers of America.

Can you talk a bit about Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson, after having retired as President, struck up a correspondence with John Adams who was, of course, also a retired President. Jefferson is in Virginia, Adams is in Massachusetts. And they wrote these really remarkable long letters to each other--very scholarly. Parts of them are in Greek; parts of them are in Latin. You can't imagine ex-Presidents writing this stuff today. Anyway, there's a famous letter, written from Jefferson to Adams in 1813, and Jefferson says "I propose to you that there is a natural aristocracy among men, made up of people who have virtues and talents." And then he contrasted it to what he called a "tinsel aristocracy," based on wealth and birth. And he said America should be run by the natural aristocracy.

I don't know exactly when Conant found this letter, but it's clear that when he found this letter he just thought--bingo, this is what I believe. And it's more than just that Conant found this letter that he loved. Conant had a lot of power and it's very clear he thought, "Thomas Jefferson had this idea, but he didn't have the means to put it into effect; I, Conant, for various reasons, do have the means to put it into effect". So he really thought of himself as the person who was lucky enough to be able to carry out, in the last half of the twentieth century in the United States, Thomas Jefferson's idea about a natural aristocracy. He referred to this letter again and again in his writings and it's quite clear that he thought he was the person who was putting into place Jefferson's dream.

You said Carl Brigham wrote the SAT. Was he a racist?

Brigham was a reformed racist, basically. You have to be careful about how you use words like racist, because one of the difficult things about history is not being anachronistic. That is, not applying the standards of the present to the past. So it must be said that in 1920 virtually every respectable person in the United States was an unacceptable racist by today's standards. Just as an example, remember, you could not find a man who believed that women should occupy positions of authority in 1920.

Anyway, a very popular movement, particularly among establishment types in the teens and twenties was the eugenics movement which held that the kind of breeding stock of humans was worth looking at and that it was endangered. Eugenicists believed in the innate superiority and inferiority of races on a scale. They were very worried--remember that we had no immigration laws then--they were very worried about unimpeded immigration and how that would lead to a dilution of the superior racial stocks in America. This wasn't just a few nuts who thought this. This was Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes. All respectable people thought this stuff, or almost all, a few heroic ones did not. And by the way, when you say racist, these people didn't think in terms of whites and people of color. What we would call the white race they divided into a lot of little sub-races in order of superiority and inferiority. In particular there were three white races, according to this theory--Nordics, Alpines and Mediterraneans. So it was a cause for alarm, not just that non-whites were coming to the country, but that too many of the lower class of whites--Mediterraneans--were coming to the country.

Brigham wrote a book in 1923 called A Study of American Intelligence. This was based on his work on the Army Alpha Test. He analyzed the test results by race and found--as people who do that have always found--that people of color, Jews, Mediterraneans, anybody who wasn't a kind of what he would call a Nordic, was inherently intellectually inferior. And that the country was in big trouble because two many of these people were coming into the country. So this book is a kind of very ripe, racist book by today's standards, typical of establishment thinking of the time, although Brigham, you know, bothered to write it down. And it just stands up very well as an offensive piece of writing. Now, Brigham renounced it within about five years. To his great credit, he specifically disowned the book. He changed his mind, he broke with the eugenics movement and by the end of his life, was really one of the leading critics, of the eugenics movement. So he came around and deserves a lot of credit for that.

Is the SAT an IQ test?

According to people in the field--especially if they're sort of letting their hair down--they will say the SAT is essentially an IQ test,particularly the verbal portion is essentially an IQ test. I want to step back a little from the idea that the IQ test is a scientific measurement of intelligence. From the beginning, IQ tests essentially traffic in vocabulary items: antonyms, analogies, reading comprehension, it's a test of vocabulary fluency and accomplishment. So, the premise of an IQ test is that it is the same thing as intelligence. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. It's measuring one specific thing. It's not a magical, mystical test. The SAT grew out of an IQ test and the verbal in particular takes the oldest chestnut IQ testing techniques and applies them to high school seniors. And you know very widely, including in the Bell Curve itself, the SAT verbal score is used as a proxy IQ score, or is used as interchangeable with IQ scores. It's the thing that--to the extent that there's a sort of secret about Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, the secret is that at least the test makers there know that what they're doing is administering a mass IQ test but the organization's very invested in denying that.

It's not an accident that the emphasis was put on aptitude instead of achievement and as a matter of fact that Conant pretty much insisted on it?

First of all, Conant himself, although he was never a card-carrying member of the eugenics movement, clearly believed in the basic theory that intelligence is an innate and sort of biological quality and that it's the most important human quality. So that's the starting point. But on a more practical level, when he's starting the system in the 1930s and 40s, American education is highly various--it's a big country, you know, air travel and long distance telephony are in their infancy. Schools are just very different from place to place. There's no national curriculum. So you need a way to perform a straight-up comparison of high school students who have been exposed to very different kinds of education. And to Conant the IQ test or aptitude test is the best way to do that. He was quite insistent on that.

Conant had this kind of idealistic belief in creating a classless society. He was very, very tied to the idea of not favoring people who had been born into a privileged class, which is highly ironic today. So he thought that if you had tests that were achievement tests, or tests of mastery of the high school curriculum, it would be unfair to poor kids because they wouldn't have gone to good high schools. Anything that would help the rich kids who had been to fancy prep schools in the East Conant was against. So in his meetings with Chauncey about the SAT he would say over and over again, according to Chauncey, "Now are you sure this isn't an achievement test? Are you sure this is a pure aptitude test, pure intelligence? That's what I want to measure, because that is the way I think we can give poor boys the best chance and take away the advantage of rich boys."

What Conant wanted was to take an old elite and substitute for it a new elite. Is it fair to say that this is what Chauncey wanted or this is really only what Conant wanted?

The difference between Conant and Chauncey, one of the differences is that Conant was a man with a highly specific social vision. He had a particular idea about America that he wanted to put into place. He wanted to change the structure of the country in a specific way. Chauncey was a guy who was in love with testing. He believed testing is a miracle and it will solve all the problems of the world. He didn't have a particular vision of what he wanted the society to look like. He just believed in the technology totally and he thought, you know, the more you can test the better a country it'll be. If a problem arises with a testing regime, hell, let's just invent more tests and solve the problem that way. So he just believed in the technique of testing.

Conant believed that a narrow constricted group of wealthy descendents of the early settlers of America - people born into money, privately educated, often in New England boarding schools, usually Episcopalian - had formed a kind of club. They weren't especially able, to Conant's mind, and they kind of controlled everything, they had a grip on everything. And they had built a system in which the word meritocracy wasn't around, but they built a sort of fake meritocracy in which the rules were rigged so only they could win.

Conant's primary goal, as far as domestic life in America, was to break the hold of this old elite and put in its place, a new elite that would be made up of people from a national group, people from all over the country, people selected on pure intelligence, not on their background. These would be people who he assumed would have come from very modest backgrounds and would have gone to public school rather than private school--people who would be more liberal, ideologically, than the predecessor group.

He wanted to break the old group's hold, create the new group, and put them in charge of the country. I mean, it's astonishingly ambitious. America's filled with these utopian experiments but they're usually one little town or one house or something. Conant had the ability to do a utopian experiment on the whole country and it worked, in a sense, although it didn't turn out to be a utopia.

What did it turn out to be?

Well, the fundamental irony of the American meritocracy, the system that Conant set up, is this: people will start madly manipulating the system to their favor and to the favor of their children. And the people who have more money and more power and more sophistication will be able to manipulate it more successfully. So, the sort of the tragedy of Conant's system is that some of his ideas just seem laughable today. The idea that America would become a classless society through the use of these tests. The idea that the people who score high on these tests would care only about public service and the good of the country and would be indifferent to money and power. The idea that they would be admired by ordinary people in the country. The idea that they would turn social arrangements completely upside down in the country. The idea that they would be enemies of privilege--they wouldn't want to privilege themselves above others, they would want to wipe out all privilege in America.

I mean, these ideas are appealing but today they just sound impossibly naïve. You can't set up a system to distribute rank and privilege and assume it won't be used for that purpose by people and that people won't eventually figure out how to game the system and use it to pass on advantage. Every conceivable meritocracy, degrades over time into an aristocracy. It just has to happen that way.

What's the history of the word Meritocracy?

Meritocracy,what's interesting about it is today, if you say the word meritocracy people think, "Oh, meritocracy that must be good." It's an automatic good. It's up there with mom and apple pie.

The word was invented to be made fun of actually. It was invented by Michael Young a British sociologist in 1958, who wrote a kind of weird little novel, or novella, called The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young was a socialist who basically was arguing if you set up a meritocracy it will destroy social justice. So Young thought of himself as kind of a critic of meritocracy and invented the word in order to show that it was a bad idea.

Meritocracy means "ruled by the best," but it's Latin and Greek mixed.

Michael Young used the word meritocracy as a kind of bastard hybrid word. Because aristocracy no longer meant what it literally means, ruled by the best. It meant, ruled by dumb inheritors.

Well, as we now understand meritocracy, it's all prefix and no suffix. It's all merit, and no ocracy. All of our attention goes to how do we select people. And what we're selecting them for is just to win the lottery. To have these fantastic rewards showered on them. We've completely forgotten that the whole system was set up to create public servants. That's been dropped. Once they've been selected, they don't have to do anything in particular, and they don't think of themselves, and the country doesn't think of them as the leaders, as Jefferson and Conant wanted. They're just people who get to be investment bankers.

Central to the concept of Conant's meritocracy was the notion of public service. Can you discuss that?

Very high on the list of ironies about this system Conant created, as it's turned out, is it's seen by everybody as a system to confer rewards on people. All reward, no obligation. The reason that there's this kind of crush at the gates of these universities, the reason everybody's taking test prep, the reason everybody's gone crazy trying to get good scores on these tests, and get into elite schools is 'cause they'll make a lot of money. That's what it is! It's your ticket to success in America.

How did the Educational Testing Service (ETS) become such an influential organization?

One thing that's very important to understand about ETS is how it is financed. It's a private business although it's a non-profit. So it has to kind of make a living for itself. And the essential trick of ETS is, the test takers pay the fees individually. So the clients, it's marketed to colleges. The college orders the test, but the test taker has to pay the fee. So an ETS sales person can say to the college, "This is free. This is a freebie for you. You require this test, it won't cost you a penny because the takers take the test." But the point is, ETS has to make money for itself. It has to operate as a business or it's just out of business...It's not a government agency.

In the early going, ETS was broke because many colleges hadn't required the SAT yet. And that took a long time to get them on board. It also had cash flow problems. They needed ways to make money. And the big thing that saved them in the early years was they got a big contract from the Selective Service Administration to run a test during the Korean War for college students that would defer them from the draft.

There was a huge fight going on in the country at the time over who should serve in the military. Conant, who as you know was obsessed with making this a classless society, was the leading proponent of the idea that everybody should have to serve. He was for universal service. General Hershey, the head of the draft bureau, was for administering a test to college students and saying to the high scorers, "You can stay in college. You don't have to serve at the front lines."

There were a lot of reasons for this, but one was a kind of Cold War reason. That what if the person who's going to be our Werner Von Braun, the person who's going to invent the next great military weapon gets killed in a trench somewhere? You can't have that. So Hershey got the idea of giving essentially an IQ test to all college students and the high scorers would not have to go to Korea.

Well it turned out that America hadn't gotten used to this system yet. This is 1951. It was wildly unpopular. People said, "Hey wait a minute! You're going to give this IQ test to college kids and people who have high IQs don't have to fight for their country? Let the poor and the dumb go fight? Keep these guys out of the line of fire? No way!" So there was a blizzard of controversy. Editorial cartoons, radio commentary, it was very, very unpopular.

So Chauncey had to sort of go out and sell America on this test and kind of quiet all the storms. And he did that very, very effectively. He ran the test with his usual administrative skill and the test made a huge profit for ETS and sort of got it through it's initial crisis financially. And by the time they ran through that money they had been adopted by enough colleges that they could make money from operations.

It was a key moment for ETS, it was a key moment for America, because it sold the idea of putting people who get high IQ scores into a separate category where they get special treatment. And that it is a good idea.

Was the Selective Service test an SAT test?

Interestingly, Hershey wanted to just give an IQ test, and Chauncey was smart enough to know, and sort of take him aside and say General, that's not a good idea. That's very bad PR. Let's instead give the SAT.

In 1947 Henry Chauncey had actually setup a branch office out in Berkeley, California. Can you talk about Henry's California plans?

ETS grew out of an organization called the College Board. College Board still exists in a different form. But the College Board was a trade association of 40 or 50 prestigious private colleges in the Northeast. The Ivy League schools, a few liberal arts colleges, Seven Sisters schools, and so on. That was the College Board.

So the SAT was the test for the College Board. Conant and Chauncey didn't want to be in the business of administering a test for admission for a few fancy, private Eastern schools. These are guys who thought big.

But the key thing really, the key idea from the very beginning, even before the beginning, was to get the University of California as a client. Number one, it nationalizes the whole testing system. Because it's all the way over on the West Coast.

Number two, California, it was clear then, was on it's way to becoming the biggest state in the country. It's a big, important state. The university system is the biggest university system, or on it's way to becoming. So, if you could get the University of California that would be the kind of anchor client for the whole testing system. It would show that it was national, it would show that it was public as well as private, and more mundanely, there's a lot of test takers there. And a lot of revenue there. It's a big customer. It's ETS's biggest customer.

So it was very important and ETS waged a lengthy campaign. And it had to be lengthy 'cause it took a long time. There was a lot of resistance. It took 20 years from the time the first ETS West Coast office was opened in Berkeley until the SAT became a requirement for all applicants to the University of California.

Tell me about Conant and Clark Kerr.

Clark Kerr really built the great University of California system and Conant built ETS, they sort of go together. They to my mind are the two big visionaries in the American meritocracy. And of course they were friends and had an elaborate respect for each other. And you know, paid state visits to each other's universities. They had essentially the same vision for America: that you would have this new elite made up of people who were very high intelligence, high academic skills. They would preside over a kind of big, liberal society with big government, but universities, would be technocratic, selfless public servants.

Kerr built a lot of new schools and so on. But both men at heart were elitists. That was the prime thing. Kerr was on the board of Educational Testing Service all through the '50s. And was clearly an ally to ETS in the struggle to use the SAT as an admissions device at the University.

Kerr, in his master plan for education, which made him famous around the world in the early '60s, he very much tightened the access to Berkeley in particular. He wanted Berkeley to be a highly selective world class university...and a world renown research oriented faculty. He wanted to change the nature of Berkeley.

Not dramatically overnight, but move it distinctly away from being a state land-grant college which it was originally, into being a kind of German style, high end research university that had a star faculty and identified and trained the elite of the state of California. He moved it very effectively in that direction. And requiring the SATs was part of that move.

Can you talk a little bit about the history of the acceptance of the SAT at Cal?

Here's what happened with the SAT. ETS setup it's first office in Berkeley in 1947, and began sort of establishing relations with the University of California, with the powers that be there, in hopes of getting them to adopt the SAT as a requirement. Clark Kerr in the early '50s was put on the board of ETS when he was a sort of young rising star.

What is amazing is how long it took. It took 20 years to get the SAT required. It was first used on an experimental basis. Then it was used as an admissions device for out of state students, but not in state students. There was a real resistance in the legislature, and even the older faculty to making California high school grads jump over that SAT hurdle in order to get to the University. It just took a long time to put that across.

Why the resistance?

The idea was that it's a public University. It's our University. It should be, if not open to all, relatively open and with easy access. The idea that Berkeley existed to create a meritocratic elite was not an idea that had much relevance in the state of California, you know, outside of Clark Kerr's head in the 1950s or even in the 1960s. That just wasn't the purpose of the University at the time.

It was like a public utility or a public park or a freeway. It was supposed to be as open as it could be to all.

And at one point in 1962 the University said it wasn't going to use the SAT?

There was a long see-saw battle over the use of SATs. They were used experimentally. They were required for out-of-state, they were briefly required for in-state, they were then dropped for in-state. But then they were reinstituted for everybody. The real key points here are, number one it shows you that it was controversial, adapting the SAT. It took 20 years to get them adopted at the University of California. It didn't just happen like that because it went against the vision of the University as an open land-grant public university. Second thing is, Kerr's master plan in the early '60s was what really set in motion the processes that led to requiring the SAT, because it tightened eligibility, and it explicitly provided for the use of standardized tests in admissions in a piece of legislation.

So the master plan sets the stage. And then the other shoe drops in the '80s when applications just go through the roof. And then you have another complicated series of admissions events that leads to the SAT being used as the way to decide who gets this scarce, precious resource, admission to Berkeley.

You mentioned the Asian explosion in the '80s... You make an interesting comparison between the Jews in the '20s and the Asians in the '80s. Can you talk about that?

The first group to use this meritocratic system to make it were the Jews. And Jews were rising very fast through the system, particularly in the immediate post-World War II decades.

And then starting around 1980, the action shifted, and the rising group that was outperforming where they were in the society tended to be Asian-Americans--in particular, Chinese-Americans. Now why does that happen? There's a whole lot of reasons. One reason is just people are hungry and motivated, and they see this as an arena of opportunity.

But there's a more particular reason which applies in different ways both to Jews and to Asians, which is, given what the system is, given how the system defines merit, it basically defines merit as studiousness, and ability to get good grades in school. And it tremendously glorifies book learning and study. In both Jews and Asians, you have people who come from long cultural traditions that are already in that place that American society got to in the late twentieth century...Within the ethnic culture there's a tremendous value put on studying, learning, scholarship, in the case of Asian-Americans, specifically on testing.

For well over a thousand years, there's been in various Asian countries starting with China, systems of distributing prestige and rewards on the basis of how you do on exams. So this stuff is really rooted culturally, and people who grow up in the culture tend to be unusually well-equipped to sort of deal with the American meritocracy.

UC admissions is a very complicated subject because they keep changing the rules every few years. Every few years there's an outside event, or there's a new commission, or something leads to a change in the rules. But during the period from the late 1980s up through the mid 1990s, in other words, the period leading up to Prop 209,Berkeley probably had the most SAT-dependent admit policy of any school in the country. And the reason is Jerry Karabel, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, headed a faculty committee to reform admissions policy. Karabel is portrayed as a wild-eyed radical. But he actually pushed Berkeley admissions to the right a couple of notches.

Karabel instituted, and the faculty later put in place a policy where half the class of Berkeley was admitted by pure numbers--the computer would tell you who to admit, for half the class.

Half the places were reserved for those people. And it was a formula mixing SAT scores and grade point averages in high school. Problem is, because of another ETS test, the AP exam, lots and lots of thousands of high school kids in California graduate from high school with 4.0 averages. Berkeley would then only record a 4.0 average. So half the applicant pool, or something like that, would be topped out on grades, and so the only way to distinguish these kids were their SAT scores. So that's where I say that half of the class was being admitted almost solely on the basis of SAT scores for that period of time.

It's not true now?

It's not true now, because they've changed the admissions policy twice since then.

So they admit over the 4.0s?

The main change at Berkeley at admissions has been their moving toward the Ivy League, the expensive Ivy League system of the kind of holistic assessment of each applicant individually, rather than feeding them into the computer according to a formula.

What's the significance of the book, The Shape of the River?

In one sense, The Shape of the River is a book that's written for an audience of nine people--the nine people that the book is really aimed at are the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Everybody in the liberal, higher education establishment knows that there is going to be a big higher education affirmative action case. There hasn't been one since Bakke in the mid 1970s. So it's been a long time. It's been more than two decades now.

The whole situation is just begging for a Supreme Court decision, because it is just all this fighting and contention about the key issue, which is "can universities take race into account as a plus factor in admissions decisions? Is that constitutional or not?"

And what Bok and Bowen are doing in that book is they know that case is coming. It's probably going to be the University of Michigan case. It might be some other case. And they want to arm the Supreme Court with the best possible arguments in favor of taking race into account in admissions.

So that's one thing that The Shape of the River is. It's a very elaborate, kind of an amicus brief for a Supreme Court case that is coming, but hasn't happened yet.

And the other thing is, all through the '80s and '90s, there was an outpouring of anti-affirmative action writing by a wide range of people. Shelby Steele, Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom, and they're only the beginning. The whole argument developed against affirmative action, and what you tended to have was--it went unanswered. The anti-affirmative action people were the outsiders and renegades who had voice. And the people who were for affirmative action were the authority figures, the university presidents who kind of did things behind closed doors, and they were silent.

So you had an attack going on, and you didn't have a defense to the attack from the people who were being attacked. I think Bok and Bowen's book represents those folks, or at least two of those folks deciding, "You know what? We've got to answer these arguments now. We can't just ignore them, and think they're being made by nuts. We've got to take them seriously and answer them."

Do you think that the arguments are persuasive?

I think it's very persuasive on what is not that broad of a point. It's very persuasive on the idea that at the Harvard and Princeton style of university, affirmative action works. And that the leading arguments against it at that kind of university are wrong.

It's incredibly good on that point, and very, very persuasive. Where it doesn't really address the question is a university like Berkeley or other public universities. It's really about university admissions at universities that have big admission staffs that read each applicant's folder and discuss it individually, and make very nuanced judgments.

It's not about schools that admit by machine, that pay very cursory attention to each application, or about schools that have high drop-out rates. It's just not about that part of the world nearly as much. So the model isn't applicable to most public universities.

Wouldn't you think that their arguments could just as easily apply to universities like California or Texas?

As you read the book, and you hear them speak, really what they're talking about is a model of folder reading admissions. They're saying: "This is how a university should decide who to let in. They should take the applicant's folder, which has a whole bunch of information in it, including as essay, including recommendations, transcripts, test scores. They should consider it as a whole. They should try to build a picture of the applicant. They should talk with each other about it, and they should make a nuanced judgment about whom to let in, and whom not to let in." And by the way, they can consider racial diversity as a plus factor in making that decision.

There just aren't that many universities in the United States that are set up to operate that way. Berkeley is sort of setting itself up to operate that way. University of Texas is not set up to operate that way. And it will be a long time before it is. And most public universities aren't set up to operate that way. So their model is a little bit narrow.

If Bok and Bowen find that a kid with an SAT score that's even three hundred points less than another kid fares well at an Ivy League school, shouldn't the same apply at Cal or UCLA?

There are a couple of points that are tricky here. The strongest argument of the opponents of affirmative action is simply that race should be impermissible in any decision. Race is a uniquely offensive factor for public agencies to consider in making decisions. And they should never be allowed to consider it for any reason.

Bok and Bowen are making a practical argument, and so they don't really answer that question. That is a philosophical question which is part of the coming Supreme Court case. They also don't really say, when you read the fine print, and the charts and so on, that 300-point gaps in SAT scores are immaterial to how kids are going to do in school.

Because if they said that, then they would have to say, "Well, let's not have SATs." And they actually argue for, you know, putting the SATs as part of the information in the folder.

They're saying instead, "It's predictive. It's useful. But it's not dispositive and shouldn't be dispositive. And that with enough information and expertise, you can make a kind of nuanced judgment about a person."

So the reason it's not perfectly applicable to a school like Berkeley, or a school like Texas, is you can't say, "I take away from The Shape of the River that we can just ignore SAT scores from now on. We can just throw them out, or even not even require them, and still have a kind of cursory admissions procedure, and it won't matter. You won't have any of these problems if people with low SAT scores are under-performing academically, because Bok and Bowen have shown that such things don't matter."

They haven't shown that. They've shown that really careful, well-run affirmative action systems work. And by the way, Berkeley had that before Prop 209. Berkeley was a real model of how to do affirmative action right. They didn't have any of these sort of disastrously high minority drop-out, and flunk-out rates, or anything like that. They were doing it quite well. It was a success.

Bok and Bowen say with a ban on affirmative action you're telegraphing to various races--you don't have a chance at these universities. And you're also ensuring that certain students won't go to school with students of color.

The worst argument of the opponents of affirmative action, and the one that Bok and Bowen are best at blowing out of the water, is this kind of argument out of false concern, that it is only for the good of the minority students, you know? There's a lot of kind of crocodile tear shedding going on around affirmative action.

"It breaks our heart to see these poor, minority kids being kind of tormented for the sake of white, liberal consciences, by being put where they really can't compete academically, et cetera. And it's only to help them that we want to abolish affirmative action." Well, that's ridiculous. That's not the real motive. Bok and Bowen just hit that one right out of the park. So they're very good on that point.

The other thing about the opponents of affirmative action is it comes back to this idea of what is meritocracy, and what is merit, and what is this system?

It's a system that everybody lives in now, and you just take for granted. It's always existed. It's like the air, it's like the grass, it's like the flowers. It's just part of the natural world. Well, it's not. It's a thing that was built and constructed by particular people for particular reasons. They were idealistic people but they had ideas. Some things won out over other things. But it is not the only possible meritocracy. It's a highly particularized kind of meritocracy.

Now, the people who are most against affirmative action tend to think, you know, this meritocracy is the only possible meritocracy. You know, so if you don't have this kind of meritocracy, and let the chips fall where they may, don't adjust the results of the test scores at all, then, you know, madness is the result. You can't have any system that rewards talent. You can't have any system that is fair. It's this idea that you have to have this particular system that we have, which is assumed to be a kind of natural thing made by God or something, or total chaos, a totally unfair system.

Affirmative action, by the way, is not a threat to this system of meritocracy. The same folks who brought you the American meritocracy are the folks who brought you affirmative action. And affirmative action was built into the system later to correct flaws of the system. But it was supposed to be an integral part of the same system. It's not the opposite of meritocracy. It's a part of this kind of strange meritocratic apparatus we have. It's a patch on the meritocracy to make it run better.

According to people like John Yoo, a professor at UC Berkeley Boalt Law School, the standards were lowered during the past 20 years because of affirmative action.

The standards of 20 years ago were actually much lower than the standards of the affirmative action era. Berkeley's graduation rate--I believe this is still true--has gone up every single year, year by year. In the height of affirmative action it was still going up, the overall graduation rate of Berkeley was still going up every year, including the white graduation rate.

The base line is in a different place from where some critics of affirmative action think it was. And affirmative action does not mean a throwing out of all standards. It means an adjusting of whom you let in. So it's really exaggerated and wrong to say that if you have affirmative action, it means you have abandoned all standards. I mean just, as the Thernstroms point out, even under affirmative action, admissions is fiercely meritocratic for minorities. There's an elaborate selection system for minorities trying to get the best minorities under an affirmative action system that they disagree with. So the idea that all standards are being thrown out is ridiculous.

Can you talk about an inherent tension between meritocracy and the civil rights movement?

In the second half of the twentieth century, you had two big social movements going on in this country. One was the drive to establish mass higher education, elaborately tracked, with standardized tests for everybody feeding into that. And that that would be the kind of personnel system or opportunity system of the country. That's how people got where they were going. The idea was--to make this society better.

The other is to have more opportunity for minorities, particularly African-Americans. Those two goal are in fairly direct contradiction with each other. Because the more you make test scores matter, the more you bring to the fore the historic and still existing, although smaller, racial gap in test scores. So, race inevitably becomes an issue in the operation of a meritocracy.

There's a fundamental problem at the heart of the American meritocracy. And this is what it is. The meritocracy arrived in a great cloud of rhetoric about creating a perfect classless, democratic society with opportunity for all as the main principle. The way the system works is you distribute opportunity on the basis of test scores and educational performance. When you decide to do that you run right smack into the test score gap. And you end up providing a little bit less opportunity and classlessness and democracy for, on average, African-Americans, who tend to get lower test scores.

Let's talk about the Supreme Court decisions.

The landmark Supreme Court decisions of the 1950's and 60's were almost all unanimous decisions. Starting with the Brown v. Board of Education. And this wasn't an accident. It was important to the Supreme Court to create unanimous decisions so that the public would obey the ruling--to create a sense of this is a really strong position.

Now, you go to the Bakke case. The Bakke case is the least clarion call-like Supreme Court decision imaginable. Let's look at that case, where the decisions were sharply divided. It's five to four one way on one of the two issues and five to four the other way on the other of the two issues. So, it's an incredibly thinly sliced decision. And furthermore, although I don't think they realized this, it's probably one of the most widely violated Supreme Court decisions there is. And proposes a standard that just can't be followed by most universities in America.

So, not only is it really complicated and hard to explain to people, but it is a split decision and also a virtually unenforceable decision. It's a very bad case to have this whole business rest on.

Terry Pell from the CIR said that the University of Michigan violated Bakke very clearly. Are you familiar with all of this?

The Bakke standard is really hard to follow unless you're Harvard. And the wording in the decision came from the Harvard amicus brief. It's all about using race as a factor to achieve diversity in no specifiable way. Well, state universities don't have these big admissions officers with people reading folders and discussing and debating that--and in coming to decisions in kind of subtle, indefinable ways. They have tons of applications flowing in and they like to work by numbers. They divide the applications into piles. They assign numbers to things. They work much more statistically.

So, what Bakke says is, you can consider race, but you can't consider race in any explicit way. It's very hard to follow. So it just invites universities, especially without lavishly funded admissions offices to violate the ruling. And they have.

What about Thernstrom's notion that if blacks and Latinos don't get to go Cal or UCLA, they're going to wind up at Riverside for example?

We're living in a system that is made explicitly to create very large differences in your life outcome depending on where you went to school. And that's the system we live in. That's the American meritocracy. It was set up to do that. A big theme in The Shape of the River is how much better life goes for you if you go to Harvard or one of their elite schools, than if you go to State U.

And, you know, the people who want to go to UC Berkeley instead of UC Riverside, they're not crazy. They have perfectly good reasons to want to go there, because it is a much better school, and it puts you in the way of more opportunity. The UC did not set itself up to make all the UC campuses functionally equal. Or to make UC and Cal State functionally equal. It's a tracked system. And so, it's quite natural for people want to be on the best track.

The cascading argument can be made in reverse and you know, a few white kids were cascaded themselves because of affirmative action. Some white kids--not that many, a handful--were getting displaced from places like Berkeley, sent a little bit down the line to go to another school, because of affirmative action. And look at the outrage that caused.

What do you think of the suit by the seven kids against UC Berkeley?

You know, what we're having here is the kind of shoot-out at the meritocracy corral. Because, a system was put in place fifty years ago that is really enormously consequential for the way the country lives. In other words, when we wrote the Constitution, we had a Constitutional Convention. We debated everything publicly. And then we voted on it, state by state.

That didn't happen when we set up the American meritocracy. All of these questions have never been really decided by the public--is it okay to distribute a valuable public resource on the basis of test scores? Why are we creating an educationally derived elite? What are these people supposed to do with their lives? Do they owe anything to the society? Who are they supposed to be.

I mean, these are legitimate questions that should be debated. So, in that sense, I think Prop 209 and this lawsuit are both healthy developments. Because it kind of gets a discussion going that should have taken place fifty years ago.

What about the notion you don't have to make a hard choice between diversity and affirmative action, especially with flagship campuses?

I don't really buy that. I mean, the problem is the system has been set up to put enormous emphasis on admission to elite universities and professional schools. That's the glittering prize, you know. There are a finite number of places in these schools. If the system had been set up to sort of let everybody into university who knows a certain amount of stuff, then it wouldn't be a zero sum game. But, it is set up precisely to be a zero sum. That's why Conant set it up. He wanted to take a finite number of places in the elite, kick out the people who had them and bring in new people who had them.

So, you know, unfortunately, this is a tough issue, like a lot of issues. It's not an easy issue. If you eliminate all affirmative action, you're going to have strikingly whiter kind of meritocratic mandarin elite. You just will. And it matters, because the system exists.

What about outreach programs?

Outreach programs are not new and they were not invented in response to Prop 209. Berkeley already had a quite elaborate outreach program. And also, very important in all this, an excellent program to help minority kids once they got to the campus, if they weren't well-prepared for the academic work.

Outreach doesn't obviate the problem, because there is still a fixed number of slots in the school. And there's two things about out reach. First of all, any outreach program that's for minority kids is illegal under Prop 209. You can't take race into account. You can't have programs to help minority kids, because that is illegal. It's exactly what Prop 209 made illegal. You can't do it.

Secondly, you still have to face the question. You have the outreach program. You find the kid. You get him to apply to Berkeley. He's black. He's from the ghetto. And he has lower SAT scores than the white kid from the suburbs. You're still violating Prop 209. You're still sort of practicing affirmative action, if you let in the kid from the outreach program over the kid with higher score from the suburbs. You just are. There's no way around the dilemma because it's all about setting aside test scores for social engineering type reasons, to distribute a finite number of places.

A lot of times in the public today what you get is an argument between the good meritocracy and bad affirmative action...

Meritocracy and affirmative action are part of the same system. They were invented by the same people more or less. And the purpose of them is to create or engineer through testing and the higher education system an elite to sit atop the society. Meritocracy, what we call meritocracy, is a sort of a particular system of picking people for that elite on one set of abilities. Affirmative action is trying to twist the dials a bit to get more minority representation into the meritocracy--the meritocratic elite.

So they're not opposites at all. They're sort of one system. And then the second system piggy backing on top of this first.

Conant believed too many people were going to college in the 1930's. And consistently advocated cutting the number of people who went to college. So this system was not started by people who wanted to very broadly expand educational opportunity. It was started by people who wanted to create an educationally derived elite. That's the sort of kernel assumption in the system.

No, this fight over affirmative action tends to be a fight between people who have bought into that assumption. The Shape of the River does not really question the premise that there should be a kind of anointed group who go to highly selective schools and are put on the track to something better than everybody else. It just says you should use affirmative action in choosing those people. But, you should still have the elite. The opponents of affirmative action say, don't use affirmative action. But, they, too, buy into the idea that's how you should have this kind of chosen elite in this country.

The really radical position would be to say, 'You know what? We shouldn't have an educationally derived elite. That's not a good idea.' When John Adams got the letter from Jefferson saying this country should have a natural aristocracy. He wrote back and said, no, no, no, that's a bad idea. Because, the point is not that it's a natural aristocracy, but that it's an aristocracy. This is a democracy. It's not supposed to have an aristocracy.

So, as long as you are wedded to the idea, I really think after many years with this subject that the idea of having a liberal, almost radically democratic and classless society built around the idea of selecting an elite at an early age to go to fancy colleges is just unworkable. This system just does not, in and of itself, promote democracy. Democracy is sort of a separate good that should be promoted in different ways.

It seems that our society has almost wholeheartedly embraced the SAT.

The test has been, you know, fetishized. This whole culture and frenzy and mythology has been built around SATs. Tests, in general, SATs, in particular, and everybody seems to believe that it's a measure of how smart you are or your innate worth or something.

I mean, the level of obsession over these tests is way out of proportion to what they actually measure. And ETS, the maker of test, they don't actively encourage the obsession, but they don't actively discourage it either. Because they do sort of profit from it. I mean, every time somebody takes an SAT, it's money to the ETS and the College Board.

But there is something definitely weird about the psychological importance these tests have in America versus what they actually measure. And indeed, what difference do they make? Because, there's two thousand colleges in the United States, and 1,950 of them are pretty much unselective. So, the SAT is a ticket to a few places.

Do you think that Conant's vision or Henry Chauncey's vision has been corrupted or perverted? Or do you think it has been fulfilled?

I think if Conant were alive, and you asked what he would say. He would say, the system works in a certain way very, very well. What it does very, very well is produce highly trained professionals who are the best in the world. America has really good professors. It has really good doctors. It has really good scientists. It's very important to Conant to create a group of highly skilled technicians at the top of the society. That would be, I think, the thing he was proudest of.

I think there's no way he could look at America today and say, my dreams of a classless society have been--have been fulfilled. I think what would disappoint him is that the system turned out to be, you know, more friendly to the creation and preservation of inherited privilege than he dreamed. And much less friendly to the kind of, you know, big government, liberal society that he wanted to create.

How has test prep changed over the years?

When I was growing up in Louisiana, I was very vaguely aware of test prep, and nobody I knew took test prep. Nobody really worried that much about this whole process. In the world I'm in now on the East Coast, test prep is one of the Stations of the Cross for the upper-middle class of America. And it seems like everybody takes test prep. And everybody has a sort of testing awareness. Even shockingly little kids. There just is this culture of obsession about the SATs that is creepy and unhealthy. It really distorts education because it leads to a very instrumental view of education, that education is about what scores you get on these tests. And it kind of undervalues things like going off and reading a book.

Towns, particularly suburban towns, go insane over their average test scores. Not just SATs but other tests too. I live in a town where the good news is, everybody goes to public school, and the bad news, if it is bad news, is test scores are just supremely important. And the reason they're important is because of real estate values.

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