Nicholas Lemann

Books Amanda Urban, +1 212 556 5600 Email Amanda Urban

The Big Test

book | Non-Fiction | 1999
US & Canada → Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc

The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

A major work of social history that asks profound moral and political questions about what is right for American society.

This brilliant book shows us for the first time the ideas, the people, and the politics behind a fifty-year-old utopian social experiment that changed modern America.

The experiment-launched by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the brand-new Educational Testing Service (ETS)-was to use the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students in order to create a new democratic elite that would lead postwar America to progress, strength, and prosperity. No writer before Nicholas Lemann has gained access to the archives of the all-powerful ETS, and none has understood the significance of this extraordinary drama. But now, in a remarkable synthesis of vibrant storytelling, vivid portraiture, and thematic analysis, he reveals this secret history.

Predictably, the utopian experiment did not turn out as planned. It created a new elite, but it generated conflict and tension, and American society's best-educated, most privileged people are now leaders with no followers.

Lemann shows that this American meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly. He concludes with his own keen assessment of what the future may hold.


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The real costs of this situation are now clear; anyone concerned about it should heed this book.

Publishers Weekly
Full Review

This is an important contribution to American sociology by a lay journalist.

Library Journal
Full Review

A fascinating subject, fascinatingly studied.

Full Review

Amanda Urban
+1 212 556 5600
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Karolina Sutton
+44 (0)20 7393 4428
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Translation Rights
Helen Manders
+44 (0)20 7393 4425
Email Helen Manders