For raw sociological data about America's upwardly mobile strivers, it's hard to beat the Sunday New York Times section called "Sunday Styles." That's where they run those wonderful wedding announcements which specify that the bridegroom's mother, an anesthesiologist, practices under her maiden name.
Last Sunday's edition contained an especially telling article, headlined: "Reading, Writing, Social Climbing." It was about how ambitious New York parents are using their children's private schools not simply to accumulate status tokens for their kids but to make social and business connections for themselves. The article cited a growing tendency among parents to try to lobby their children into the classes that have kids with famous names.
This is the time of year to appreciate anew the tyranny of America's "meritocratic" class system. The madness long ago spread from college admissions to every tier of education. In these October weeks, desperate parents are pushing their toddlers to get into the right nursery school -- so they can get into the right private school, then the right college, then the right law, medical or business school.
It would be easy to ridicule these parents and their blind ambition. But the sad truth is, their striving and status anxiety have a rational basis. In the meritocratic order we have created, it really does matter which college you go to -- and thus, inescapably, which nursery school validates your child in the opening round of this competition. The rewards for success in this game run to the many millions of dollars, parents know, and the penalty for failure is equally heavy.
The specter of the meritocracy has finally found its chronicler, in Nicholas Lemann. Among the many virtues of his new book, "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy," is that he helps us see how a system that began after World War II as an effort to liberate America from its old class system has become, in his words, "a national obsession" -- and a new form of bondage, even for those who succeed.
"Here is what America looks like today," writes Lemann. "A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. The line gets brighter all the time. . . . As people plan their lives and their children's lives, higher education is the main focus of their aspirations (and the possibility of getting into the elite end of higher education is the focus of their very dearest aspirations)."
Lemann puts names and faces to this story -- the most interesting among them the two men who spawned the meritocratic revolt during the 1940s: James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, founder of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT and other tests that are the admission tickets to wealth and power in America.
Conant and Chauncey wanted to destroy what Lemann calls the "Episcopacy," a hereditary ruling class in which "all the good places were reserved for members of a certain group -- the all-male, Eastern, high-Protestant, privately educated group." In place of this narrow elite, they wanted to create a democratic elite that Conant, quoting Thomas Jefferson, described as "a natural aristocracy . . . [of] virtue and talents." National tests, scientifically devised and administered, would select this natural aristocracy.
The problem, as Lemann says, is that the ensuing obsession with testing measured chiefly one virtue -- the ability to take standardized tests. Lemann states the truth that haunts parents at this time of year, which is that these tests "don't find wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination -- let alone moral worth."
Yet the tests remain the coin of our realm, and other social policies -- such as affirmative action -- are bent around them. These contortions end up infuriating both those who receive special breaks and those who don't; Lemann makes us see that underlying our bitter affirmative action debate is our needless obsession with testing.
Education may be the biggest political issue in the country this year. Parents understand that the technology revolution is making the rewards for educational success even greater -- which only increases their desperation to help their children succeed. Politicians are responding by calling for tougher standards, national norms -- in other words, even more tests!
The inner message of Lemann's book is that unless we break with the failed vision of testing as a pathway to fairness, these new educational reforms may only make things worse. They'll create new industries to help coach teachers and students to pass the next rounds of "the big test."
As an alternative, Lemann proposes something startlingly simple: A more open system, which encourages people to go to college and reduces the special benefits of elite education.
"The chief aim of school," he writes, "should be not to sort out but to teach as many people as possible as well as possible, equipping them for both work and citizenship." In that version of America, we'll all be strivers together.