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Blame the SAT for Donald Trump

What if a test meant to open up universities instead divided America into rival classes?

In 1960, four labor economists with a grant from the Ford Foundation, peering into the future of what they called “industrialism,” predicted that modern economies would be transformed by education:

Out of education come several results. Education is intended to reduce the scarcity of skilled persons and this after a time reduces the wage and salary differentials they receive; it also pulls people out of the least skilled and most disagreeable occupations and raises wage levels there.

And, a few paragraphs further along in the economists’ book, “Industrialism and Industrial Man”:

Education brings in its wake a new economic equality and a consequent new equality of political outlook; the universal industrial mass. This in turn, along with many other developments, helps bring consensus to society.

Yeah, things didn’t really work out that way. The expansion of education has proceeded apace in the U.S. -- Americans today are far more likely to have a high school or college degree than the Americans of 1960 -- yet economic inequality has grown and societal consensus has withered.

Predictions that don’t work out are, of course, a dime a dozen, but this one piqued my interest because the lead author of “Industrialism and Industrial Man” was Clark Kerr. Kerr was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley from 1952 to 1958, and president of the University of California system from 1958 to 1967. He is known for his quip that a university administrator’s job boils down to “providing parking for faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.” He was also, as Nicholas Lemann tells it in his 1999 book “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” a key architect of the modern American approach to identifying and promoting the talented. 1

The “big test” is what was once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or now just the SAT. I recently bought Lemann’s book for my son, a high school senior in the midst of the college admissions process, but I am the one who has ended up reading it -- mainly because it’s great, but also because the meritocracy does seem like an important topic these days. 2

I don’t want to overdo its implications for last week’s election: Hillary Clinton appears to have handily won the popular vote, exit polls indicated that Donald Trump’s voters were more affluent than Clinton’s, and Trump is himself a rich guy with an Ivy League degree. But Trump does not talk or act much like an Ivy Leaguer, and I do think there’s something to the argument, made forcefully in the Harvard Business Review last week by law professor Joan C. Williams, that working-class resentment of educated professionals has become a major force in American politics.

How do we select our educated professionals? Well, as Lemann makes clear in his book, the SAT has played a crucial role. 3

At the private universities of the East Coast, the test was used after World War II to broaden the applicant base and diversify the student body. In the pre-SAT era, colleges such as Harvard and Yale existed mainly to perpetuate a Protestant ruling elite, and relied on a short list of prep schools to funnel students to them. (Of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 21 classmates at the elite Groton School, for example, 19 joined him at Harvard.) With the SAT, admissions officers at top colleges could reach out to public high schools confident that they had the means to separate wheat from chaff.

At top public universities such as the University of California, meanwhile, the SAT allowed administrators to maintain and even raise quality standards during vast expansions. It was a sorting mechanism designed to make society and the economy run more efficiently.

Even back then, there were worries. Art Howe, the admissions dean who cautiously initiated Yale’s opening-up in the mid-1960s, confessed to the New Yorker that:

Sometimes I lie awake nights worrying about whether we’ve been kidding ourselves into taking a lot of brainy kids who are too egocentric ever to contribute much to society. Or have we been taking a lot of twirps who have read the how-to-get-into-college books, listened to their counselors, and learned to take tests and to give the right answers to interviewers -- a bunch of conformists who will keep right on doing the smart thing for themselves?

Given that the alternative appeared to be going back to admitting mainly rich prep school kids, such concerns didn’t get much traction. As Kerr put it in a lecture at Harvard in 1963:

The great university is of necessity elitist -- the elite of merit -- but it operates in an environment dedicated to an egalitarian philosophy. How may the contribution of the elite be made clear to the egalitarians, and how may an aristocracy of intellect justify itself to all men?

Aldous Huxley had an answer of sorts in “Brave New World,” his depiction of a dystopian society divided between a ruling Alpha elite and an assortment of Betas, Gammas, Deltas and so on. He described a roomful of sleeping Beta children with a recorded voice droning from their pillows:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid.

So that’s probably not the most attractive option. What is? I’ve been puzzling over this meritocracy problem for a while now, and I don’t have any brilliant answers. But it does seem like we’d be better off if we dispensed with the notion that a “meritocracy” or “aristocracy of the intellect” is really something to strive for. Yes, it’s good to have competent people in important jobs! But admitting only one style of competence, or assuming that skill at one narrow activity (taking standardized tests, for example) implies competence in other areas, seems like a sure-fire way of sorting society into classes of people who neither understand nor trust one another.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Apart from the quotes from “Industrialism and Industrial Man,” which I got directly from the source, all the historical quotes and facts in this column are from Lemann’s book, which I recommend highly.

  2. Oh, and also because my son has been too busy with college applications to read it.

  3. In recent years the rival ACT (which at some point stood for American College Testing but doesn’t seem to stand for anything now) has actually surpassed the SAT as the leading college entrance exam. But the SAT came first, and played a much bigger role historically.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at

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