The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

by Nicholas Lemann
New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999

Book review by Ralph H. Abraham (

These days there is a big hoopla over the sorry state of education in the USA, and many people support the Big Test (the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT) as a cure. Not Nicholas Lemann, journalist and student of the American Meritocracy. He correctly sees the crisis of our schools as a bifurcation in a complex dynamical system.

In a clever analysis, Lemann describes American culture as a complex dynamical system with three layers. At the top, in the myth layer, we have such impressive ideas as democracy and meritocracy. Just below, we have the institutions layer, with structures like tax laws, public education, and the Big Test, the SAT. And at the bottom we have the layer of daily life, with its economic inequalities, affirmative action programs, social insecurities, crime waves, disease epidemics, and so on.

Lemann's virtue is his big picture, in which these layers are linked up into a sort of social hypercycle. The myth of meritocracy -- equal opportunity for all citizens without prejudice of race, family background -- materializes one layer down as the SAT, a supposed measure of merit. This results, down another layer, as racist bias in the opportunity and reward system, hence the widening gap between haves and have-nots, gangs, drugs, arms, and the monstrous penal industry.

In short: meritocracy, implemented by a flawed test of merit, leads to a large bias in the opportunity and reward system. Affirmative action is a bandaid applied to this deadly wound, a patch which exists in conflict with the meritocratic ideal. The myth is thus weakened, so the Big Test is strengthened, and bias and gap increased. This is a typical example of the Richardsonian cycle of schismogenesis, as Gregory Bateson called it, much like an arms race.

A large part of the book is devoted to a journalistic story of the political battle over Prop 209 in California, in which affirmative action was struck down by a narrow margin.

This book is a must read for those interested in complex dynamics applied to social problems on a large scale.

Revised by Ralph Abraham, 24 Feb 2000