The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 5

Conant thought that professors selected on merit ought to be teaching students selected the same way. One of his first acts as president was to assign two of his deans, William Bender and Henry Chauncey, to examine the newly created Scholastic Aptitude Test. Their favorable report led to Conant’s campaign to introduce standardized testing into both the college and the graduate school admissions processes—a campaign that culminated in the establishment, in 1946, of the Educational Testing Service, with Chauncey at its head. To make the emphasis on aptitude meaning¬ful at Harvard, Conant created a “National Scholarships” program, which provided financial assistance to students outside Harvard’s traditional geographic and socioeconomic regions of recruitment.
Conant was, in short, as Nicholas Lemann has said, one of the founders of the modern American meritocracy. The educational system he helped put into place remains the basis of the educa¬tional system we have today. In its ideal form, students are admitted to college on the basis of aptitude, where they are instructed in an academic specialty by experts who have been appointed on the ba¬sis of scholarly achievement. Successful performance in this arena, determined by grade point averages, commendations from teachers, and further standardized test scores, allows those with ability to proceed to graduate or professional school, where a final round of accreditation takes place. The reward for the student is a profes¬sional career that it is impossible to buy or to be born into. The re¬ward for society is the enhancement in productivity that comes from matching talents more accurately with careers.
We now take the theory of this model virtually for granted. But it has governed the educational and socioeconomic reward system for only a few generations, and creating it involved a profound adjust¬ment of traditional expectations. How profound this adjustment was is reflected in two striking articles Conant published during the war in the Atlantic Monthly: “Education for a Classless Society” (1940) and “Wanted: American Radicals” (1943). In a pure meritoc¬racy, everyone must begin de novo: no one can be allowed an un¬earned head start, and this means, logically, that wealth should not be inheritable—which is, in fact, precisely what Conant believed. He felt, he complained in 1943, the need for a new American radi¬calism, which he defined as a commitment to the ideals of Jeffer¬son, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and which he imagined as a stimulus to social and economic progress. “To prevent the growth of a caste system,” he says, this imagined figure, “the American radical, will be resolute in his demand to confiscate (by constitutional meth¬ods) all property once a generation. He will demand really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and es¬tates. And this point cannot be lightly pushed aside, for it is the ker¬nel of his radical philosophy.” This was a fairly stunning thought to commit to print for the president of an institution heavily depen¬dent on testamentary bequests, and the article actually inspired a brief but unsuccessful coup attempt, soon after it appeared, by members of the Harvard Corporation. Putting the idea in the mouth of a hypothetical “radical” gave Conant enough wiggle room to pla¬cate his trustees; but the idea was clearly his own.
The Second World War was the best thing that could have hap¬pened to the theory of meritocracy, for two reasons. The first was that large-scale social disruption had already taken place through mass conscription; so that there was (as Conant argued) a real-life opportunity to start everyone de novo by seeing to it that the eleven million American soldiers returning from the war were placed on the career ladders suited to each. This opportunity was cashed, in the end, by the GI Bill, which opened higher education to millions of men, and which helped to create the postwar middle class.
But the war was useful because it provided an immediate justifi¬cation for egalitarianism and social mobility. A caste society is dangerous, Conant warned in “Wanted: American Radicals,” in 1943, because a society stratified by class is exactly the kind of society in which communism takes root. This became the theme of all Co- nant’s postwar educational writings, from Education in a Divided World (1948) to Slums and Suburbs (one of the Carnegie studies, published in 1961). “What can words like ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ mean for these young people?” Conant wrote of inner-city children in Slums and Suburbs. “With what kind of zeal and dedication can we expect them to withstand the relent¬less pressures of communism?” Communism here is the license for liberalism.
The picture has one more piece. Equality of opportunity does not, as Conant conceived it, mean equality of result; and when the talented tenth goes off to law school, a gap opens between it and the nine other tenths, who are left behind to become office managers and civil servants and hamburger flippers. This is what is known as the problem of “general education”: in a system designed to track students into the specialties appropriate to each, there must be some common core of learning appropriate to all, or social antag¬onisms will simply get reproduced in every generation. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Conant convened a committee of twelve Harvard professors (which included I. A. Richards, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and George Wald) to address this issue. They la¬bored for two years, and the book they produced, General Education in a Free Society (1945), commonly known as the Red Book, is one of the landmark documents in the general education movement. It’s not a landmark because Conant’s committee had anything espe¬cially original to say: “seldom has such an effort,” as one educational historian has put it, “been devoted to reinventing the wheel.” The Harvard report is a landmark because it is the Harvard report, and it therefore constituted an influential endorsement of a solution that had already been adopted elsewhere, notably at the University of Chicago and Columbia.

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