Winning and Whining, or How to Get Your Just Deserts in America

By Michael KammenMarch 23, 2013

Merit by Joseph F. Kett

THE PHRASE "AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM" has a long, convoluted, and too often tortured track record. The Founding Fathers surely believed in it. Immigrants assumed it even before they got here. They believed they were coming to the land of opportunity, wealth, equality, and a fair field — so they had heard. Visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord James Bryce built extensive tomes during the mid- and later 19th century upon the idea of a singular society and nation. Two Trollopes, a prolific Harriet Martineau, and one Oscar Wilde insisted upon it. Charles Dickens despairingly reveled in it and wrote Martin Chuzzlewit to chasten it with biting wit and big sales.

Today conservative politicians, especially Tea Party favorites, fear that Lady Liberty’s chastity will be forever sullied if our health care system, for example, becomes too much like those in Western Europe — you know, regressive places like Sweden, Germany, and France, where health care is excellent and affordable. Heaven forfend. (See Lexington, “When not in Rome,” The Economist, March 9, 2013, p. 34.)
Notions of American exceptionalism once meant — to the Puritans, Founders, Evangelicals, and fuzzy Wilsonians — that the United States had a covenanted relationship with God whereby they were a chosen people, morally superior to others and blessed with a Manifest Destiny to right the wrongs of the world, thereby saving others even as they saved themselves. Roughly a generation ago, however, came the scholarly blowback. Historians, political scientists, and others in the social science academy looked at the comparative history of industrialization, social mobility and stratification, as well as other criteria, and announced that America was hardly unique — just different in timing — merely destined to be ad hoc saviors and feel superior in the bargain, perhaps.
Amidst the ensuing debate over specialness and difference versus sameness and therefore blandness, basic words and ways of thinking like contrast and compare, got lost. Now we have at hand a new and very smart, learned, and lucid book about the history of merit in this country. The book does not set out to undermine naysayer objections against American distinctiveness; it just happens because so many stark contrasts with the Old World tick and tock with the regularity of a metronome, primarily involving Britain, France, and Germany. Joseph F. Kett, James Madison Professor of History at the University of Virginia, puts it this way in his epilogue:

No nation has matched or even approached the American penchant for devising tests for a multitude of aptitudes, abilities, and personality traits. Mental or psychological tests appealed to Americans because these tests promised to reveal an individual’s inner qualities that might otherwise be disguised by social appearances. In a nation whose values were antithetical to assuming that a citizen’s social trajectory was fixed by his birthright, the promise of mental tests to forecast destinies was irresistible.

In sum, the story of American values vaults well beyond republican government, doing well, and gaining Virtue (classical sense) as practicing virtuosos. As Kett explicates, the story can be understood by looking at the Revolutionaries (considered even by antifederalists as “Men of Merit”); at public life in the early republic; at competition in 19th-century colleges; at the evolution of primary and secondary education; at institutionalizing merit by means of mental testing; at merit systems in government and the military; and finally, at what Kett calls the crisis of merit during the past half century as American jurists, educators, and populists have struggled to resolve some gnarly relationships between a commitment to equality of opportunity and a well-ripened meritocracy. (The word was concocted in 1957 by a British sociologist.) The tension and necessary accommodations between equal rights and rewarding merit is perhaps the central motif in a book with many melodies.

Kett carefully devotes time and space to defining terms, and in case you didn’t catch the important clarifications, they recur in different contexts. Early on he distinguishes between what he calls essential merit and institutional merit. To oversimplify his assayed argument, essential merit is found in individuals (who often overestimate their own worth) whereas the other kind tends to be defined by institutions, such as schools, the military, bureaucracies, and mental testing. Kett writes:

A group of educators along with kindred spirits in the professions (including the profession of arms), added flesh and muscle to the concept of institutional merit after the Civil War. These individuals shared a deep dissatisfaction with the way in which existing hierarchies in higher education, government, and the professions were constituted, and in response to this dissatisfaction they sought to vest the presumption of merit in institutions rather than individuals.

When the officers of a Connecticut regiment during the American Revolution protested against awarding a lieutenancy to Nathan Hale, a young Yale graduate and future patriot martyr, General George Washington retorted that commissions “should ever be the reward of Merit and not of Age.” That would remain a dominant American assumption for at least a century, qualified this way and that, befouled by the spoils system and corrected by civil service reform before Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon corrupted it, expanding the proportion of political appointees in the federal government by adding super-grades. Tricky business, and trickier to track, which Kett does very well. That’s one reason why anyone involved in public administration or employed at grade level GS-15 in American service needs to read this book.

Describing civic life in the early republic, one of the richest sections of Merit, the author observes that rather than publicly acknowledge their ambition, men “spoke of their character, reputation, merit, and honor, words whose connotations often overlapped but which nevertheless contained subtle differences. Strictly, a character was a visible mark, but in political parlance a man’s public character amounted to the reputation he had acquired for his acts on the public stage.”

Who are some of the key figures in Kett’s narrative? Who gives the story flesh and blood? John and John Quincy Adams (especially the latter’s experiences as an undergraduate at Harvard College in the 1780s, where he kept journals as he would do throughout his long life); Sylvanus Thayer (who introduced the merit system at West Point in 1818, a plan subsequently emulated by American colleges); Horace Mann, head of the Massachusetts Board of Education; Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard (1869-1909); Edward Bellamy, author of the utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1887); Edward L. Thorndike, a distinguished psychologist at Columbia University; and Gordon W. Allport, a personality theorist at Harvard. If these figures emanate disproportionately from Massachusetts, that’s just the way it was. It’s a very smart and seminal state and has produced a spate of innovative figures in American intellectual history.


Above: Sylvanus Thayer

Below: John Quincy Adams

Chapter 5, “The Scientific Measurement of Merit,” is pivotal and carries us well into the 20th century. Tests to measure individual promise and aptitude emerged and got refined along with national organizations to implement them and distribute results. Gradations on the report card got refined as well, later the IQ test and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the Strong Vocational Blank, the Coudert Preference Test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and so forth. Off we went, categorizing job skills and sifting children into tracks.

Chapter 6, “The ‘Presumption of Merit’: Institutionalizing Merit” is likely to come as a revelation to many readers because it treats the ideal of careers in public service during the first half of the 20th century, which means, especially, the development of job-specific tests for hiring and promotion for diverse vocations; the procedures for “position classification”; massive growth of the federal bureaucracy during the 1930s and ’40s; and the Public Merit System that had its genesis in 1937.

Following a lucid riff on the distinctive pattern of French examinations for the foreign service and for the ministry of finance, Kett provides a stark comparison that is one of his many implicit reflections on where we stand with regard to “American exceptionalism”:

Virtually alone among advanced nations, the United States had never possessed the sort of tiered and articulated system of higher education that in European nations facilitated direct passage from a university to a job in a prestigious civil service or, as in France, a ricochet from the higher civil service to a corporate boardroom. Their tradition of equal rights led most Americans in the 1930s to continue to gag at the thought of a British- or French-style higher civil service.

Early in 1993 President Bill Clinton decided to attack waste in public programs, so he asked Vice President Al Gore to conduct a six-month review of the federal government called the National Performance Review (NPR). The task force produced various studies under the general title of Creating a Government That Works Better & Costs Less — now readily recalled as Reinventing Government. According to Kett, that movement “illustrated how growing distrust of institutions and the professions has led to substituting surveillance of performance for the identification of ability.”

He makes a strong case in chapter 8 (“Merit in Crisis”) that the democratization of views concerning equal opportunity combined with pressure from public opinion, the courts, and unions led to a serious decline in the various merit systems that had emerged during the first half of the 20th century:

The substitution of self-evaluation (the Individual Achievement Record) for tests that at least aimed at objectivity has likely cost the federal government in the form of lost efficiency. [...] The collapse of the Public Merit Project signifies more than a bureaucratic loss of efficiency. It reminds us of the competing projects that the federal government has taken on, including the quest for egalitarian outcomes in a stratified society.

In Kett’s opinion, which some might consider elitist, the result is significant erosion of commitment to the notion that people can be assessed by “standards independent of their personal experience.” One outcome: it may or may not be tough getting hired for public sector jobs, but it is extremely difficult to fire the less able or incompetent.

What’s the upshot?  A great deal of whining as well as winning.  John Quincy Adams wanted to attain the highest honor, valedictorian, at his Harvard College commencement in 1787, but had to settle for second place, salutatorian, and that rankled him for 35 years.  The same sort of whining occurred in the 19th century when written exams replaced oral recitation for marks.  Ditto when IQ and similar achievement tests were introduced, and later tracking by perceived abilities.  Ditto when civil service rankings were adjusted for political reasons, and ditto yet again when barriers were lowered in the name of equal opportunity.  One person’s achievement seems to diminish someone else, and one group’s victory is viewed as another’s loss. Life is like that, but at least in a republic that has become more democratic because there is flexibility. The bar may be set too high or too low, but it can be moved.

Joseph Kett manages to control an unwieldy mass of material and hammer into coherence clumps of seemingly random episodes, ideas, and data. They emerge as markers and categories of change over time. In the process items that we might have overlooked emerge with clarity. Such as? Who would have perceived that Alexander Hamilton served as George Washington’s Karl Rove during the 1790s? Kett doesn’t say that in so many words, but there it is. When and why did college students protest vigorously against having written exams serve as the basis for marks (grades) rather than oral recitations? (1830s and ’40s). When and why did report cards for students begin? (1820s and ’30s as a way to measure long-term attainment and growth rather than by daily competition. (That was Thayer’s influence.) When did credit-rating agencies emerge in America? (1840s so that orders of merit would be based on relative wealth, especially on the wealth of self-made men.) When and why did words like “drop out,” “dead end job,” “primary” and “secondary” schools come into use? Read the book.

By the 1960s Americans began to debate the recently coined term “meritocracy” because such a conceptual system seemed incompatible with democracy. The very notion was prejudicial to the economically and culturally disadvantaged. As I write this, the issue is being discussed, pro and con, in venues like The Economist (“Repairing the rungs on the ladder,” Feb. 9, 2013) and targeted by admissions committees, promotion review boards, and public schools. Merit is must reading for psychologists, educators, guidance counselors, persons who control promotions in the military, Girl and Boy Scout leaders, and anyone curious about how our values have changed over time.


LARB Contributor

Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).

He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.


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