States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order

By Sheila Jasanoff | Go to book overview

10

The science of merit and the merit of science

Mental order and social order in early twentieth-century France and America 1

John Carson

On 16 February 2001, Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California, announced that he was proposing to abolish the SAT/ACT requirement for applicants seeking admission to any school in the university system. Atkinson justified his decision, the culmination of decades of controversy surrounding college aptitude tests and their role in American society, on the grounds that such tests were “not compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined and opportunities distributed” (Schemo 2001). Atkinson's proposal marked a decisive shift in the understanding of the role of aptitude/intelligence tests in the American educational system. From their development at the turn of the century up to the 1960s, mental tests were promoted precisely as a means of defining merit scientifically and thereby ensuring that all who took them would be treated equally. To their advocates, testing was an invaluable agent of reform, able to move the distribution of opportunities away from the privileges of birth or money or power. It could produce, they believed, a system that preserved equality by providing objectivity and accountability while still allowing for the extraordinary heterogeneity of the locally administered system of US primary and secondary education (Lemann 1999). Instruments such as the SAT, in their eyes, promised to help negotiate an issue of fundamental importance to American democracy in the twentieth century: how to distribute coveted and limited social goods such as educational opportunities in ways that would appear fair and equal even to those least successful in garnering rewards from the system. As Atkinson suggested, increasing public skepticism about the ability of intelligence tests to fulfill this function - to make the decisionmaking processes seem legitimate and fair by being based solely on merit - placed the tests in a precarious position vis-à-vis their continued utility for questions of college admissions.

This problem of how to satisfy demands for both equality and merit within a democratic political culture, and specifically the recourse to scientific objects and instruments and methods of quantification/classification to manage the tension between them, forms the subject of this essay. Adopting a co-productionist perspective, I will emphasize that “the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it”, as Sheila Jasanoff states in Chapter 1. I suggest that technologies of

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