HBS1908, Wikimedia Commons
Aerial of the Harvard Business School campus
WASHINGTON — During World War I, chemist James Conant was deeply involved in research on what was considered the worst imaginable weapon: poison gas. During World War II, as a science adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, Conant was so central to the development of the atomic bomb that he was at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. His most disruptive act, however, may have come in the interim when, as Harvard’s president, he helped put the university, and the nation, on the path toward a meritocracy by advocating adoption of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
As his granddaughter Jennet Conant explains in her new biography, “Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist,” the Harvard at which he, from a middle-class Dorchester family, matriculated in 1910 was a place of insufferable snobbery and mediocrity, devoted to passing on the inherited privileges of the families whose boys were funneled there from prestigious prep schools. To the consternation of Boston’s Brahmins, Conant became Harvard’s president in 1933 at age 40, hoping that standardized tests for admissions would mitigate the large degree to which enrollments at elite institutions reflected the transmission of family advantages. Ninety-two years after the SAT was first offered in 1926, it seems to have only slightly modified the advantages transmitted.
The Brookings Institution’s Richard V. Reeves, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review, says that colleges and universities, partly because of the complexity of the admission process, are “perpetuating class divisions across generations” as America develops what The Economist calls a “hereditary meritocracy.” It is,…