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  • The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750–1940
  • Amy Slaton (bio)
The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750–1940. By John Carson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. 418. $39.50.

John Carson’s meticulous and engaging book describes the “edifice of merit” in which all readers of Technology and Culture perforce live today: the 250-year-old accretion of social relations and political ideologies built around Western ideas regarding human intellectual capacity. The Measure of Merit offers a history of what counted as intelligence in France and the United States from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, including a fluctuating set of personal traits believed to be related to intellect, such as virtue, self-discipline, and race or gender. The book follows dozens of celebrated and lesser-known French and American intellectuals through their thinking about thinking: Is human cognition a unitary phenomenon, or is it made up of many discrete mental processes? Is it subordinate to one’s moral, or psychological, makeup? Related to brain size? Throughout, of course, the “nature/nurture” question remains central: Are individuals’ manifest intellectual abilities the result of inborn talents, social conditions, or some combination of the two?

That debate has always had huge policy repercussions, as observers have asked what responsibility a republic, or for that matter a single public [End Page 209] school classroom, might bear for the mental attainments or deficits of its constituents. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the marquis de Condorcet, and Thomas Jefferson through Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, Robert Yerkes, and Alfred Binet, Carson provides a timeline of tremendous specificity, tracking both his subjects’ original doctrine and audience reactions to those ideas over time. A host of less prominent figures from eighteenth-century government functionaries to nineteenth-century college presidents to twentieth-century military psychologists demonstrate how intellectual discourse regarding talent and competence has translated into institutional practice. Carson offers a narrative with undeniable resonance for scholars and educators today, providing immensely useful histories of the cultural institutions through which many of us have gained, or been denied, our own opportunities in life.

In his careful linkages of philosophical and policy developments, Carson shows how educational, military, and industrial sectors in both France and the United States provided the infrastructure by which elites brought ideas of merit to bear on citizens’ life experiences. Notably, standardized assessments of intelligence in each of those realms are shown here to have had major and varied civil consequences. We see how the ostensible objectivity of intelligence testing has historically cut both ways, displacing elites and justifying universal education in some settings but helping polities to deny education to marginalized citizens in others. Intelligence, when treated as something that could be measured, has often reified the social privileges of those doing the measuring. Meritocratic ideals, for some time understood by sociologists of education to be a double-edged political sword, are just beginning to attract the attention of historians of scientific or technological knowledge, and Carson provides a crucial resource for such studies.

It is not particularly surprising to learn that intelligence, like any other quantity, is only measured where it is valued, or that psychological instruments enact social agendas; other histories of education, anthropometrics, and eugenics have depicted empiricist human sciences as means of social organization. But Carson’s panoramic view helps us see the equivalence of intelligence and other entities that have been subject to Western scientific or systematic analysis over the last two hundred years. The values that made intelligence seem measurable in Jacksonian America, for example, were the same ones that later made hierarchical management practices seem reasonable: the urge to reconcile egalitarian impulses and the productive imperatives of an industrial society. Most topically, in our “post-civil rights, post-feminist” era, when affirmative action and other Great Society social interventions seem to be breathing their last, and differentials in educational or career attainment are increasingly naturalized as matters of innate endowment in the United States, this study suggests some connections between uncritical invocations of merit and weakened democratic discourse. [End Page 210] Judgments about an aspirant...


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