Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Urban Education


Nicholas M. Michelli

Committee Members

Philip Anderson

Nicholas Lemann

Subject Categories



In the United States, adjacent strands of the meritocratic discourse intercept by accident of history. It occurs either in the Jeffersonian tradition of culling from all sectors of the populace a natural aristocracy of talents as proposed by James Conant through the development of Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or by expanding the structure of opportunity to all individuals and leveling uneven terrains through social policies like desegregation of schools and affirmative action. In other words, it is a case of policies based on the 'laissez-faire' doctrine versus those based on governmental intervention. "This interception to some degree has fused the strands in some quarters into one homological discourse; the only caveat is that the destinations of the select and elect groups are not relegated to public service as it is hoped; most wind up in the private for profit sector." (Lemann, 1999).

Interlacing the meritocracy discourse is the juxtaposition of power both private and public. Views on the roles of elites and experts in a democracy oscillate between standardized nationalism and enlightened provincialism. Historically, efforts were made to amalgamate these viewpoints.

The history of education is replete with ethical and philosophical debates and epistemological variances. These have wavered between the following: the anchoring purpose of fostering sacred or secular, civic and civil knowledge; and those serving the leisured minority or the laboring majority. These are along the continuum of the conservative, liberal and radical ideological viewpoints, which tinker and falter towards and sometimes, away from social progress.

My research methodology comprised of theoretical explorations of conceptions of the meritocracy. I employed qualitative and historical tools; including discursive analyses of extant literature and focused on the notion of the American comprehensive high school as a gateway to higher education. I looked to explore the relationships between conceptions of meritocracy and their influences on educational policy enactment. I conducted specific archival research on a portion of the personal papers of James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) on the Campus of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, NJ. I also conducted one personal interview with an individual who worked with Conant. It is my settled conviction that my research posed no greater risks to any subject than those incurred in ordinary life.


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