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Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century, Joseph F. Kett

Reviewed by S. Adam Seagrave

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This book engages in an admirable attempt to understand an impressive range of important American historical trends and events through the lens of an idea. Joseph F, Kett begins by describing the uneasy existence of widely acknowledged “Men of Merit” within a revolutionary era inspired by ideas of equal rights and popular sovereignty/consent. These revolutionary leaders and American Founders understood merit as an inherent personal quality evidenced externally by public achievements and recognition, which Kett terms “essential merit.” The nineteenth century witnessed the gradual transformation of prevailing understandings of merit from the “essential” to the “institutional”; from merit as an inherent personal quality evidenced by public recognition to merit as a “presumption” certified by testing or institutional affiliation (p. 13). This transition leads Kett into an extensive treatment of educational history and the history of standardized testing, a treatment which ends up occupying the majority of his book. The book concludes with a provocative and thoughtful assessment of the status of the idea of merit—specifically, its “crisis”—since the 1960s.

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