“There is a natural aristocracy among men,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams from Monticello, in 1813, in one of the best-known passages from their vast post-Presidential correspondence. “There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtues or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society.” Jefferson went on to grouse about his failure, decades earlier, to persuade Virginia’s state legislature to create a public-education system. Had he succeeded, he wrote, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”

Jefferson was hardly the first person to dream of bettering the world by creating a public-spirited and deserving élite, selected and trained through the education system; that idea goes back at least to Plato’s Republic, and has reappeared again and again, everywhere from political manifestos to science fiction. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, the advent of I.Q. tests made the dream seem newly attainable to its enthusiasts. The SAT, that ubiquitous and obsessed-over standard college-admissions test, was introduced in the nineteen-twenties as an adaptation of the Army Alpha, the first mass-administered I.Q. test, which was given to recruits in the First World War as a way of assigning them to tasks and as a general demonstration of the wonders of intelligence testing. In the thirties, James Bryant Conant, the newly installed president of Harvard, began promoting the use of the SAT as a way to create, finally, Jefferson’s idea of a natural aristocracy. (He regularly quoted from Jefferson’s famous letter to Adams.) By 1950, Conant had succeeded in establishing the test as the standard connecting device between high school and college for millions of young Americans.

Much less well known than Jefferson’s letter is Adams’s reply. He was having none of Jefferson’s distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy, because, he argued, the former always degrades over time into the latter. “Both artificial Aristocracy, and Monarchy, and civil, military, political and hierarchical Despotism, have all grown out of the natural Aristocracy of ‘Virtues and Talents,’ ” he wrote. “Your distinction between the aristoi and pseudo aristoi, will not help the matter. I would trust one as Soon as the other with unlimited Power.” Adams looks awfully prophetic today. So does Michael Young, the mid-twentieth-century British sociologist who introduced the term “meritocracy” into the language—meaning it to be understood as a misguided idea, because it would supercede more traditional social-justice causes, such as labor organizing. In his strange, irresistible dystopian fantasy, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” from 1958, Young’s clueless narrator goes on for chapter after chapter about the wonders of the new I.Q.-based élite, and then a footnote informs us that he has been killed by a populist mob.

In retrospect, there were always two big problems with the idea of an American natural aristocracy. First, educational achievement is highly associated with family background—so if you’re aiming to negate the effects of family background, making big, life-determining decisions about teen-agers who are still living at home with their parents is not a good way to do it. Second, at least in this country, the natural aristocracy has not been as selfless as its many promoters over the years believed it would be. Admission to the most élite colleges is widely perceived as a ticket to success, not to membership in an ascetic cadre of Platonic public servants. That’s why fortunate parents, whose children are already advantaged in the system, so often enact Adams’s prediction and energetically try to turn the natural aristocracy, such as it is, into an artificial one founded on wealth and birth, by doing as much as they possibly can to insure that they pass their own status on to their children.

The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, the purveyor of the SAT, has announced that it will begin using an “Environmental Context Dashboard,” which will give colleges a second score to use alongside the SAT: an “adversity score” that aims to quantify a student’s level of socioeconomic disadvantage by considering a number of neighborhood and high-school factors. In the past, the College Board has resisted at least two attempts to correct for the SAT’s class-replicating aspect. One was called the Measure of Academic Achievement and the other the Strivers Index. It’s a sign of progress that the College Board is willing to acknowledge officially what everybody has known for years. But the new score won’t affect a student’s actual SAT score, and it won’t explicitly take race and ethnicity into account.

Most discussions of admissions to élite colleges are built around the never-quite-directly-expressed idea that, somewhere around the next bend and soon to make itself apparent, is the right way to do it—one that can be straightforwardly applied and that will be universally recognized as fair. Dream on! It’s relatively easy to say (but hard for private universities to put into effect, because they are so dependent on gifts) that athletes and children of donors and alumni shouldn’t get a preference. But what about race? People definitely don’t agree about whether that should factor into admissions. And what about economic disadvantage—should it be only somewhat important, or important enough reliably to trump pure academic measures? What if affluent parents, and their well-paid enablers, find ways to game the Environmental Context Dashboard, as they did long ago with the SAT itself? (Imagine small, island-like affluent schools and neighborhoods that can hide inside larger and less fortunate places that generate high adversity scores.) Élite admissions is a zero-sum game. Many more people aspire to places in a small handful of colleges than can go to them. Every time a new kind of applicant wins, another kind of applicant loses. It’s impossible to achieve a clean, widely agreed-upon separation between teen-aged natural and artificial aristocrats.

Another idea lurking beneath the surface of the admissions debate is that, if only we can get élite admissions right, that will mean we’ve got America right—that the ideal cohort of élite college students will go on to build the ideal society. That was, in effect, Jefferson’s expectation, and also Conant’s. Again, dream on! John Adams had it right: not only is the perfect selection system a chimera; even if it were not, the perfect empowered élite would be a chimera, too. Just as a long series of fixes can never truly sever the SAT’s link to privilege, engineering a natural aristocracy isn’t all that alluring an idea to begin with. A country where power, money, and prestige are more evenly and less systematically distributed—where, in particular, it matters far more whether you went to college than where you went to college—would be a much fairer place. It would be a shame if the quixotic quest for the perfect adjustment to the SATs and élite admissions draws our attention away from what ought to be our real preoccupation if we want to build a better society.

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