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The Measure of Merit:
Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940
John Carson

Winner of the 2010 Cheiron Book Prize from Cheiron, International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences

Hardcover | 2006 | $67.50 | £56.95 | ISBN: 9780691017150
416 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 3 tables.
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How have modern democracies squared their commitment to equality with their fear that disparities in talent and intelligence might be natural, persistent, and consequential? In this wide-ranging account of American and French understandings of merit, talent, and intelligence over the past two centuries, John Carson tells the fascinating story of how two nations wrestled scientifically with human inequalities and their social and political implications.

Surveying a broad array of political tracts, philosophical treatises, scientific works, and journalistic writings, Carson chronicles the gradual embrace of the IQ version of intelligence in the United States, while in France, the birthplace of the modern intelligence test, expert judgment was consistently prized above such quantitative measures. He also reveals the crucial role that determinations of, and contests over, merit have played in both societies--they have helped to organize educational systems, justify racial hierarchies, classify army recruits, and direct individuals onto particular educational and career paths.

A contribution to both the history of science and intellectual history, The Measure of Merit illuminates the shadow languages of inequality that have haunted the American and French republics since their inceptions.


"How . . . do societies committed to equality deal with differences among people? In The Measure of Merit, John Carson . . . offers an informative, exhaustively researched account of how France and America each addressed this challenge. His narrative reveals how positivism, the rise of social science, and cultural beliefs converged to shape our modern notions of intelligence. . . . [S]cholars in several disciplines will find Carson's arguments relevant and engaging."--Scott Henderson, Science

"Carson's book speaks to a wide audience. Philosophers, historians, political scientists, and psychologists alike will find The Measure of Merit a rewarding read. Richly nuanced and informed by a diverse collection of source, this book documents how the French and American republics reconciled the tension posed by egalitarianism and meritocracy in the face of what seems to be natural intellectual hierarchies."--S. Brian Hood, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences

"Carson has written a superb book which succeeds in highlighting one of the great anomalies of American culture, the national obsession with intelligence testing."--Philip Nord, H-France Review

"The Measure of Merit is a detailed comparative history of ideas about individual ability among French and American intellectual elites.... This book must be read by anyone interested in the historical construction of the idea of individual intelligence and should becomes a standard in the history of psychology."--Patrick J. Ryan, Journal of American History

"The Measure of Merit is an impressive piece of scholarship. [It] will give any reader much to think about."--J. David Hoeveler, Reviews in American History

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