Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the 21st Century

Joseph F. Kett. Cornell Univ., $29.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-8014-5122-5
Kett's survey provides a thorough and engaging account of the long history of and many paradoxes surrounding the American ideal of merit. A professor of American history at the University of Virginia, Kett begins this study by distinguishing essential merit, an innate quality only made visible by one's success in public life, from institutional merit, a quality defined by institutional measures such as standardized exams and professional credentials. America has long held various anxieties regarding the difficulty of accurately measuring or recognizing merit, and Kett suggests that this struggle has long complicated America's ambitions regarding equal rights and rule by popular consent. He traces the demands of valuing merit from their roots in English and European governance through American political, academic, business, and professional institutions, demonstrating how our changing relationship to this ideal casts a telling light on the development of American identity and values. Dense but well written, Kett's rigorous approach is appropriate for scholars, and though he periodically veers into Byzantine descriptions, the book is an approachable resource for anyone interested in his topic. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 02/04/2013
Release date: 01/01/2013
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