Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American... and over one million other books are available for Amazon Kindle. Learn more

Sorry, this item is not available in
Image not available for
Image not available

To view this video download Flash Player


Sign in to turn on 1-Click ordering
Sell Us Your Item
For a $1.29 Gift Card
Trade in
More Buying Choices
Have one to sell? Sell yours here
Start reading Merit on your Kindle in under a minute.

Don't have a Kindle? Get your Kindle here, or download a FREE Kindle Reading App.

Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century (American Institutions and Society) [Hardcover]

Joseph F. Kett
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

List Price: $29.95
Price: $22.19 & FREE Shipping on orders over $35. Details
You Save: $7.76 (26%)
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
Only 8 left in stock (more on the way).
Ships from and sold by Gift-wrap available.
Want it Monday, July 14? Choose One-Day Shipping at checkout. Details
Free Two-Day Shipping for College Students with Amazon Student


Amazon Price New from Used from
Kindle Edition $16.17  
Hardcover $22.19  
Teacher Supplies
Browse our Teacher Supplies store, with everything teachers need to educate students and expand their learning.

Book Description

January 15, 2013 0801451221 978-0801451225 1

The idea that citizens' advancement should depend exclusively on merit, on qualities that deserve reward rather than on bloodlines or wire-pulling, was among the Founding ideals of the American republic, Joseph F. Kett argues in this provocative and engaging book. Merit's history, he contends, is best understood within the context of its often conflicting interaction with the other ideals of the Founding, equal rights and government by consent. Merit implies difference; equality suggests sameness. By sanctioning selection of those lower down by those higher up, merit potentially conflicts with the republican ideal that citizens consent to the decisions that affect their lives.

In Merit, which traces the history of its subject over three centuries, Kett asserts that Americans have reconciled merit with other principles of the Founding in ways that have shaped their distinctive approach to the grading of public schools, report cards, the forging of workplace hierarchies, employee rating forms, merit systems in government, the selection of officers for the armed forces, and standardized testing for intelligence, character, and vocational interests. Today, the concept of merit is most commonly associated with measures by which it is quantified.

Viewing their merit as an element of their selfhood—essential merit—members of the Founding generation showed no interest in quantitative measurements. Rather, they equated merit with an inner quality that accounted for their achievements and that was best measured by their reputations among their peers. In a republic based on equal rights and consent of the people, however, it became important to establish that merit-based rewards were within the grasp of ordinary Americans. In response, Americans embraced institutional merit in the form of procedures focused on drawing small distinctions among average people. They also developed a penchant for increasing the number of winners in competitions—what Kett calls "selection in" rather than "selection out"—in order to satisfy popular aspirations. Kett argues that values rooted in the Founding of the republic continue to influence Americans’ approach to controversies, including those surrounding affirmative action, which involve the ideal of merit.

Editorial Reviews


"The young American republic seemed a nation peculiarly conducive to recognizing merit, or a 'quality deserving reward' in public life. Here Kett traces the evolution of this ideal from the revolution forward, pointing out how merit frequently clashed with other ideals such as equality. . . . He succeeds in a tightrope performance, tying what seem disparate phenomena together in a frequently delightful narrative . . . . . Kett’s book has opened new historical avenues."—Library Journal (22 February 2013)

"Historian Kett (Univ. of Virginia) provides a wide-ranging history of the idea of merit, tracing its shaping of the US over the course of three centuries. Much has been written about the importance of 'equality' and 'consent' to the American experience; comparatively, 'merit' has been overlooked. For Kett, the US was 'born meritorious,' as advancement by merit was a pillar belief of American revolutionaries. . . . Summing Up: Recommended."—M.G. Spencer, Choice (September 2013)

"Kett's dense and detailed history argues that the ideal of merit was vital to the founding and development of the United States. . . This ambitious and wide-ranging book is an apt complement to such indispensable studies of the subject. . . " --Darrin M. McMahon, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History (April 2014)

"How societies recognize and reward talent is a fascinating historical subject. When the subject is studied properly, a nation's entire inner circuitry is exposed. A fair number of scholars have undertaken the task, and we are truly lucky to have Joseph F. Kett among them. An accomplished historian has written a wonderful book about American struggles to define merit ('worth,' 'desert') since the colonial period. A large and formidable body of source material has been perfectly digested, and national comparisons, notably with France and England, are accurate and to the point. They help readers understand the different national route the American Republic took to reach modernity. A compressed book review of a volume with so much on offer can only hint at the treasures within. Kett is in superb control of a complex narrative, which he never simplifies. The path to the present was scarcely straightforward. It was full of nuances, unintended consequences, and surprises, Clio at her most fickle. The necessary and fascinating detail notwithstanding, not for a moment does the historian lose sight of the logic of his main argument."—American Historical Review

"A great virtue of this book—really a stunning notion—is that there are such things as a history of merit and a history of the idea of merit and its associated institutions in America. No one has ever written this book or anything close to it."—Michael Schudson, Columbia Journalism School, author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life

"In this brilliant book, Joseph F. Kett traces the history of merit in the United States as its meaning shifted from a personal quality to an institutionally certified warrant for allocating social rewards. As he shows, this evolution made schooling the central mechanism for distributing opportunity while at the same time subjecting schools to continual criticism for failing to distribute merit fairly."—David Labaree, Stanford University, author of Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling

"What is it you've earned and think you deserve but haven’t got? Joseph F. Kett takes this question all the way back to the Founding era, tracing meritocracy and its discontents up to the present. This is a tough-minded, contrarian book that takes a stand: the Founding ideal of the United States was not equality but rather merit. Kett’s historical insights on the origins of report cards, legacy admissions, the civil service, and intelligence testing add up to a challenging and bold argument that although life in these United States has never been fair, on the whole this nation is the fairest of them all."—Scott A. Sandage, author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

About the Author

Joseph F. Kett is James Madison Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His books including The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750–1990 and (as coauthor) of The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

Product Details

  • Series: American Institutions and Society
  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (January 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801451221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801451225
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,007,325 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Discover books, learn about writers, read author blogs, and more.

Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
5 star
4 star
2 star
1 star
Share your thoughts with other customers
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful but Limited March 8, 2014

Joseph Kett’s Merit offers a useful historical survey of the relation of “merit” to positions of affluence and influence in the United States. In a culture that prided itself on its egalitarian character, the process of selecting some equal individuals to have more social, political, or economic power than others was a complex challenge. The general solution was the theory that such enhanced status was based on personal “merit.”

At the time of the Revolution the notion of merit within an egalitarian order was fuzzy at best. No generally accepted standards of merit existed, so an individual’s sense of personal merit existed without institutional recognition. It was, in Kett’s term, “essential.” And it was problematic. The most famous example of the problem was the case of Benedict Arnold. Arnold believed that he had demonstrated a merit and deserved recognition and promotion. Failing to receive what he took to be his due, he turned traitor.

Kett traces the transformation of merit from “essential” into “institutional.” He begins with the West Point system of “merits” and “demerits,” instituted in 1818, which provided objective, numeric rankings for each individual. The model was followed by the development at Harvard and other colleges of letter grade systems. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the civil service system was established to insure that those who received government jobs were competent to perform the duties. During WWI the IQ tests were developed to enable the Army to quickly identify recruits who were suitable for promotion as officers. In the 1930’s the IQ test was taken over by Harvard as a mechanism to identity students across the country who merited admission; it became what we know as the SAT.
Read more ›
Comment | 
Was this review helpful to you?
Search Customer Reviews
Search these reviews only


There are no discussions about this product yet.
Be the first to discuss this product with the community.
Start a new discussion
First post:
Prompts for sign-in

Look for Similar Items by Category