The Ivy Curtain

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Kittay
Sunday, October 30, 2005


The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

By Jerome Karabel

Houghton Mifflin. 711 pp. $28

Proof of extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, letters of recommendation -- we take all these as natural, necessary and even enlightened elements of the college application process, though they cause us endless anxiety. Actually, they don't resemble in the least the way people in Europe or Japan get into college. They're a result of a particular American challenge at the turn of the 20th century, which President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard then characterized as follows: how to "prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews."

Prior to the 1920s, Harvard, Princeton and Yale accepted all applicants who met their academic requirements. Adjusting the size of each university's incoming class was not a problem since there were very few such qualified candidates, mostly because only a handful of elite northeastern private schools -- such as Groton and Andover and St. Paul's -- provided the kind of classical education (including Latin and some Greek) that the universities required. Since admissions were not "selective" in any substantial sense, none of the Big Three needed an admissions department.

The Chosen is an exhaustive account of how we got from that efficient and cozy arrangement to where we are today. It's particularly fascinating because there is such a growing stake -- and so many stakeholders -- in the process of selecting who gets access to higher education in general and elite education in particular.

But beware and rejoice. Beware because this story, alas, is not one about a group of presidents and deans steadily becoming enlightened to the virtues of equal opportunity. And rejoice in the details that Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel reveals and the patient analysis that he deploys; he shows how, in spite of an applicant's proven academic performance, the Big Three favored in overwhelming numbers the sons of the Protestant moneyed class because the institutions determined that it was in their self-interest to do so. The way these universities have sometimes answered but mostly resisted societal demands to open their doors turns out to be a juicy story indeed. And "juicy" is not the kind of adjective one customarily uses to describe a book with 557 pages of text and almost 3,000 footnotes.

By the end of the 19th century, Harvard, Yale and Princeton were committed not primarily to refining the intellect but to welcoming the well-bred, athletic, public-spirited and sociable scions of the privileged -- young men who may not have performed well academically but were destined to be the leaders of the next generation. "By the 1890s, 74 percent of Boston's upper class and 65 percent of New York's sent their sons to either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton," Karabel notes. Things took a new turn when Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, concerned that his school was educating just the wealthy, and his successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, took measures to attract more boys from good public schools. Though hardly egalitarians, Eliot and Lowell modified the university's entrance requirements -- including dropping Latin and Greek requirements -- to encourage more schools to prepare their students to compete for Harvard slots.

The result of such measures, at Harvard and elsewhere, was a horrific surprise: too many Jews! Jewish enrollment jumped to then historic highs of 4 percent at Princeton (1918), 9 percent at Yale (1917) and a distressing 20 percent of the freshman class at Harvard (1918). Though most of these students were more than academically competent, they didn't fit the usual definition of "gentlemen." And their numbers were continuing to increase. A meeting of New England deans in 1918 put the question squarely: How could they limit the growing Jewish presence?

Lowell worried that living on campus with a significant number of Jews would poison the social experience of the members of the Protestant elite and cause it to send its sons elsewhere, just as the New York City social set turned away from Columbia in the century's first decade. In 1923, Lowell finally came up with a politically palatable solution: He limited the size of the incoming class to 1,000 (an innovation), which meant incorporating an evaluation of each candidate's nonacademic qualities into the admissions decision. How "manly" was the candidate, for instance? How congenial and "clubbable"? What promise, what potential for future leadership? "The key code word here was 'character' " -- a quality, notes Karabel, "thought to be frequently lacking among Jews but present almost congenitally among high-status Protestants."

Such subjective judgments allowed Harvard to discreetly reject "undesirables," and Princeton and Yale followed suit. Yale's admissions chairman, Robert Corwin, had grumbled in 1929 that the list of names of recently admitted students "reads like some of the 'begat' portions of the Old Testament and might easily be mistaken for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall." The next year, he limited Jewish enrollment to just 8.2 percent -- a result he hailed as having been attained "without hue and cry and without any attempt on the part of those chiefly affected to prove that Yale had organized a pogrom." The Chosen contains dozens of such staggeringly candid remarks.

Newly established admissions departments gathered increasingly large amounts of "background" data on each applicant. In 1922, applications to Harvard posed a new set of questions. Race? Color? Religious preference? Birthplace of father? Previous surnames used by the family? One question that still pops up everywhere today had its flowering in this period: "Mother's maiden name?"

The need for letters of recommendation was born; so was the interest in extracurricular involvement. Photographs were required, and personal interviews were encouraged, particularly with local alumni who would be most eager to perpetuate the muscular and sociable undergraduate image dear to them. The mechanism was similar to that of self-perpetuating private social and country clubs where new candidates were admitted only if members vouched for them. Interviewers for Yale had to fill out a checklist of each candidate's physical characteristics, a practice that was eliminated only in the 1960s. The new opacity and flexibility easily allowed the continued admission of enough "legacies" to mollify crusty alums. As late as 1951, Harvard admitted an astonishing 94 percent of its legacies.

Since the number of admission slots was being limited while more and more applicants were meeting the Big Three's academic criteria, the various nonacademic criteria and "intangible qualities" became decisive. One logical alternative -- raising academic standards even higher to get a more brilliant, intellectual class -- was hardly a consideration. The 1920s was the period that first saw, as Karabel puts it, "the denigration of applicants whose sole strength is academic brilliance." To raise scholarly standards for admission, the old guard warned, would just produce a preponderance of "neurotics," "effeminates," "sophisticates," "esthetes" and "introverts." By contrast, it was the well-bred students of average intelligence who university elders insisted were more likely to end up as leaders in business and politics -- and to become loyal, generous alumni. Most university leaders made no bones about limiting the "super-bright" to only 10 percent of each class.

Astonishingly, this subjective college admissions system -- designed in the 1920s to discreetly exclude as many "social undesirables" as possible -- is the system we continue to use today. And the central irony of The Chosen is that the very flexibility that was designed to exclude nontraditional students and placate the alumni up to the middle of the 20th century was subsequently available to administrators to accomplish essentially opposite goals.

As the century unfolds, Karabel reviews successive demands for more sophisticated scientific research and for more international competitiveness, both of which compelled the Big Three to value brilliant students more highly. In particular, he looks at the open political and social conflicts stemming from demands for civil rights and equal opportunity in the 1960s and '70s. Facing those crises, universities saw themselves as the country's most visible demonstration of the reality of upward mobility.

Karabel analyzes how each of his three schools had to process these demands in terms of its own internal constituencies: faculty pressuring for "more brains," students and the press demanding diversity, and alumni in open revolt against any such changes.

Having decided to change the make-up of their student body in this new direction, each school was successful in doing so because from the 1920s on, admissions officers had at their disposal a variety of nonacademic criteria by which to evaluate applicants. And as Karabel notes, moves to include previously excluded groups were not terribly radical since the Big Three, in fact, "had never been pure academic meritocracies."

Dramatic as these developments appear, they hardly constitute a sea change in how universities make such decisions. University administrations still view a move to completely meritocratic selection as neither in their self-interest nor realistic. Instead, Karabel convincingly shows this new institutional behavior to be the result of constant administrative shifts in order to maintain an uneasy balance among competing demands.

For Karabel, as a good sociologist, class matters. And his book draws on sociological theory, such as Pierre Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital and a quote from Max Weber that illuminates much of the Big Three's behavior: "The fortunate is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune." And as idealized as the push toward meritocracy is seen throughout the book, the author does not let us forget that meritocracy functions to confirm the existing social order. Inspired by the work of Michael Young, Karabel argues that meritocracy merely deflects "attention from the real issues of poverty and inequality of condition onto a chimerical quest for unlimited social mobility."

But the author deploys his academic expertise with a light hand -- which he can afford to do, having amassed so many telling details and vivid anecdotes. The special value of The Chosen lies not in the way it formulates sociological insights but in its stories, its prolific and always apt statistics, and its analysis of backroom university politics. Finally, there are memorable biographical sketches of pivotal figures, such as Princeton's President Woodrow Wilson, who painfully learned that, in his own words, "university policy had become the victim of entrenched wealth"; Harvard's James Bryant Conant, whose rhetoric was highly meritocratic but whose admissions policies continued old patterns of discrimination; Yale's Kingman Brewster and particularly his dean of admissions, R. Inslee Clark Jr., "who presided over the most radical transformation ever witnessed in an Ivy League institution"; and Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., the swing vote in the Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision. (In this ruling, the court sided with a white University of California medical school applicant who had sued over what he considered "reverse discrimination" favoring minorities in the admissions process. The court also defended a university's autonomy by allowing it to take race and other nonacademic factors into account when making admissions decisions.)

Much has changed in who now constitutes "the chosen" -- the elite prep schools, for example, can no longer count on a high proportion of their graduates getting into the Big Three. "As a consequence, deep apprehension about college admissions now extends to the highest reaches of the upper class," Karabel writes. But much remains the same. "At the same time, the children of the working class and the poor are about as unlikely to attend the Big Three today as they were in 1954. It is no exaggeration to say that the current regime in elite college admissions has been far more successful in democratizing anxiety than opportunity."

Jeffrey Kittay, a former literature professor at Yale, was the founder of Lingua Franca, a magazine about academic life that published from 1990-2001. He now teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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