By David Brooks,
The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
By Jerome Karabel. Illustrated. 711 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $28.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about the rise of a new educated class, the people with 60’s values and 90’s money who go to Starbucks, shop at Whole Foods and drive Volvos. A woman came up to me after one of my book talks and said, “You realize what you’re talking about is the Jews taking over America.”
My eyes bugged out, but then I realized that she was Jewish and she knew I was, too, and between us we could acknowledge there’s a lot of truth in that statement. For the Jews were the vanguard of a social movement that over the course of the 20th century transformed the American university system and the nature of the American elite.
This is a large part of the story Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, tells in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”
Karabel’s tale begins in 1900, when young men like Franklin Delano Roosevelt graduated from academies like Groton, St. Paul’s and Choate, moved easily and almost automatically to Cambridge, New Haven or Princeton and set the cultural tone at the country’s prestigious universities.
When they arrived on campus, these scions of the Protestant Establishment didn’t concern themselves overly much with academics. Their main proving grounds were extracurricular activities and social life. Positioning themselves to edit the school paper or join the right secret society, they strove to establish their social worth and to prove how much they embodied the virtues of the Harvard Man, the Yale Man or the Princeton Man. That meant being effortlessly athletic, charismatic, fair, brave, modest and, above all, a leader of men.
In 1904, the Yale yearbook boasted of having “more gentlemen and fewer scholars than any other class in the memory of man.”
In those days, most people who applied to schools like Harvard were admitted because people who weren’t from the right social class didn’t bother applying. But Jews, for reasons that are not clear, never got the message. They applied to Harvard, Yale and Princeton even though they weren’t really wanted. And because many were so academically qualified, they increasingly got in.
They didn’t go to college to compete in the social arena or enter the elite student clubs. From 1900 to 1930, about 1,200 Jews entered Yale and not a single one was elected to a senior society.
They went because they were ambitious and often brilliant, and they brought with them a value system at odds with the WASP chivalric code. The Jews were more likely to prize work, scholarship, verbal dexterity, ambition and academic accomplishment.
Of course the old guard detested the rising tide of Jews in their midst. As one Harvard alum wrote to the university’s president in 1925: “Naturally, after 25 years, one expects to find many changes, but to find that one’s University had become so Hebrewized was a fearful shock. There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that instead of leaving the Yard with pleasant memories of the past I left with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater.”
But the administrators’ reaction was more interesting. The people who ran these schools weren’t anti-Semitic reactionaries; they were progressives. They believed in democracy and inclusion. They respected scholarly excellence, embodied by the striving Jews.
Yet on the other hand, they felt that their job was to do more than pump information into the heads of hard-studying brainiacs. They sensed that mediocre students like Roosevelt really did possess a set of virtues that needed to be protected and cherished. Thus, many of the best administrators were torn between protecting the old and including the new.
Karabel’s thorough and definitive look at elite college admissions is fascinating because he doesn’t just treat his narrative as a civil rights tale, as the story of anti-Semitic and racist institutions slowly giving way to the forces of justice and decency. Instead, he writes, “The history of admissions at the Big Three has thus been, fundamentally, a history of recurrent struggles over the meaning of ‘merit.’ ” As the elite universities confronted each class of applicants, they were really trying to determine which qualities to nurture and reward, and which were most important for democratic citizenship.
The essential conflict throughout these years was between those who wanted to accept more students on the basis of scholarly merit — intelligence, high test scores and good grades — and those who sought what you might call leadership skills — that ineffable combination of charisma, social confidence, decisiveness and the ability, often proved on the athletic field, to be part of a team.
The conflict continues to this day. But as Karabel notes, at any given moment the universities tend to gravitate toward the definition of merit that best helps them preserve their status as prestigious, rich and powerful institutions.
In the 1920’s, the Protestant Establishment still dominated business and society. University administrators sensed that if they admitted too many Jews, they would alienate themselves from the power centers around them. So they restricted the number of Jews by shifting their admissions criteria and putting more emphasis on “character,” measured by alumni connections, athletic skill and personal letters of recommendation. Applicants were less likely to be admitted if all they demonstrated was academic brilliance.
Surprisingly little changed over the ensuing decades. Just after World War II, Harvard’s provost, Paul Buck, argued in several essays that Harvard did not want to become dominated by the “sensitive, neurotic boy,” by those who are “intellectually over-stimulated.” Instead, he said, Harvard should be seeking out boys who are of the “healthy extrovert kind.” In 1950, Yale’s president, Alfred Whitney Griswold, reassured alumni that the Yale man of the future would not be a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.”
That year 278 students from elite prep schools applied to Harvard and 245 were accepted. The acceptance rate from Exeter and Andover was 94 percent.
But as the 50’s stretched on, society changed. World War II had disrupted the old social hierarchies. The Soviets threatened America’s scientific dominance. The faculties, intellectually self-confident as never before, asserted themselves, pressing for more academically serious students.
“What’s wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college?” asked E. Bright Wilson, a chemist.
By the 1960’s, a new elite was displacing the Protestant Establishment across American society. And the elite university presidents behaved like “intellectual investment bankers,” in the words of Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of “The Guardians,” a book about Yale. They realized, as Karabel writes, that they would profit in the long run if they dumped “stocks that showed signs of slipping” — the old Protestant bluebloods — and invested “in an array of newer stocks that, while perhaps riskier, promised higher rates of return”: the rising meritocrats.
The SAT scores of incoming freshmen shot up, the old toffs were rejected and eggheads from around the country were admitted. Academic culture changed as well. Meritocratic values, first embodied by the striving Jews from New York public high schools, now dominated. Harvard, Yale and Princeton retained their status atop the American educational system by shifting the constituencies they served.
Karabel is a clear and engaging writer, but this book has the virtues and vices of an academic work. On the virtue side, it is superbly researched and thorough. But because the author feels compelled to cover each of the three universities at every stage in the story, the reader confronts each stage three times. The admissions trajectories of the three schools basically paralleled one another.
In addition, Karabel never steps back to describe how campus culture itself changed. He reports on memos and official reports but rarely strays beyond them to give an impressionistic feel of how real life on campus was affected by policy shifts.
Furthermore, while he leaves the impression that he believes academic merit should be the dominant criteria for college admissions, and can’t fathom why anybody would want to have jocks running around campus, he never steps outside the story, the way an essayist might, to measure what was lost and gained with the decline of the chivalric ethos and the rise of the meritocratic one. Those old WASP bluebloods may have been narrow and prejudiced, but they did at least have a formula for building character. Today we somehow sense that character matters, and it still vaguely plays a role in admissions decisions, but our thoughts about character — what it is and how to build it — are amorphous and ineffectual.
One place where Karabel excels, however, is in his understanding that today’s admissions policies have created their own set of problems. As time goes by, it becomes more and more clear that the meritocrats are doing exactly what the WASPS did, rigging admissions criteria to favor the qualities they and their children are most likely to possess.
In 1952, more than 37 percent of Harvard freshmen had fathers who had not attended college. By 1996, less than 11 percent did. In 1954, 10 percent of Harvard freshmen had fathers who worked at blue-collar jobs. Forty-two years later, only 5 percent did.
In 1996, only about 3 percent of the American labor force was in one of the highly credentialed professional occupations (doctor, lawyer, professor), but nearly a third of Harvard freshmen that year were children of such professionals.
The main beneficiaries of the new admissions policies, Karabel notes, were “the children of families that, while lacking the wealth of the old upper class, were richly endowed with cultural capital.” In 1956, the sons of business executives outnumbered the sons of professors by four to one at Harvard. By 1976, there were nearly as many freshmen from academic households as from business households.
All of which suggests that human nature hasn’t changed. People who possess privileges try to protect their own, even if they do shop at Whole Foods and drive Volvos.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.