Commentary Magazine


The Chosen by Jerome Karabel

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
by Jerome Karabel
Houghton Mifflin. 711 pp. $28.00

On November 21, 1925, Harvard and Yale played the 44th installment in their storied football rivalry. Though Yale was heavily favored, Harvard’s fierce defensive play held the visitors to a 0-0 tie. According to the Harvard Crimson, the home team had won “a scoreless victory.”

Yet Harvard alumnus W.F. Williams, who had traveled from Greenwich, Connecticut to cheer on his alma mater, took no pleasure in the game. Twenty-four years had passed since his graduation, and he was bewildered by the school’s transformation. As he wrote in a letter to Harvard president Abbot Lawrence Lowell, describing his ordeal on that autumn Saturday:

Being uncertain what [stadium] entrance to use, I stopped a boy, evidently a student, to ask directions—he was a Jew. Rounding the corner . . . I made enquiries from three other boys, also very evidently students—two Jews and a Negro, fraternizing. I was ushered to my seat at the game by a Jew, and another of the same “breed” followed me to my seat and required me to sign my ticket. . . . Shades of my New England parents that Harvard University should come to such a pass. [The Jews] are without doubt the Damned of God and the skunks of the human race. . . . Are the Overseers so lacking in genius that they can’t devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a “white man’s” college?

Far from being scandalized by the letter, Lowell was delighted. Since 1922, the Harvard president had been trying to impose a quota on the number of Jewish students admitted to the university. The testimonials of Williams and other disgruntled alumni strengthened his hand.

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As Jerome Karabel explains in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the rapid influx of Jewish students in the early years of the 20th century presented a dramatic challenge to the existing Ivy League order. Until that time, the nation’s top three universities had had little trouble ensuring the homogeneity of their Protestant enclaves. Student recruitment was a cozy, inbred affair. Typically, admissions officers would pay regular visits to favored “feeder” schools—Groton in the case of Harvard, Lawrenceville in the case of Princeton—where they would be wined and dined by the headmaster, who would also recommend a roster of graduating students. There were entrance exams, to be sure, but for those with the right connections, these were a formality.

As a result, Karabel argues, the Ivy League campuses were chock-a-block with the doltish sons of blue-blooded businessmen. “The ‘gentlemen’s C’ reigned supreme,” he writes, while hard-working students were ridiculed as “grinds.” The model to which students aspired, epitomized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Harvard and the fictional Dink Stover of Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel, Stover at Yale, was the athletic, good-looking, affable man-about-campus, preferably descended from a similarly genteel alumnus.

Though none of the universities had formal policies barring Jews or Catholics, their prohibitive cost and academic requirements (including Latin and Greek in the early days) guaranteed a near-monopoly for the prestigious prep schools of New England and the mid-Atlantic states. During the 19th century, only a few respectable German Jews from established families had been able to pass the entry exams and pay tuition. But now, suddenly confronted with growing numbers of eligible Jewish applicants from Eastern European backgrounds—applicants whom administrators often stereotyped as sickly, grasping, beetle-browed misfits—the universities sought remedies.

In an effort to limit Jewish enrollment, admissions officers began to emphasize qualities such as “character,” “leadership,” and “manliness.” In 1922, Harvard started asking each applicant to list his “race and color,” “religious preference,” and “maiden name of mother.” Four years later, it also began to demand a photo. Suspect applicants were classified as J1 (definitely Jewish), J2 (probably Jewish), and J3 (possibly Jewish).

All of this, Karabel shows, served its intended purpose. In 1925, the year W.F. Williams had his harrowing experience at Harvard stadium, Jews comprised 28 percent of the university’s undergraduate class. Within just a few years, the figure dropped to half that. At the top universities, an informal quota system remained in place for decades.

But such measures were controversial. At all three schools, they set off a civil war among the ruling set. On the progressive side were professors tired of teaching second-rate minds from first-rate families. On the side of tradition and privilege were alumni with a vested interest in the continuation of a system that advantaged their own sons. Their argument centered, crudely at times, on the notions of “leadership” and “character” that admissions officials had been pushing for years. As they saw it, only WASP’s were capable of running the country—and, thanks to the exclusionary nature of U.S. society at that point, the facts were with them.

Caught in the middle were administrators. Most followed the lead of James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president from 1933 to 1953, who spoke the language of meritocracy in public while cynically permitting the admissions office to maintain business as usual.

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World War II and the G.I. Bill helped to democratize campuses. But in Karabel’s telling, it was the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 that truly settled matters. Thanks to the ensuing space race, the Ivy League’s “grinds” were transformed from campus pariahs to strategic assets, and it became clear that their ascent could no longer be blocked by obsolete prejudices. Far-sighted university administrators began overhauling admissions policies, and Jews soon won or regained entry in numbers never before seen. The change was especially dramatic at Yale, where the freshman class went from being 16-percent Jewish in 1965 to 30-percent Jewish just a year later.

The era also brought striking gains in the Ivy League for blacks. As late as 1960, just 15 of the more than 3,000 freshmen who enrolled at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were black. Following the Watts riots of 1965, administrators moved quickly to boost these numbers. “The dominant theme in the texts of the period was neither diversity nor compensation for past injustices,” Karabel writes, “but rather the need for ‘Negro leadership.’ ” The top universities understood themselves to be part of a “struggle for the soul of the nation’s black population,” bounded on one side by “the apostles of nonviolence and integration” and on the other by “the proponents of violence and separatism.”

Unfortunately, there were few black applicants who could meet the ordinary admission criteria. In the mid-1960’s, only 0.3 percent of black male high-school graduates scored more than 550 on the verbal section of the SAT. And so the universities lowered their standards for black applicants, often by hundreds of SAT points. The result was dramatic. By 1970, about 9 percent of the freshmen at the top Ivies were black, an 18-fold increase in a single decade.

Women soon followed, with Yale and Princeton admitting female applicants in 1969. (Harvard was already effectively co-ed thanks to its long-standing relationship with Radcliffe College.) Some tradition-minded alumni again raised a fuss, but their influence had waned sharply. In the post-World War II era, the growth of federal research grants had made universities less reliant on donations. And in the larger culture, the events of the 1960’s conspired to discredit the claims of alumni and the WASP elite that they represented.

By the 1970’s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had put in place the admissions policies that survive to this day. Students are now screened largely on the basis of merit, but administrators retain enough discretion to ensure racial and ethnic “diversity,” admitting blacks and Hispanics in large numbers while presumably regulating “overrepresented” minorities like Jews and Asians. If, a century ago, 85 percent of Harvard’s students were white, Protestant males, today the figure is just 20 percent. W.F. Williams would be appalled.

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The Chosen is a mammoth, meticulously researched book. Confidential memos, minutes of meetings, personal correspondence among university administrators, material from alumni magazines, editorials from student newspapers—no document seems to have escaped Karabel’s scrutiny. Such thoroughness is admirable in its way, but The Chosen would have been a better book—and certainly a more enjoyable read—if Karabel had left much of this on the cutting-room floor. Lengthy biographical sketches also add unnecessary heft. Some are fascinating—in particular, the campus profiles of FDR at Harvard and F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton—but too many of them dwell on the experiences of barely distinguishable patrician New Englanders.

Still, nestled within The Chosen‘s 700-odd pages is a fascinating book of half that length. In presenting a history of admissions at the leading universities, Karabel has cast a bright light on the basic assumptions of American elites at different times concerning who would—and should—lead the country. One of his key findings is that, contrary to conservative myth, there never was a golden age for pure meritocracy. By the time widespread discrimination against Jews was eliminated in the 1960’s, universities had already taken their first open steps toward the preferential admission of blacks, an infringement of the meritocratic ideal that persists to this day.

Nowhere in the book does Karabel suggest he is bothered by this. He views merit not as an absolute but rather as a malleable concept defined according to the balance of power among competing constituencies. As seen through this lens, the fact that Jews profited by fighting discrimination and blacks now profit from its perpetuation is irrelevant. Both groups have simply succeeded in redefining merit to serve their own purposes.

There is, however, an enormous difference between the two cases—which is why no one thinks twice today about the decision to ease off on Jewish quotas in favor of merit while affirmative action (and, for that matter, legacy preferences) continue to grate heavily against the fundamental belief that individuals should be judged, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “by the content of their character.” No less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized this distinction, at least for public institutions. Even as the Justices narrowly upheld the University of Michigan law school’s affirmative-action program in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger, they wrote of their expectation that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Affirmative action did not redefine the merit principle, as Karabel would have us believe; rather, it provided a temporary license to part ways with it.

Though the social engineers on our elite campuses have tried to coopt the definition of merit, ordinary people instinctively know what the word means: intellectual talent coupled with a disposition to apply it productively. Standardized tests, grades, and extracurricular activities may not be a perfect means of measuring these traits, but they are certainly better than skin color. Jerome Karabel has produced an authoritative and brilliantly researched book, but it would have been greatly improved had he not ignored this simple moral truth.

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About the Author

Jonathan Kay is managing editor for comment at Canada’s National Post.




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