Caste, Class & Quota
Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale.
by Dan A. Oren.
Yale University Press. 440 pp. $29.95.
When an outraged Yale trustee complained that too many Jews had been admitted to the Yale class of 1933, the chairman of admissions, Robert Corwin, agreed: “The list as published 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.” Corwin, in fact, was the man most responsible for the unacknowledged 10-percent quota for Jewish students in effect at Yale from 1923 through the early 1960’s. But as Dan A, Oren’s study establishes, the roots of that quota lay not in any individual’s prejudices but in the most fundamental attitudes of the Protestant establishment, of which Yale was but an expression.
In 1701 the state of Connecticut granted a charter to a Collegiate School “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Pub-lick employment both in Church and Civil State.” During the next two centuries the Collegiate School, renamed Yale, became a secular university, but its Congregationalist origins lingered; mandatory daily chapel was not dropped until 1925. Along with Harvard and Princeton, Yale was at the top of the American educational system, and of the three it was socially preeminent. By the turn of the 20th century, Yale had become the main training ground for the nation’s corporate elite.
What the school provided was as much a course in character as in academics. Owen Johnson’s legendary Dink Stover, when asked what “his type” took from Yale to the nation, replied: “First, a pretty fine type of gentleman, with good, clear honest standards; second, a spirit of ambition and a determination not to be beaten; third, the belief in democracy.” If reality sometimes fell short, there was at least a recognized ideal—though it should be noted that the ideal was characteristically expressed in moral and social rather than in intellectual terms.
At the turn of this century, as the children of robber barons caroused in New Haven, events abroad were driving millions to emigrate to the United States. Prominent among the newcomers were East European Jews, who arrived with little except a fierce desire to learn and rise. Many of their sons were drawn to Yale because of its reputation and resources. While there had been Jews at Yale since the days of Moses Simons (B.A. 1809), they had been few in number and easily incorporated by a generally tolerant community. By the 1920’s, however, nearly 10 percent of Yale undergraduates were Jewish, and the Jewish applicant pool was expanding every year. Worse yet, to Yale administrators, most of these Jews were poor New Haven “townies,” who concentrated on their studies and did not participate (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) in extracurricular activities.
Faced with what it considered a crisis, and prodded by men like Corwin, Yale enacted an unwritten quota to keep the level of Jews at or about the then-current 10 percent. Oren, while hardly excusing this action or pretending that a man like Corwin was anything but an anti-Semite, does show that the Yale administration, like its Ivy League counterparts, was facing a legitimately trying situation. Yale was an integral part of a larger establishment which, at the time, was simply not ready to admit large numbers of Jews on equal terms. Had Yale come to be seen as a “Jewish” college, rightly or wrongly, it might well have lost the patronage of the upper class to institutions like Harvard, which had not hesitated to introduce its own quota. Moreover, in view of Yale’s avowedly social as well as academic purposes, the fact that a large portion of its student body conspicuously did not participate in social activities posed a troublesome issue.
That Yale had a legitimate problem, however, and that it had to act within certain social parameters, does not mean that it acted justifiably or well. As Oren points out, rather than simply limiting their numbers, Yale could have tried to integrate its Jewish students into the life of the campus. Besides, the fact that there may well have been a “tipping point” in the 1920’s beyond which a Wasp exodus might have started in no way justifies Yale’s retention of the quota into the 1960’s—especially when other universities began to drop theirs in the 40’s.
Still, while quotas remained in place at Yale for almost two decades after World War II, the reason may have had more to do with bureaucratic inertia than with prejudice. Certainly no one after the war openly showed anti-Jewish bias. President Griswold sincerely believed he had ended the quota by fiat in the early 1950’s, but it survived in the attitudes of the admissions-committee staff for quite a while after. When Yale finally broke with its clublike past in the 1960’s, the era of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism was gone for good.
The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell describes in The Protestant Establishment the way America’s elite has oscillated between behaving as an “aristocracy” into which the best national talent could be assimilated and behaving as a “caste” with rigid barriers to entry that hurt not only those excluded but itself and the country as a whole. Joining the Club, a case study in how the 19th-century aristocracy transformed itself into a caste, puts flesh on Balt-zell’s thesis. The book also shows how in the end a loosening of barriers, both downward and upward, allowed that same establishment to replenish its supply of talent and energy. In that sense, the story of the Jews and Yale is a cautionary tale—but with a happy ending.
Nevertheless, two dark currents beneath the surface of this history give warning of serious, impending problems. It is impossible to read the story of the Jews—a brilliant group, kept back but then finally allowed to flourish—and not be aware of other ethnic or racial groups which have not found the Ivy League so congenial a home. The meritocratic admissions system may exclude minorities that do not fare well in open competition. How much, if at all, should one intervene to ensure a “balanced” freshman class? Is benevolent intervention, designed to help, less wrong than malevolent intervention, designed to exclude? Oren wisely skirts this problem, which does not admit of any easy solution.
Finally, Oren grapples inconclusively with the social ideal which the old university tried to foster. Dink Stover’s Yale, where character was supposedly formed in democratic competition according to “clear honest standards,” was by no means a place to be despised. Today’s universities, by contrast, tend to leave character formation to the individual, and to abandon the very idea of standards in favor of moral relativism. To what extent is some common bond necessary to create a sense of purpose and community, without which a university will become just a random association of individuals?
These problems are as much philosophical as practical; by telling the particular story of the Jews at Yale so comprehensively and so well, Dan Oren’s book both brings us back to such central questions and advances their discussion.