It comes as something of a shock to one like myself who has spent his entire adult life in higher education to discover how our top institutions actually work, and, critically, what they value. To be sure, I have always been a somewhat naive idealist about higher education, and I have been away from traditional university life for most of the last twenty years, and away from big-time academia since 1980. Still I have continued to follow what has gone on and for some time I cherished the forlorn hope that I might return. Now, thanks to a remarkable book by a sociologist and fellow Harvard grad named Jerome Karabel called The Chosen,, I understand how I got into big-time academia in the first place, how my classmates did, and a lot more besides.
Karabel's work is more institutional history than traditional sociology. It came out in 2005 and should have gotten a lot more attention than it did, but it's very long, detailed, and carefully researched, and few people, including reviewers, take the time to read such books any longer. I have to admit that I haven't read all of it yet. It covers essentially the whole of the twentieth century, but I focused on the period 1920-1990, roughly. It deals fairly equally with Harvard, Yale and Princeton, whose policies differed in many ways. I'm going to spend most of my time on the discussion of Harvard, which has consistently cultivated an image as a meritocratic institution. Karabel shows that that image is largely false--and false in different ways than I realized.
In the late 19th and very early twentieth centuries, Harvard was mainly a preserve of the WASP establishment, drawing heavily for its student body on the new New England private schools like Groton, St. Paul's and St. Mark's, as well as the larger and slightly more democratic ones like Andover and Exeter. This Yankee stock was leavened by some bright local boys, including my grandfather, Harvard '09, a graduate of Lexington High School, and Joseph P. Kennedy, a bright young Irishman from East Boston. It also included a miscellaneous selection of bright young men from all over the country. This was the work of Charles W. Eliot, probably the greatest of Harvard Presidents, whose tenure included most of Progressive era. In
1908, his last year in office, 45% of freshmen came from public school and 9% and 7% of them were Catholic and Jewish, respectively. Eliot put by far the highest value on intellectual ability and even quarreled with his most famous alumnus, Theodore Roosevelt, over the value of football. But he was the exception, and his successor, Abbot Lawrence Lowell,saw things very differently. Lowell's tenure coincided with another fateful development: the production of a large new class of bright young men, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, many of them Jews, who were congregating in large eastern cities and graduating from outstanding high schools. In fact, by 1920 Columbia was already known within the Ivy League as a school that had ruined itself by admitting so many Jews that the better sort of gentile no longer wanted to attend it.
Lowell, who was personally responsible for the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which he recommended in 1927 to Governor Alvin Fuller, determined that Harvard should not suffer a similar fate. One fascinating thing about The Chosen is the degree to which even in the 1920s, overt, public ethnic prejudice was no longer tolerated, perhaps because millions of young men had just been drafted for the First World war. Lowell had to be coy about what he was doing, and he encountered plenty of opposition within and outside Harvard, but he devised a clever strategy which, with modifications, has been the key to Ivy League admissions policy ever since. By defining the ideal Harvard man not as an intellectual, but as a well-rounded gentleman combining brains with athletic ability, public-spiritedness, and mysterious, intangible qualities of character, Lowell provided his admissions officers with everything they needed to shape incoming classes to their liking And this they did. (Curiously, Lowell's idea of the ideal Harvard man was quite similar to Cecil Rhodes's desiderata for the recipients of his Oxford scholarships for Americans, Germans, and Commonwealth students.) In 1925, in the midst of Lowell's tenure, the freshman class was at least 28% Jewish--almost three times the proportion of Yale freshmen and almost ten times the percentage of Princeton frosh. But by 1933 (when James Bryant Conant took over as President) the percentage of Jewish freshman at Harvard was down to 12%. One casualty of this new policy, I am almost certain, was my own father, a Jewish graduate of New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn in 1930. He was evidently informed that he had done poorly on the math exam, but he was the salutatorian of his class and I frankly doubt that was the reason. On the other hand, had he been admitted, you would be doing something else at this moment, because had he not gone to the University of Wisconsin instead he would never have met my mother, whose Harvard- and Radcliffe-educated parents had settled in Madison in the 1930s.
Now it became somewhat easier for Jews to enter Harvard after the Second World War, although their numbers from the leading competitive high schools in the country, particularly Bronx Science and Stuyvesant in New York and Central High in Philadelphia, had to be severely restricted. But what is most striking about the many arguments over admissions during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, when I arrived myself (in 1965), is the continuing anti-intellectualism of most admissions officers and much of the higher administration. Again and again some one would ask whether Harvard wanted to be the American Ecole Normale--the elite national French school that trains lycee teachers--and again and again, the answer was a resounding no. Bright boys, it was said, suffered from all sorts of social disabilities, and in any case few of them ascended to the highest leadership positions in our society. (France may indeed remain unique in this respect: several "grandes ecoles" train most of the French elite, and it is my understanding that consistent, top quality academic performance remains the only way to get into them. It shows.) Carabel has a lot of data about the consequences of this policy, which was designed both to limit the number of Jews and to maintain Harvard's relationship with elite boarding schools. And here is where I got a real shock.
I went to a good private school myself, Loomis as it was then, north of Hartford, Connecticut. Loomis was not in the same league as Andover or Exeter, but it was relatively cheap, cheap enough for the average New England professional family to afford, and one-third of its students were day students, most of them from the best-off and brightest families in West Hartford. Loomis was a Yale feeder, not a Harvard one. Checking the 100 or so students in my yearbook, I find 9 who went to Yale and 5 who went to Harvard. Four of the Harvard admits, including myself, were academic standouts. Yet as I look back on it, Harvard used leadership criteria at Loomis as well. The President of the Student Council and the President of the Senior Class were almost automatic admits for Harvard, although in my year neither one decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
In any case, when I got to Harvard, various elements of my environment had brainwashed me to believe that the private school kids were, on the whole, a little smarter. Carabel has statistics showing how wrong I was. The majority of the admits from private schools--and this may even have included the two best, Andover and Exter--would have had no chance making it in from public school based on their academics. This was especially true of those from the smaller schools known collectively as "St. Grottlesex," including St. Paul's, Middlesex, and Groton, many of whom had SATs in the 1100-1200 range. Harvard was, in short, still cultivating its relations with the elite, and with alumni--largely for financial, as well as social reasons.
Did things change in the late 1960s? Yes and no. On the one hand, the civil rights movement led to an attempt to raise black admits (about 35 out of 1500 in my freshman year) to their proportion in the population, and pressure to admit more Hispanics and Asians followed. That did not however reflect any attempt to improve the overall intellectual level of the class, but rather an attempt to widen the elite which Harvard was training, partly as a matter of social justice and partly as an adjustment to new political realities. Indeed, the Asians seem to have posed a problem similar to the Jews half a century earlier--as the university admitted to the US civil rights commission in the mid-1980s, were admissions based purely on intellectual ability, there would have been more of them, not fewer.
Karabel's book, in my opinion, missed one important part of the story. While he makes it clear that all the big three catered shamelessly to the social and economic elite, he treats this mainly as a matter of "legacy" admissions, that is, the admission of children of prominent alumni. I think he missed something else: a weakness for the children of the political, cultural and economic elite, whether they had any previous ties to the admitting school or not. Karabel spends some time on the case of George W. Bush, Andover '64, Yale '68, making clear that he would never have been admitted to Yale (or probably, to Andover) but for his family connections. But he says nothing about Al Gore, a classmate of mine whom I knew as a freshman in Economics 1, and who I have plenty of reason to believe would never have been admitted had his father not been a U.S. Senator. Thus the 2000 election pitted a Yale grad against a Harvard grad--neither of whom could have gotten in on their own merits, a pattern that continued when they embarked upon their poltiical careers. This was the theme of a book by Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, which appeared just a year after Karabel's. Focusing on Harvard, Brown, and Duke, Golden showed what an extraordinary advantage both celebrity children and the children of wealthy families had. Even if they have never given substantial amounts to the admitting institution, that institution is willing to bet that they will.
My own experience with universities, of course, has been of a different kind--and thus the book left me with a somewhat different insight. Clearly our top universities cater to, perpetuate, and to some degree diversify our elites--but what, exactly, does this have to do with their original educational mission? In short, it occurred to me that universities that do not primarily value intellectual ability in picking their students would find it very easy to downgrade pure intellectual ability among their faculty, as well. It has been my experience that that is, indeed, the case.