Ivory Tower Intrigues

The pseudo-meritocracy of the Ivy League.

Thanks to Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen, I know now a great deal more about the circumstances surrounding my admission to Harvard in 1972 than I ever wanted to know. I understood even then that my unimpressive academic record would not have put me over the top had my father not attended Harvard. But I now know that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, supposedly a time when the admissions process had at last been freed of archaic bias, “legacies” were two-and-a-half to three times likelier to be admitted than was the average applicant; that admitted legacies ranked lower than average admits on everything Harvard cared about—personal attributes, extracurricular activities, academic achievement, recommendations, and so forth; and that the degree of preference granted legacies was only slightly less than that given to black candidates, who in turn received less of a thumb on the scale than did athletes. I was, in short, an affirmative-action baby.

Well, who among us isn’t? Karabel notes that even today 40 percent of Princeton’s freshman class consists of legacies, athletes, and under-represented minorities, the three chief beneficiaries of admissions preference. But Karabel’s larger aim in this epically scaled and scrupulously rendered history of the admissions systems at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is to call into question our confident use of words like “preference.” Along with works like The Big Test, by Nicholas Lemann, and The Shape of the River, by William Bowen and Derek Bok, The Chosen constitutes a second-generation defense of affirmative action, undermining the pat narrative of critics who imagine that our great universities operated according to a consensual, unarguable definition of “merit” until racial blackmail forced them to betray their principles.

There was never any doubt in my mind as to what Harvard was selecting for in 1972— intellectual brilliance. I knew that somewhere swam shoals of crew jocks and legacies far more square-jawed than I, but my world was IQ-denominated. My dorm consisted largely of ill-bred physics geniuses, Unabombers in the making. I had one friend who could talk to the kid who could, in turn, talk to the kid who as a freshman was said to have corrected a computing error by Harvard’s great mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre. Of such stuff were our legends made. But of such stuff, also, are tacit worldviews made. It took me years to figure out that life was not IQ-denominated, and that while academic intelligence was significantly correlated with success, the world defined “merit” far more variously than my little corner of Harvard had.

The task Karabel sets himself in The Chosen is to trace the evolution of tacit worldviews, each appearing fixed and immutable to its advocates, that over the last century determined who would and would not have access to America’s finest universities. It turns out, ironically enough from the point of view of my family trajectory, that the admissions systems at the Big Three were built expressly to keep out people like my father—smart, driven Jewish kids from gigantic New York City public high schools. Until 1920 or so, anyone could gain admission to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton by passing a battery of subject-matter exams; the lunkheads from Andover who couldn’t parse a literary paragraph could be admitted with “conditions.” Of course this meant the student body was heavily salted with “the stupid sons of rich men,” in the memorably pithy phrase of Charles Eliot, Harvard’s great Victorian-era president. But for the Harvard man, or, even more, for that paragon known as “the Yale man,” intellectual brilliance was a deeply suspect attribute, like speaking French too well. These young men had been bred for “character” and “manliness”—that ineffable mix of deeply heritable qualities prized by the WASP establishment, a mix that worthies like Endicott Peabody, the founder of Groton, the greatest of the “feeder schools,” believed could best be demonstrated on the football field. They would have considered my dorm companions less than human, not more.

And then along came the Jews—lots and lots of Jews. By 1920, the Big Three presidents were looking on in horror as Columbia, the Ivy League school situated in the midst of the melting pot, became 40 percent Jewish. These men shared the anti-Semitism almost universal in their class, but because they saw themselves as custodians of ancient and indispensable institutions, they did not simply dislike these uncouth scholars; they felt a deep professional obligation to keep their numbers to a manageable minimum. Karabel unearthed a letter from Harvard president Lawrence Lowell that delineates the issue with admirable, if stomach-turning, clarity: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.” The problem, in other words, was WASP flight.

The answer was selective admissions. In 1922, Lowell was reckless enough to think that he could solve “the Jew problem,” as he was wont to call it, with a straightforward quota. This provoked a mighty uproar among faculty members and outsiders with more tender consciences; instead, Lowell agreed to limit the size of the entering class and to institute recommendation letters and personal interviews. Yale and Princeton followed suit; and soon came the whole panoply familiar to this day: lengthy applications, personal essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities. This cumbersome and expensive process served two central functions. It allowed the universities to select for an attribute the disfavored class was thought to lack—i.e., “character”—and it shrouded the admissions process in impenetrable layers of subjectivity and opacity, thus rendering it effectively impervious to criticism. The swift drop in admission of Jews could thus be explained as the byproduct of the application of neutral principles—just as could the increase of minority students, 60 years later, in institutions seeking greater “diversity.”

The willingness of these universities to suffer real harms rather than admit more Jews is astonishing. Having long distinguished itself as a “national” and “democratic” institution, Yale by 1930 had become more insular, more parochial, and less intellectual as a consequence of the new admissions system. During World War II, with the size of the entering class size seriously depleted, Yale turned away qualified Jewish students rather than increase the proportion of Jews. “Yale judged its symbolic capital to be even more precious than its academic capital,” as Karabel dryly puts it. Or, to put it more contemporary terms, Yale understood the imperative to protect its brand.

We have grown accustomed to the idea that the academic, test-driven meritocracy began to replace the old, ascriptive order in the 1940s. This is the central theme of Lemann’s The Big Test. But Karabel demonstrates that the old order had a lot more staying power than is commonly thought. James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s midcentury president and an outspoken foe of inherited privilege, is widely credited with democratizing Harvard’s student body. But it turns out that Jews had only slightly better chances of admission under Conant, and the lunkheads of “St. Grottlesex,” as the feeder prep schools were collectively known, only slightly worse, than they had in the Lowell era. This was true not so much because Conant shared Lowell’s prejudices as because he operated under his constraints: Harvard needed “paying customers,” and it needed to preserve an environment that would keep those Brahmin scions happy. But it is also true that great WASP patriarchs like Whitney Griswold, Yale’s president in the ‘50s, shared the tribal prejudice against “beetle-browed” intellectuals.

The idea of merit-as-brains is really a product of the 1960s. Karabel attributes this in part to the growing power of the professoriat, whose deepest loyalties were to knowledge rather than to the institutions with which they were affiliated. Changes in the economy and Cold War competition also turned brain-power into a precious resource, thus changing the social definition of merit. And the egalitarianism of the 1960s, along with the enfeeblement of the WASP elite, made the old association of character with “breeding”—indeed, the very idea of character as a fixable commodity—seem ludicrous. As blacks, Jews, and women clambered over the ramparts, the one interest group that clung to the ancient ideals—the alumni—took up arms in defense of the walled ethnic garden of yesteryear. They were fossils, of course; but many of them were rich fossils. Karabel quotes the humiliating 1973 recantation of Yale president Kingman Brewster after many an Old Eli had committed rebellion-by-checkbook: “If Yale is going to expect her alumni to care about Yale, then she must convince her alumni that Yale cares about them.” And that helps explain why you-know-who was able to enroll you-know-where.

By the time the reader arrives at Page 374 of The Chosen, where the book’s affirmative action exegesis begins, he is fully persuaded of the folly of objectifying “merit” or “preference,” of piercing the veil of opacity, or in any case of preventing the great private universities from doing anything they deem in their self-interest. Are the same smokescreens that were once used to exclude the underprivileged now to be used to include them? Let it be. Karabel, whose role in redesigning Berkeley’s admissions policy in the late ‘80s in order to pass constitutional muster is described in The Big Test, and who remains one of the most thoughtful advocates of affirmative action, candidly concedes that the Big Three ramped up the admission of black students almost overnight owing not to some midnight conversion but to terror at the rising tide of black anger and violence—owing, that is, to racial blackmail. And because the elite universities began admitting large numbers of black students with sub-par academic records at precisely the moment they were becoming more “meritocratic”—i.e, more academically selective—affirmative action felt more like a violation of meritocratic principle than a recalibration of it. This painful fact continues to haunt affirmative action and is why even some advocates, like the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, have called for such programs to be phased out over time. But this is unlikely ever to happen, because universities now define “diversity” as a central virtue.

Karabel’s ultimate goal in deconstructing merit is not, however, to vindicate affirmative action but to expose the hollowness of the central American myth of equal opportunity. The selection process at elite universities is widely understood as the outward symbol, and in many ways the foundation, of our society’s distribution of opportunities and rewards. It thus “legitimates the established order as one that rewards ability and hard work over the prerogatives of birth.” But the truth, Karabel argues, is very nearly the opposite: Social mobility is diminishing, privilege is increasingly reproducing itself, and the system of higher education has become the chief means whereby well-situated parents pass on the “cultural capital” indispensable to success. “Merit” is always a political tool, always “bears the imprint of the distribution of power in the larger society.” When merit was defined according to character attributes associated with the upper class, that imprint was plain for all to see, and to attack, but now that elite universities reward academic skills theoretically attainable by all, but in practice concentrated among the children of the well-to-do and the well-educated, the mark of power is, like the admissions process itself, “veiled.” And it is precisely this appearance of equal opportunity that makes current-day admissions systems so effective a legitimating device.

What, then, to do? Karabel proposes that colleges extend affirmative action from race to class, as some have tentatively begun to do, and end preferences for legacies and athletes. I am on record elsewhere as having renounced the legacy privilege on behalf of my son—not that I asked him at the time—but Karabel’s own narrative has persuaded me that the elite universities are unlikely to end affirmative action for the overprivileged. If anything, The Chosen demonstrates the danger of imagining great universities as miniature replicas of the social order, and their admissions policies as simulacra of the national reward system. Yes, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are plainly open to, and in many ways driven by, our animating national ideals; but Karabel shows us that their admissions choices are profoundly shaped by cultural, political, and economic considerations that can not be wished away. If we care about equality of opportunity, perhaps we would do better to focus our attention on the public schools, on the tax system, on such social goods as housing and health care. I don’t think we can prevent meritocratic privilege from reproducing itself; we can, however, increase the supply of meritocrats.