Okay, I’m only now beginning to catch up on some of the reading I missed during the high holy days. The October 10th issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell that resonated with me in some ways.
It turns out Malcolm is Canadian, from Toronto, and when he went to university, he chose 3 Ontario universities in order of preference on a form and mailed it in. He subsequently learned he had been accepted into his first choice, the University of Toronto. He notes:
Am I a better or more successful person for having been accepted at the University of Toronto, as opposed to my second or third choice? It strikes me as a curious question. In Ontario, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of colleges. There were several good ones and several better ones and a number of programsâ€”like computer science at the University of Waterlooâ€”that were world-class. But since all colleges were part of the same public system and tuition everywhere was the same (about a thousand dollars a year, in those days), and a B average in high school pretty much guaranteed you a spot in college, there wasn’t a sense that anything great was at stake in the choice of which college we attended.
Exactly. Many Canadians know that places such as McGill or U of T may have superior reputations, but you can find numerous exceptional departments at other universities and it is challenging to make the case that these schools are exceptionally superior to many other institutions of higher learning. It is also difficult to make the case that Canadians define each other to the same degree as Americans by their academic pedigree.
Gladwell, however, isn’t writing about Canada. He’s writing about the Ivy League schools in the U.S. Schools that have traditionally been among the most competitive in terms of entry requirements. There is no question that for many American students, admission to an Ivy League school is a prized and rare reward that immediately and permanently marks them (via their resumes, CVs, water-cooler chats, not to mention flirting tactics) as having reached the pinnacle of the American educational system, and perhaps by extension, the pinnacle of American society.
It appears, however, that there’s a dark side to elitism, although perhaps it has led to a system that is not as bad as it would seem. The problem began at the beginning of the last century when suddenly these elite universities began to worry about Jewish presence on their campuses – that is, having too many of them around. As a result, Key Ivy League universities such as Harvard precipitated changes intended to keep out too many of the little buggers from getting into their hallowed halls and classrooms. These changes, while maintaining some measure of institutional control over who may enter these desirable schools, have also defined, Gladwell posits, how we see elites and how they perceive themselves.
In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending. By 1908, the freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools…
…The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically.By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: â€œThe summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate . . . because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.â€
So what’s an elite college to do when the essence of the school – it’s elitism as partially defined by the characteristics of its graduates that were supposedly opposite those of the negative characteristics ascribed to Jews – comes under attack through those nefarious Jewish test-takers and strong high-school performers?
Lowell’s first ideaâ€”a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student bodyâ€”was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowellâ€”and his counterparts at Yale and Princetonâ€”realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.
The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the â€œcharacterâ€ of candidates from â€œpersons who know the applicants well,â€ and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. â€œStarting in the fall of 1922,â€ Karabel writes, â€œapplicants were required to answer questions on â€˜Race and Color,’ â€˜Religious Preference,’ â€˜Maiden Name of Mother,’ â€˜Birthplace of Father,’ and â€˜What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ â€
At Princeton, emissaries were sent to the major boarding schools, with instructions to rate potential candidates on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 was â€œvery desirable and apparently exceptional material from every point of viewâ€ and 4 was â€œundesirable from the point of view of character, and, therefore, to be excluded no matter what the results of the entrance examinations might be.â€ The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, â€œto ensure that â€˜undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.â€ By 1933, the end of Lowell’s term, the percentage of Jews at Harvard was back down to fifteen per cent.
Oy, the lengths they went to keep the Jews out.
In the nineteen-twenties, when Harvard tried to figure out how many Jews they had on campus, the admissions office scoured student records and assigned each suspected Jew the designation j1 (for someone who was â€œconclusively Jewishâ€), j2 (where the â€œpreponderance of evidenceâ€ pointed to Jewishness), or j3 (where Jewishness was a â€œpossibilityâ€). In the branding world, this is called customer segmentation. In the Second World War, as Yale faced plummeting enrollment and revenues, it continued to turn down qualified Jewish applicants. As Karabel writes, â€œIn the language of sociology, Yale judged its symbolic capital to be even more precious than its economic capital.â€ No good brand manager would sacrifice reputation for short-term gain.
Nice to read this, but not surprising. As far as I know there were artificial limits set in Canada as well at some institutions of higher learning. One can see, however, that after WWII, North American society had absorbed just how ugly this bigotry could become and while it took another couple of decades before one could see the impact of an era of social justice activism, there is no question that this has become one of the most open and, in fact and to the chagrin of some Jews, most assimilationist societies in Jewish diaspora history. Today, Harvard “boasts” about 25% Jews among its undergraduate population, has a large number of Jewish faculty, and its controversial but apparently very effective President, Larry Summers – who was prominent already when he was hired for the position – is openly and proudly Jewish.
The article points out that what had been intended as a strategy to maintain as much of the status quo as possible with respect to the characteristics of the student body, has taken on a much more profound meaning in the selection process for entry into these desirable universities and ostensibly into the elite circles into which they provide entry.
In the wake of the Jewish crisis, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton chose to adopt what might be called the â€œbest graduatesâ€ approach to admissions. France’s Ã‰cole Normale SupÃ©rieure, Japan’s University of Tokyo, and most of the world’s other Ã©lite schools define their task as looking for the best studentsâ€”that is, the applicants who will have the greatest academic success during their time in college. The Ivy League schools justified their emphasis on character and personality, however, by arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college. They were looking for leaders, and leadership, the officials of the Ivy League believed, was not a simple matter of academic brilliance. â€œShould our goal be to select a student body with the highest possible proportions of high-ranking students, or should it be to select, within a reasonably high range of academic ability, a student body with a certain variety of talents, qualities, attitudes, and backgrounds?â€ Wilbur Bender asked. To him, the answer was obvious. If you let in only the brilliant, then you produced bookworms and bench scientists: you ended up as socially irrelevant as the University of Chicago (an institution Harvard officials looked upon and shuddered). â€œAbove a reasonably good level of mental ability, above that indicated by a 550-600 level of S.A.T. score,â€ Bender went on, â€œthe only thing that matters in terms of future impact on, or contribution to, society is the degree of personal inner force an individual has.â€
Of course, these schools also allow in many legacy children – the fruity offspring of alumni, who do seem to frequently land pretty far away from the tree – not in small part because of the financial support provided by their parents. Harvard didn’t just stumble on to its endowment and all of those donated Chairs. But the point Gladwell is attempting to make, I believe, is that while the reasons for the system may have been unsavory and rooted in injustice, there is a certain method to the system that has prevailed. Rather than focus on the best students, the system now seeks out exceptionally strong students who also possess other unique attributes which will theoretically provide them with an edge over others as they proceed through life.
Subjectivity in the admissions process is not just an occasion for discrimination; it is also, in better times, the only means available for giving us the social outcome we want.
Is it a biased and subjective system? Absolutely. But although these may be considered the top schools in the USA and can definitely provide, say, a job applicant an edge over another applicant from a less respected school, what they are also providing is the illusion of superiority to their “client base.” By the way, these days their client base is – to a degree quite disproportionate with our percentage of the overall society – heavily Jewish.