The Underside Of The Ivies
Ever wonder what it takes to get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? Do the happy few who win higher education's golden ticket get in because of SAT scores or extracurriculars--or is it because Dad donated a building? Are the Big Three really academic meritocracies? Have they ever been? These are the questions University of California-Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel sets out to answer in his new book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton . Karabel, himself a 1972 Harvard grad, is already garnering high praise for pulling back the veil on the Big Three's at times problematic past (anti-Semitic policies, rampant anti-intellectualism, the exclusion of women and minorities) and for offering a sweeping 100-year retrospective on who has gotten into the Ivy giants, who has not, and why.
You spent much of the 1990s fighting a losing battle for the preservation of affirmative action policies at Berkeley. What made you write a 720-page history of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale?
I thought some historical perspective was needed. I wanted to call into question the notion that admissions, historically, had been done meritocratically, that somehow affirmative action was some violation of what had been a previously meritocratic system. I also wanted to question our notions of what merit was and to show how they had changed.
How have notions of merit changed in the past hundred years?
The first definition of merit was basically academic, with a heavy emphasis on the mastery of a particular curriculum that involved Latin and Greek. That's the pre-1920s definition. That was superseded by the definition of the all-around man of good character and good background. That in turn was succeeded by a definition, becoming prominent in the late 1950s in the context of the Cold War and Sputnik, of the intellectually gifted applicants with high test scores and specialized extracurricular excellence--the shift from the all-around man to the all-around class. Finally, during the 1960s and in the context of new social movements, merit was redefined to include diversity and inclusion.
That first change is perhaps the most surprising: Why did administrators decide to abandon purely academic considerations?
If you go back to early in the 20th century, the exam-based system we had was very similar to the systems of other countries. But when the "wrong people" --that is, the people deemed socially undesirable--started to pass the exam, administrators decided that this exam system was no longer viable. The question then became: On what basis would people be admitted to this limited freshman class? When these schools decided to introduce nonacademic criteria and weigh them heavily, it was one of the turning points in the history of American higher education.
You write that by emphasizing subjective traits like "character" and "manly vigor" over academic excellence, administrators were really trying to reduce the number of Jewish students on campus.
Columbia imposed the first quota in 1921, cutting Jewish enrollment from around 40 percent to 22 percent. Yale and Princeton followed in 1924, and Harvard in 1926. It wasn't until the social movements of the 1960s that Jews were able to apply and be admitted on an equal basis.