What Yale Can Teach the World About the US

Roundup: Media's Take

Amity Shlaes, writing in the Financial Times (London) (Feb. 9, 2004)

John Kerry, Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Joe Lieberman all have something in common, and it is not merely that they spent January running for the US presidency. They are all Yale men.

But then Bush v Clinton was also a Yale v Yale event. A Yale graduate has occupied the Oval Office for a decade and a half now. Assuming Hillary Clinton (Yale Law School, 1973) is all her fans hope, the reign of Yale could stretch to 2012.

Observers argue that Yale's dominance reveals something shameful: moneyed dynasties rule the US. The fact that several of the politicians (both Bushes, John Kerry) belonged to a Yale senior society, Skull and Bones, seems to underscore the claim of exclusivity.

But we can also argue the opposite: that Yale's dominance today proves the value of adopting a conscious policy to effect meritocratic change.

This is a story that starts with old Yale, founded in 1701. That Yale enjoyed bright periods and distinguished graduates. But it also suffered long stretches of mediocrity, during which it was known principally for its peculiar rallying cry,"Boola, Boola". Compared with the University of Chicago after the second world war, for example - or the University of Wisconsin before it - Yale was not so exciting. The only president Yale produced for a century and a half was William Howard Taft - remembered by most Americans as the president so corpulent that he is reported to have got stuck in a White House bathtub.

Yale's problem was that it cared more about class than quality. The college excluded all qualified women, nearly all qualified blacks, many qualified Jews and some qualified Catholics. It routinely rejected pupils from public schools - the state schools of towns and cities - on principle. It lagged behind Harvard when it came to accepting outstanding students. Eugene Rostow, who later became Lyndon Johnson's under-secretary of state, was a Yale undergraduate in the 1930s. In a student publication, the Harkness Hoot, Rostow noted that there were no Jewish faculty members. This was a message to the serious Jewish student that"his academic ambitions can never be realised".

In the 1960s, however, two successive Yale presidents, A. Whitney Griswold and Kingman Brewster, set about making a new Yale. As Dan Oren writes in his book, Joining the Club, the pair hired Arthur Howe and R. Inslee Clark as admissions officers, who insisted that Yale must open its gates wider if it wanted to achieve greatness. By 1964, the share of freshmen admitted from public schools stood at 56 per cent, compared with 36 per cent in 1950.

In the early 1970s Yale admitted its first women to the college. The new arrivals were quicker and tried harder than the old Yale boys. Admissions policy became"need blind"; the university picked students first, then figured out how much financial support they required, and delivered much of it.

Today this outcome looks as though it must always have been inevitable. But it was not."Let me get down to basics," a member of the Yale Corporation told"Inky" Clark."You're admitting an entirely different kind of class than we're used to. You're admitting them for a different purpose than training leaders." Mr Clark insisted that admitting talent and creating leaders were one and the same. The Corporation official disagreed."You're talking about Jews and public school graduates. Look around you at this table. These are America's leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here."

In the 1960s and 1970s it was Yalies marching for the Black Panthers or protesting against the invasion of Cambodia who garnered national attention. But in retrospect, the bigger news was the internal revolution."This was a switch to a meritocracy both for students and faculty," recalls Donald Kagan, the Yale classicist and historian. The new Yale made everything seem possible, and this in turn made the university enormously attractive. Its environment inspired new Yalies such as Senator Joe Lieberman, who came from public high school in Stamford, Connecticut. George Pataki, New York's governor (Yale, 1967), recalled how Yale showed his Hungarian family they might rise in America. When Mr Pataki's brother was admitted to Yale without a scholarship, his postman father went to the admissions office and told them:"There must be something wrong here. You denied him a scholarship." As Mr Pataki noted:"In a matter of days, Yale worked out a significant scholarship for my brother."

At the new Yale, the children of older money - John Kerry (Yale, 1966), Howard Dean (Yale, 1971) - were forced to compete with students from very different backgrounds. As for George W. (Yale, 1968), he simultaneously partook of the Old Yale and, as a cowboy populist, rejected it. For students from these privileged backgrounds, the new policy raised questions that their predecessors would not have had to consider and produced complicated, thoughtful men and women - in short, leaders.

To focus on Yale too much, however, misses the point. For the positive consequences of the 1960s' emphasis on opportunity are visible across the country. What this nearly-all-Yale campaign year reveals is the long-lasting power of a discrete and beneficial policy shift, even when that shift comes lamentably late. Or, as a Yalie would put it:"Boola, Boola."

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