Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. 711 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $28.00

Dec 18, 2005 5:12 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. 711 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $28.00

Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Houghton Mifflin; $28.00; 711 pages) is an extraordinary work, exhaustively researched and persuasively argued. It certainly ranks with the best books on higher education written in recent years, such as James Shulman and William Bowen’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001) and George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994). Indeed, it may end up as influential as anything written since Laurence Veysey’s classic Emergence of the American University (1965).

Karabel focuses on fewer institutions that Veysey did, but covers a span of over 100 years. Moreover, if only because the three schools he does examine tend to set the standard for their would-be competitors, the implications of his study range far beyond Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton. Karabel himself doesn’t try to address all of these implications, but in the light of his book they will be harder—let us hope, impossible—to avoid.

The first third of the book—“The Origins of Selective Admissions, 1900-1933”—contains material that will surprise anyone who thinks that colleges and universities in that period were just like colleges and universities today, only smaller. At the turn of the 20th century, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn’t turn down all that many applicants, and they surely didn’t find it necessary to market themselves. Only when they found themselves faced with applicants who seemed to be not “the right kind of people”—especially Jews (generally called “Hebrews” in the correspondence of the time)—did they find it necessary to become truly “selective.” All three institutions solved their “Jewish Problem” by setting quotas—and doing it so explicitly that it will startle even readers familiar with the racist candor of that day.

This will not come as news to everyone, such as readers of Marcia Graham Synnott’s The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admission at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, 1900-1970 (1979). But, dealing with an issue about which indignation and simplification come easily, Karabel takes the time to document just why the powers-that-were at the Big Three found the prospect of “too many” undergraduates from the Bronx High School of Science downright alarming. Far from prejudice-free themselves (anyone knowing anything about Harvard’s President Lowell will nod assent here), they were far from confident that an equally or even more prejudiced public opinion (especially alumni opinion) would continue to hold them in high regard if the composition of undergraduate enrollment changed dramatically.

The second part of the book—“The Struggle over Meritocracy, 1933-1965”—considers another familiar story: how Harvard’s James Bryant Conant, tired of educating “the stupid sons of the rich,” increasingly based admission upon “objective” exams such as the SAT, admitted more and more Jews and other students from public schools, and in general committed Harvard, which was followed by its peers, to genuine equality of opportunity. Probably the best known recent version of this story is Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999).

Karabel modifies Lemann’s interpretation considerably. Through close examination of what Conant and others said and actually did about admissions, he shows that even Harvard talked the talk better than it walked the walk. Even when academic “merit” supposedly mattered most, being a legacy or an athlete provided an applicant with a substantial advantage in the admissions process. All three schools worried about having too many “intellectuals” on campus and found ways to define their admissions standards so that non-academic considerations carried considerable weight. The height (or depths) of this policy came in the early 1960s when Harvard’s Fred Glimp pursued the policy of selecting a “happy bottom quarter”—the part of each class occupied by mediocre students whom everyone knew to be mediocre, but who were happy just to be at Harvard and presumably made other contributions to campus life.

The book’s final third—“Inclusion and the Persistence of Privilege, 1965-2005”—begins with the famous story of Yale’s President Kingman Brewster and his admissions director, Inslee “Inky” Clark, who opened up Yale admissions to an unprecedented degree and antagonized prestigious prep “feeder” schools and huffy alumni in the process. Again, this tale has been told before, notably in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment (2004), but Karabel’s nuanced narrative shows how limited even this short-lived “revolution” was, and how strong the backlash.

By the mid-1970s, the admissions process, the rhetoric surrounding it, and the results closely resembled what we still see today. And despite all the talk about “equality of opportunity” and “merit,” the reality is that the basis of admission to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is as subjective as it ever was. While they are obviously more “accessible” to some groups—after all, all three now admit women and African Americans—some applicants are still more equal than others. It pays to be a legacy, an athlete, or a member of at least some minorities.

Karabel’s last chapter, “The Battle Over Merit,” grapples briefly with the complexities involved in embracing so limited a commitment to equality of opportunity (a commitment that extends to race and gender, but not yet to class), and with the limitations inherent in the notion of equality of opportunity itself, as it now plays out in an increasingly stratified, unequal society. It may sound strange to say of a book with 557 pages of text, but one wishes it had spent more time on elite higher education’s place (both really and ideally) in contemporary America. But whether Karabel chooses to write more about such questions or not, the rest of us should take them to heart. More than ever, elite colleges and universities are key dispensers of power and privilege in a society obsessed with credentials. How that happens is too important to be left solely to a handful of college presidents and admissions directors.

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