Current Reading

I’m in the middle of a fascinating book on college admission and American life called The Source: The Secret History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Although it has an abundance of data, it’s a thoroughly readable account of how the three major American universities essentailly created the “meritocratic” admission process we now take for granted. Unfortunately, much of that was initially related to their desire to exclude Jews and other “undesireables” who didn’t live up to the WASP ideal. Jerome Karabel, the author, must have read every scrap of paper, every memo, and every report written in the past 100 years to produce this comprehensive tome. But it’s a fascinating glimpse into university life in America, beginning at a time when most people in the US didn’t go to college and didn’t expect to go to college.
It shows us how easy it once was to get in to these now-all-but-impregnable institutions, how careful they were to try to preserve their populations of the privileged, and how they eventually realizaed that they’d have to admit some of those “undesireables” in order to stay in business. Also interesting is the very prominent streak of anti-intellectualism in the outlooks of all three schools until recently: they were explicit about not wanting too many “brains” or “grinds” or other “bookish” types. Often in the early days this was code for Jews, who often were at the tops of their high school classes, but it was also a way for the elite to preserve their own positions. Karabel makes the point that one reason Harvard began to recruit more boys from outside New England and the mid-Atlantic was that there were fewer Jews outside the urban centers like New York, so they could make up enrollments lost by keeping them out with non-Jewish boys from Iowa.
Constantly in mind was how to preserve privilege and power. The question comes up often: How many Jews could a school admit without alienating the WASP elite, either current students or alumni? There are passages Karabel quotes from memos and letters that make you want to take a shower after reading them, they are so vitriolic about non-elites who want to get into these privileged bastions of power.
I keep wondering if someone without direct experience in college admission would be interested in this book. I have to say that Karabel has done an excellent job relating what was happening at these schools with what was going on in the culture at the time. One could make the case that, like an excellent biography (say Reynolds’ of John Brown that came out earlier this year), The Chosen compellingly weaves issues like immigration, democratic ideals, cultural expectations, and so on, into what could otherwise have been a very parochial book. I’ve recommended it to one of our history teachers who does a course on the Holocaust, for example. The book’s excellence begins with the wicked title, an ironic play on Potok’s The Chosen; here, “the Chosen” become “the excluded.”
One of the best books I’ve read in a while, and certainly one of the most illuminating books on college admission and its place in American culture ever published.