The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel

I wrote this review for the IACAC newsletter…

Review by Willard M. Dix
College Counselor, University of Chicago Laboratory H.S.

“The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale,”

Jerome Karabel’s thoroughly researched and immensely engrossing study of the admission practices at America’s three most prominent universities over the last century contains any number of surprises that should give pause to anyone who thinks there is something sacred or pristine about college admission or who thinks that college admission has fallen from a more meritorious time. Readers will be appalled at how systematically Jews and African Americans were excluded from the hallowed halls and surprised at how hard these supposed bastions of intellect worked to limit the number of “brains” in order to accommodate the wealthy but more modestly gifted gentlemen who were the real backbone of each class. Finally, every reader will pause to wonder at how the terms “merit” and “meritocracy” can mean so many things to so many people, depending on where they stand in relation to elites. In a sea of entertaining but ultimately inconsequential books about college admission, Karabel’s stands out as a serious and worthy examination of how college admission and American society are inextricably intertwined.

Books on college admission that are more than “how to get in” manuals usually try to give a sense of what an admission committee does as it sifts through mountains of paper trying to find the right students to admit. Others take a more cynical view of the process as not much more than a reshuffling of already privileged students in a rarified atmosphere of striving and excess. While both views can be justified, they offer only a tiny slice of admission life that has little long-term utility. Readers may search these books for “secrets” to admission, but at the end of each, they really know little more about the process than did the newshounds digging into the life of Charles Foster Kane. The Chosen is our Rosebud, the key to the mysterious world of college admission that makes a lot of our current situation seem intelligible if not sensible. More than that, it puts college admission in context within the American system of class and culture. Its conceptual power rests in its ability to connect the process of college admission with more fundamental ideals of American society, both positive and negative: democracy, elitism, “meritocracy,” racism, anti-intellectualism, money, and power. Its explanatory power rests in its careful analysis of this microcosm, dissecting it in enough ways to satisfy the careful reader.

Karabel seems to have read every report, memo, letter, and folder dealing with college admission at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale over the last hundred years, combining this thoroughness with an equally intense scrutiny of admission data. He skillfully combines both to produce compelling portraits of elite institutions that both catered to and created the American elites of the early and middle twentieth century, as well as of the presidents and admission officers who created the system we have today. Discussing the im portance of boarding schools for Princeton, for example, he writes, “Throughout the interwar period, Princeton remained highly dependent on a small number of prep schools…Just fifteen schools [including Lawrenceville, Choate, Exeter, Hill, and Andover] provided nearly half the freshman class in 1932…While these schools may have varied sharply in social prestige, they had one thing in common: they supplied the kind of young man Princeton most wanted: well-mannered upper- or upper-middle-class Protestant boys who could pay their own way.” The situation was similar at the other schools: they were intent on catering to the WASP elite, not only to stay in business, but also to ensure their status as educators of those who would eventually run America’s corporations, businesses, and the government itself. This despite the fact that, according to a Harvard report as late as 1959, “the New England private schools supply over 40% (187/463) of our flunk-outs and drop-outs, but less than 20% (68/344) of our magnas and summas.” Regardless of this fact, it is clear that these schools had a vested economic, social, and cultural interest in maintaining their ties with these elites and often acted not in the public interest but in their own, often to the detriment of other social groups.

These policies did not come without debate among the officers of these institutions. Karabel does an excellent job of showing how college presidents like James Bryant Conant of Harvard and Kingman Brewster of Yale entered the discussion with careful and principled stances about serving all populations, and how admission deans like Fred Glimp of Harvard and R. Inslee (“Inky”) Clark of Yale entered the fray, becoming the sometimes unwilling architects of the structure that helped determine who was to be a member of the “elite” and who was not. Karabel has not written an expose so much as a dissection of this seemingly monolithic piece of Americana. There’s no black-and-white here, but many shades of grey that can have a reader alternately cheering and lamenting.

The determination to cultivate and maintain their positions as leaders of American culture led Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to enforce distasteful and often vicious prejudices against Jews, blacks, perceived homosexuals, the poor, and, most peculiarly, “brains,” who often came from public schools. It was thought that too many of any combination of these characteristics would drive out the WASP elite who, while not terribly interested in intellectual pursuits (think “gentleman’s C” or worse), contributed their cachet as well as their cash to their eventual alma maters. (The matter of women’s attendance was not even substantively discussed at any of these institutions until well into the 1950s.) It was critical for the universities to maintain their ties to the wealthy and influential. Karabel shows how, out of this need, and not a more Jeffersonian idea of looking for the “best” no matter where they came from, arose the idea of using “merit” as an admission criterion. Not coincidentally, Karabel says, our modern way of thinking about college admission arose from this concept.

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had a problem as more students from public schools in East Coast urban areas began to pass university tests and expect to be admitted: They were often Jewish and, to make matters worse, immigrants from Eastern Europe, neither “clubbable” or attractive enough (physically as well as otherwise) to enhance the universities’ standing with their main constituents. They needed a way to control the numbers of these brainy yet undesirable boys without looking as though they were simply targeting Jews or any other specific group. Chillingly, Karabel connects the birth of the “selective admission” system with the “response of elite private colleges to the ‘Jewish problem’” and worse in the early 1920s. He writes that

The creation of a new system of admissions occurred in the midst of one of the most reactionary moments in American history—a few years in the first half of the 1920s defined by rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, widespread political repression, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan as a genuine mass movement, the growing prominence of eugenics and scientific racism, and the imposition by Congress of a racially and ethnically biased regime of immigration restriction.

From today’s vantage point this seems both horrifying and heretical, since we have come to believe that colleges look at applicants on the basis of strict measures of “merit” that have nothing to do with institutional, personal or cultural biases. In many ways, the admission process today is more clearly and productively “meritocratic” but when looked at through Karabel’s eyes, it takes on a much more complex and worrisome character. This is a heavy charge to lay against our most prestigious universities, but Karabel (himself a Harvard graduate) makes it stick: It’s sickening to read how the president of Yale suggested, in a “humorous” memo to Robert Nelson Corwin, the chairman of Yale’s Board of Admission from 1920-1933, how they might reduce Jewish enrollment: “It seems quite clear that if we could have an Armenian massacre confined to the New Haven district, with occasional incursions into Bridgeport and Hartford, we might protect our Nordic stock almost completely.’”

Failing that, the universities came up with a subtler method: Including ideas of “merit” in the admission process meant codifying and considering non-academic qualities by which applicants could be “legitimately” evaluated and excluded without leaving too much evidence of discrimination. Well into the 1950s, Wilbur Bender, chairman of Harvard’s Committee on Admission from 1952-1960, didn’t mince words. Karabel writes,

The underlying difference between ‘desirable students’ and the ‘top brains’ was that the latter would become ‘scholars, scientists, teachers,’ while the former were destined to hold major levers of political and economic power in American society. Bender put the issue bluntly: ‘If we go too far out in left field, we lose our capacity to influence and contribute to American life.’ In the end, enrolling too many intellectuals would make Harvard ‘too isolated from America.’”

“Intellectual” was often another code word for “Jewish” as opposed to the more “well-rounded” WASP. As a result, evidence of leadership, “character,” athletic prowess, “well-roundedness,” “manliness,” and other non-quantifiable (and supposedly non-Jewish) elements became significant and often deciding factors for admitting or rejecting students, regardless of, or sometimes in spite of, their academic standing. “Merit” became the mysterious penumbra that surrounded the boys Harvard, Yale, and Princeton wanted and that was determined to be lacking in those they did not. Karabel shows conclusively that “merit” was not then and is not now a standardized yardstick against which all were measured, but an elusive condition that admissions people knew when they saw it and which could be stretched and molded as needed in order to serve the institution. It served most strongly to bolster each institution’s own prejudices and functioned as a way to keep boys out rather than bring them in: Karabel observes that “One boy gained admission [to Yale] despite an academic prediction of [low grades] because ‘there was apparently something manly and distinctive about him that had won over both his alumni and staff interviewers.’”

A major virtue of The Chosen is its consideration of college admission in the context of American life. Too often we see college admission in a vacuum, as though nothing but pure rationality drives it. Karabel demonstrates conclusively that this is not the case, far from it. He looks at admission from economic, social, and cultural viewpoints, stirring up debate as he goes along. Harvard’s grand search for bright boys from the “hinterlands” under its renowned scholarship program begun by the brilliant and farsighted Harvard president James Bryant Conant in the 1930s is tainted by the fact that Harvard also needed to find bright boys away from “urban areas,” in other words, boys who weren’t Jewish. Sadly, this was not Conant’s intent. He was a remarkable democrat who foresaw the need to bring boys from every walk of life to Harvard. Karabel notes that Conant believed that “Privately endowed colleges had a duty to provide generous scholarships so that youth of great ability but little money could attend. ‘Only thus…can the road to the top be kept open and the spirit of democracy…prevail in our halls of learning.’” But the need for paying customers, elite connections, and maintaining its status prevailed at Harvard, keeping out “undesirables” until relatively recently.

Another idol-toppling moment comes when Karabel contends that the increase in minority enrollments that began in the late 1960s came less from these universities’ desire to uphold basic democratic principles of civil rights than from their realization that they really had little choice in the matter. Rather than being leaders in educating young men (and, finally, women) from all walks of life, they were followers and in some ways craven enough to put their own interests above national ideals of democratic equality of opportunity. He details events in the 1960s such as the sit-ins at Harvard and Yale that finally drove well-meaning liberals like Kingman Brewster of Yale to see that, in order to maintain their positions as relevant American institutions, they would have to change.

Despite overturning many rocks and finding a wealth of unpleasant creatures, Karabel manages not to cast the universities as villains so much as institutions caught in the web of American elitism, exceptionalism, capitalism, and self-interest. Toward the end of the book, he sees them as powerful engines of American social structure that change and are changed by shifts in American culture. As these universities began accepting blacks, women, and others toward the end of the twentieth century, they were simultaneously legitimizing those groups’ presence in the social order and preserving their own places within it. As he writes, “Throughout the twentieth century, the men who presided over the Big Three were acutely aware that the legitimacy of the American social order—and of the position of elite private colleges within it—was vulnerable to challenges from below.” During periods of upheaval such as the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the 1960s, “liberal reformers dedicated to changing the system in order to preserve it [rose] to prominence.” It is this complexity threading throughout the book that makes it a compelling and often astonishing history of American life as seen through the lens of college admission, and vice versa.

Highly readable and remarkably detailed, The Chosen is indispensable for understanding college admission (or “exclusion”) as a part of the American social and cultural system. A fascinating glimpse into the world of the privileged at a time when their privilege was seldom questioned and their “merit” was taken for granted, it is also a great antidote to the simple and simpleminded view of the college admission process as somehow scientific and above subjectivity. As a discussion of “merit” and “meritocracy” it also takes on American ideas of “equality of condition” versus “equality of opportunity,” concepts that have driven discussions about affirmative action in the last forty years. Its length (nearly 700 pages, including extensive and detailed notes) unfortunately may preclude its attractiveness to a larger audience, but it has much to say not only about college admission but American life and ideals in the 20th and early 21st centuries. From his wickedly ironic title (a direct reference to Chaim Potok’s The Chosen) to its discussion of possibilities for change, Karabel has provided us with a necessary look at an important yet mysterious American rite of passage and of American culture itself.