Gates Of Privilege

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (Houghton Mifflin, 684 pages, $28.00)

In 1958 a young British sociologist and Labour Party official named Michael Young published a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, coining the now-commonplace term. A mock sociology doctoral dissertation from the year 2030, it looked back over the development of an England that had attained what, for educational reformers of Young's day (and ours), was only a distant goal: true equality of opportunity, a society where success was determined not by connections or lineage or wealth but solely by an exact and foolproof calculation of merit. The formula was simple: intelligence plus effort.

The book, of course, was satire, but it was also a cautionary tale. After all, equality of opportunity, Young wrote, meant “equality of opportunity to be unequal.” Comfortable in the knowledge that the able were rewarded and only their inferiors left behind, the government, and the society as a whole, lost all concern for the less meritorious masses. Even members of the lower classes stopped agitating for any sort of equality; having been given a fair chance, they blamed only themselves for their fate -- that is, a footnote tells us, until they rose up in a revolt that claimed the life of the dissertation's author.

Young's dystopian vision hovers in the background of Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, which arrives -- this may not be a coincidence -- just as high-achieving high-school seniors all over the country enter in earnest into the college-admissions process. Not that many of them will have time to read a 552-page book -- not with essays to write, recommendations to secure, test-prep courses to take, and a few more fulfilling, unusual extracurricular activities to be discovered (and, preferably, led).

But come spring, the unlucky applicants, those called but not chosen, might want to turn to it for solace. Not just because Karabel says the game is rigged -- they'll no doubt decide that for themselves -- but because, right at the start, he emphasizes the fundamental oddness of the system by which Americans today pick their elites: “Just try to explain to someone from abroad -- from, say, France, Japan, Germany, or China -- why the ability to run with a ball or where one's parents went to college is relevant to who will gain a place at our nation's most prestigious institutions of higher education, and you immediately realize how very peculiar our practices are.”

Only slightly less unfamiliar to the French or Japanese education meritocrat would be such staples of the American application process as the interview, the letters of recommendation, the focus on racial and ethnic diversity, and on interests and activities and “character.”

“All in all,” Karabel writes, “the admissions process at America's leading colleges and universities has striking affinities to the system of selection to a private club. Given its historical origins, this resemblance is less than fully coincidental.” His book is an extended explanation -- and a meticulously researched, astutely argued, and (considering how much of it is given over to the machinations of university administration) surprisingly engaging one -- of how that happened. It focuses on the three universities that, more than any others, have over the course of the 20th century defined American elite higher education.

Karabel's central point is that, in a very basic sense, today's admissions process is less meritocratic than it was 100 years ago. Until the early 1920s, all of the “Big Three” had a simple policy: An applicant took the (not terribly difficult) entrance examination, and if he passed was admitted.

Karabel is careful not to take the point too far. Including subjects like Greek and Latin, the exams tested knowledge that most public-school students never had a chance to acquire (For that reason, Harvard began phasing out its Greek requirement in 1886). It's also true that those sons of the elite who couldn't pass the exams, even after repeated attempts, could still be admitted “with conditions,” and that, once admitted, they and their ilk dominated campus life.

Still, Harvard especially, thanks to its markedly liberal and hugely influential President Charles W. Eliot, prided itself on its openness. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt enrolled there in 1900, more than 40 percent of his classmates came from public schools, and many were the children of immigrants.

All of this changed, however, after World War I. Karabel's title implicitly names the cause. It was the increase in the number of Jews winning admission to elite colleges, and the horror their success aroused in the early-20th-century WASP gentleman, that gave us today's admissions process.

The example of Columbia University sounded the alarms at the Big Three. By 1920 the proportion of Jewish students at Columbia had reached nearly 40 percent, and the New York elite abandoned it, sending their sons elsewhere. Even the university's establishment in 1910 of an admissions office (the nation's first) expressly to deal with the problem -- by applying now-familiar admissions criteria like “character” and “leadership qualities” -- didn't stem the tide. It ebbed only with the imposition of a formal quota in 1921.

To avoid a similar fate, the Big Three, seeing a rise in their own Jewish student populations, quickly instituted quotas of their own, Harvard after an acrimonious public debate -- the retired Eliot was adamantly opposed, his conservative successor A. Lawrence Lowell determinedly for -- Yale and Princeton more quietly.

Karabel has combed through the public and private correspondence of the men who pushed these changes through, and he turns up some rather horrifying comments about “the Hebrews.” In 1933 Yale's president, James Rowland Angell, wrote his director of admissions in what Karabel interprets as a joke about the geographic concentration of Jewish applicants, “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.”

But, Karabel argues, while the new admissions policies were blatantly discriminatory, they were as much about preserving a culture as the purity of bloodlines. In one of the book's most fascinating sections, Karabel uses the story of the Groton School and its charismatically severe founder, Endicott Peabody, to describe the creation of a certain Protestant elite ideal in the late 19th century. At Groton, founded in 1884, Big Three–bound students like FDR (who maintained a loyal, almost apostolic relationship with Peabody until the headmaster's death in 1944), were molded not for academic brilliance but to be paragons of what Peabody called “vigorous, virile, enthusiastic character; a gentle, sympathetic, and unafraid example of muscular Christianity.”

The living conditions were austere, football was mandatory, and brutal hazing rituals were condoned. The schools were set up, Karabel writes, “to expose the young men who went through them to the experience of both obedience and command, often under trying conditions,” to train a certain sort of national, even imperial, leader. At a time when the American Protestant elite felt both threatened by waves of immigrants and emboldened by the country's growing global strength, institutions like Groton -- and the Big Three -- were ruled by “an uneasy admixture of two seemingly contradictory systems of belief: gentility and social Darwinism.” In such a setting, boys from immigrant Jewish families, Karabel writes, “raised in a milieu in which the scholar traditionally occupied the highest place and manliness was judged more by learning than physical prowess,” were a curiosity and, in sufficient numbers, an affront.

What is it, then, that changed between then and now? In part it was the result of concerted efforts by liberal reformers such as Harvard President James Bryant Conant, Yale President Kingman Brewster, and Yale dean of admissions R. Inslee Clark Jr. -- though Conant in particular, Karabel argues, owes his progressive reputation more to public pronouncements than to actual policy changes.

Mostly, however, change came from outside. After World War II and the revelations of the Nazi “Final Solution,” any policy that smacked of anti-Semitism became publicly indefensible, and the Big Three had to loosen their quotas.

At the same time, the Cold War, and the Soviet success in beating the United States into space with Sputnik, created a sense that American higher education was failing to keep pace, and that it needed to better train a new scientific and technocratic elite. Congress declared an “educational emergency”; finding and training the best brains was cast as a matter of national survival.

The huge infusion of federal research money triggered by such concern also changed the financial dynamics at elite universities, making them less dependent on conservative alumni who used the threat of withheld donations to get their way and giving new power to the faculty -- who favored admissions policies based more purely on academic achievement -- because they could attract the federal money.

In general, Karabel argues, the universities' increasingly inclusive admissions policies sprang from institutional rather than moral considerations. The move toward attracting more (or, in the case of Princeton, allowing any) black students he ties to the fear of on-campus radicalism and to larger concerns that the race riots of the mid-1960s were an existential national threat. The decision to admit women, Karabel argues, was driven primarily by a concern that all-male colleges were losing their best male applicants to co-ed competitors, and that doubling the pool of qualified applicants would allow greater selectivity.

Karabel's central point, though, is that all of these changes were carried out within the fundamentally conservative framework set up in the early 1920s to keep out bookish Jews. The carefully maintained racial diversity of today's Big Three, for example, is not merely a matter of removing barriers but of adding minorities to the list of those who get preferential treatment in the admissions process -- a process that remains, at base, fundamentally political, with different constituencies (alumni, faculty, athletic coaches, mobilized minority groups) competing for space in the freshman class. As Karabel puts it, “Power -- including the capacity to shape the very categories used to classify candidates for admission and to designate specific groups as warranting special consideration (e.g. legacies and historically underrepresented minorities, but not disadvantaged whites) -- is at the center of this process.”

Which brings us back to Young's dark satire about the meritocracy. Ultimately, there is a barely resolved tension at the heart of Karabel's book, detailing as it does the many failures of the Big Three to live up to their meritocratic ideals. In his final chapter, Karabel decries the heavy advantage that those schools continue to accord legacy applicants and athletes, and he takes them to task for admissions policies that still decidedly favor the rich (the Big Three today, he charges, are actually less economically diverse than they were 40 years ago).

But like Young, Karabel is also deeply skeptical of meritocracy itself, calling it “seriously flawed as a governing societal ideal.” He emphasizes the unabashed elitism of such meritocrats as Conant and Brewster, men comfortable with vast inequality as long as it correlated with ability. Today, Karabel points out, two-thirds of Americans believe that “people have equal opportunities to get ahead,” and only 28 percent favor government action to reduce income inequality, whereas in England, those numbers are practically reversed.

Karabel's book, then, directs its quiet outrage toward fixing the faults of a system whose goals he only reluctantly shares; he closes The Chosen with an approving description of Young's ideas. Ultimately, it's hard to know which Karabel would prefer: a more finely discriminating admissions system or one that didn't discriminate at all.

Drake Bennett is a staff writer for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.