This New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell shows once again why, despite all the hype surrounding him, Gladwell really is one of the most perceptive social observers of our time. Gladwell is reviewing The Chosen by Jerome Karabel, which relates the history of the undergraduate admissions process at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
Have you ever wondered why that process places so much emphasis on sports, extracurriculars, personality, “leadership,” “character,” and suchlike, as opposed to the more obvious intellectual criteria? The answer, it turns out, is that in the early 1920′s, Harvard and Co. had to find some way to limit the number of Jewish admits:
By 1922, [Jews] made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school … Finally, Lowell — and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton — realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.
Gladwell writes that from that point forward,
The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities … The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.”
The byzantine admissions process that Harvard and the other name-brand schools set up pretty much remains in place to this day. (I still remember the “Potpourri” section of the Princeton application, which asked applicants to list their favorite movies, music, etc. It reminded me of the bridgekeeper from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?”)
Granted, the Ivy League admissions process no longer serves its original purpose, possibly because most American Jews have become so assimilated themselves. But today, the enormous preferences given to legacies, athletes, and other students of “character” work very similarly to limit the number of Asians. To which I can only say: huzzah! For as Gladwell explains: “If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.”