Classic review: The Chosen
Why being smart won't necessarily get you into Harvard.
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Princeton, in 1921, valued some of those qualities Cecil Rhodes looked for in his vaunted Rhodes Scholars, including "manhood" and "brutality" (assets that graduates of private prep schools like Andover and Groton were credited with possessing in abundance, while Jews, public school students, and, of course, women - admitted by Princeton only in 1969 - were not).Skip to next paragraph
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In a broader turn, Karabel uses admissions policies as a lens to examine privilege and access in the last century. Within his story of admissions at these influential schools, he shows how a slippery definition of merit has conformed to changing cultural and social values.
Xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and the eugenics movement, which marked the '20s, bled into the Ivy League in the form of discrimination against Jews. A push for a version of merit that hewed more closely to intellect coincided with a fear of falling behind the Soviet Union. The Civil Rights movement formed the backdrop against which black and other minority students and women were finally granted entrance.
It should come as no surprise that racism long girded much of the discussion behind admissions-office doors at these bastions of white, Protestant wealth. But somehow reading archival excerpts from alumni letters and remarks by university presidents is still shocking.
In 1922, to ensure no Jews slipped in, Harvard asked applicants: "What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully.)" As added insurance, photos were required. Meanwhile, Yale's student paper proposed its school request photos of applicants' fathers as well.
Some six decades later, in 1988, a US Department of Education investigation into alleged discrimination by Harvard against Asian-Americans turned up these notations in applicants' files: "short with big ears," "seems a tad frothy."
Those who work in the field today talk about perpetual political vying: There's the generous alum with a college-aged daughter. The band leader who needs a tuba player. A faltering football team searching for a quarterback. A drop in the yield of Latino students.
In the end, no one but the admissions officers forming a given class can truly know what makes someone Harvard or Yale or Princeton material in any year.
In Karabel's estimation, the perception that these elite schools have achieved a meritocracy is an illusion. Whether that's the ideal is almost another discussion.
The point is, as much as it defies dearly held beliefs about opportunity in this country, that sort of system doesn't exist, and hasn't for a very long time.
Teresa Mendez is a former Monitor staff writer.