Why would anyone choose Princeton over Yale?

Black shadows over the "Big Three"

When Princeton graduate Samuel Alito Junior, President Bush's new Supreme Court Judge-designate, soon has his ritual interrogation by ego-drunk senators behind him, the law schools of Harvard, Yale and Princeton should have champagne flowing. To celebrate, beyond the political quarrel about legal philosophies and the protest letter from 500 lawyers against the nomination of Samuel Alito, would be the almost total dominance of the "Big Three" in the country's highest court. They produced eight of the nine "lifelong"; Six of them graduated from Harvard.

Together, the judges form the most noble evidence of meritocracy and ethnic-racial emancipation in America's elite institutions with bows to Irish, Italian, Jewish, black and now Latino minorities. That is what the presidents of the last few decades wanted. It is no coincidence that the White House was occupied by a graduate of the "Big Three" for 47 years in the past 108 years. The 2004 presidential election campaign was contested by Yale graduates Bush and Kerry. One would think that Harvard, Yale and Princeton have always wanted it: talent and intellectual brilliance prevail over class and socio-economic privilege. Belief in it animates the self-creation myth of America and a global alumni network of the Ivy League that does more to America's reputation than its diplomatic corps. This belief is finally gaining the tremendous influence and billion dollar endowments of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Whoever touches it has powerful opponents.

The law firms of the "Big Three" reacted accordingly unamused when "The Chosen" by Jerome Karabel was published in December. The study by the sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley on the "hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton" proves more fully than any other book on the subject how racist and anti-Semitic they were in the selection of their students up until the late 1960s Years passed. The academic avant-garde was no worse, but neither was it fairer than the rest of America. That may be unthinkable long ago and now. It remains instructive and painful when the past overtakes the "Big Three". What Karabel proves on 711 meticulously researched pages (over 150 are notes) is the attempt by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, brilliant climbers, from 1920 on, especially the children of Eastern European Jews, to keep away from "gentlemen". Academic achievement was not required, but rather "character", "leadership", "well rounded men". Coming from the right family, being a good athlete, understanding the jokes of student clubs - that counted. Studying was something for sissies and spoilsport. A 1904 Yale yearbook boasted of having produced "more gentlemen and fewer scholars than any year in history".

To this day, Americans take it for granted that Ivy League universities prefer good athletes and the offspring of alumni (legacies) when they are accepted. Nowadays it is only among the other places that careful attention is paid to the fact that women or, say, students of Asian origin are not disadvantaged with the same performance in preliminary work and entrance exams. For someone "let's say from France, Japan, Germany or China", Jerome notes in his introduction, it is not easy to understand "why the ability to run with a ball or where the parents (of an applicant) studied" is crucial for admission to universities with the highest prestige. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you are outraged as a foreigner. Private US universities are allowed to give preference to whoever they want, within the framework of applicable anti-discrimination laws. Your choice does no harm like a doctor rejecting a sick person. In his review of The Chosen in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell concluded: "Elite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience (..), and they have always kept an eye on what needs to be done to achieve that experience to obtain."

It is really not difficult to understand what encouraged the talented sons of Jewish immigrants, who had come to the cities of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, especially on the east coast after 1880, to apply. You could show them in campus life how undesirable they were. Of the 1,200 Jewish students who attended Yale between 1900 and 1930, not a single one was elected to a prestigious association. The Big Three presidents and their admissions offices were progressive, not reactionary; they respected the achievements of Jews, Catholics, and even blacks (except in Princeton, where blacks were long excluded). But they feared their growing numbers. The quota for Jews was set at 15 percent at Harvard and at 10 percent at Yale. The prestige of New York's Columbia University, with no quota, declined as the number of Jewish students increased.

The "Big Three" never solved "the Jewish problem". To the annoyance of the WASPs, they weren't deterred. As Wilbur Bender, once responsible for student admission at Harvard, complained: "Jews are the feminized, delicate, affected and unstable". He needed "masculine, hot-blooded He-Men". Forgive, unforgotten. It was always alumni who resisted change most tenaciously. Be it the admission of women in the 1960s or the establishment of quotas for minorities ("affirmative action"). Of course, well-to-do Jewish families make alumni in the fifth generation for a long time. And they enjoy their privileges. Some critics have accused Jerome Karabel of failing to provide the recipe for bringing pure performance into the Ivy League without preferential treatment. It is one of the strengths of "The Chosen" to end in passionate self-doubt.