Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keeping Jews Out of Yale

It's common knowledge that elite colleges (and even high schools) in recent years have struggled to stem the wave of Asian-American students with top-flight qualifications who want to get into their schools. Our student body needs balance, they say. We can't have too many of the same group of people. They only study, they don't participate in student life. The implication: They're all the same.

But fewer people know that this has happened before, except the "over-represented" group wasn't Asians -- it was Jews.
Thanks to Maggie Koerth-Baker's enewsletter, The Fellowship of Three Things, I just found out about Jerome Karabel's book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. You can read his chapter on how Yale tried to exclude Jews in the 1920s, thanks to Google Books. Here are some of the ways Yale's admissions men described the "Hebraic problem," which sound eerily familiar.

"Qualities of personality and character" should become allowable, not just passing the rigorous entrance exam. The admissions process should carry out "Personal Inspection of all Doubtful Candidates" and target scholarships to the "cultured, salaried class of native stock."

The chairman of admissions wrote: "it would give better publicity if we should speak of selection and of the rigid enforcement of high standards rather than of the limitation of numbers."

In October 1921, data revealed that "while Jews outperformed their non-Jewish classmates academically, they were relegated to the margins of Yale's dense extracurricular life and were totally excluded from the senior societies." Orchestra, debate, and the Socialism club were exceptions.

Jews were thought to be an "alien and unwashed element" who graduated "into the world as naked of all the attributes of refinement and honor as when born into it." They were "Alien in morals and manners" and lacking the "ethical code" of their fellow students, "taking…all that is offered or available and giving little or nothing in return." They lack "manliness, uprightness, cleanliness, native refinement, etc."

Not surprisingly, Jews weren't the only ones on Yale's list of undesirables. As one admissions officer wrote to another: "How many Jews among [the freshmen]? And are there any Coons? …Don't let any colored transfer get rooms in College."

By 1926, the school's daily newspaper had weighed in as well. Yale's new policy -- to give up on being a meritocracy of "abnormal brain specimens" -- should be based on "more consideration of the character, personality, promise and background of the individual in question." And: "Survival of the fittest should yield men who are equipped to do more than pass scholastic examinations or earn money."

Part of the new requirements included submission of a photo of the applicant, and the paper called on admissions to require photos of the applicants' fathers as well. Gee, I wonder what the point of that was?

By 1930, the percent of Jews in the freshmen class had fallen to 8.2 (after topping out in the mid-teens). The admissions men were proud they accomplished the decrease "without hue and cry and without any attempt on the part of those chiefly affected to prove that Yale had organized a pogrom." This ethnic cleansing language and thought continues: "…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."



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1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

English departments were long marked by this spirit of exclusion. Irving Howe: “Jews, it was often suggested, could not register the finer shadings of the Anglo-Saxon spirit as it shone through the poetry of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. (Christians did not seem to be similarly incapacitated with regard to the Old Testament.)”

I think back to the status T. S. Eliot held during my undergrad days and shudder.