A reader, all the way from Vienna, suggested an article in The New Yorker that he thought I, and you, would find interesting. He was right. I did, and you will.
“Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions,” by Malcolm Gladwell, tells the story, entertainingly and well, of the consternation created in the Ivy League after it turned to academically meritocratic testing early in the 20th century only to find that they were getting too many Jews.
The solution to this unfortunate problem was to turn away from the short-lived effort to admit the best students to a more all-encompassing look (some of us would, and do, call it “holistic”) at geography, extra-curricular activities, appearance (“Short with big ears” was noted on the file of one reject), even “manliness” — in short, “character.”
Although this effort can easily seem silly as well as obnoxious, Gladwell makes a strong case that this approach was not simply designed to exclude Jews, who were reduced after a while from 22% to 15% at Harvard. More substantially, it was an attempt to attract not the brightest but those who would become most successful — not those who would become the best law students, for example, but the best lawyers.
Gladwell argues that it worked. Others may disagree. Among the many things here that I find of interest is the confirmation of my view — argued here a number of times, most recently here — that in theory, principle, purpose, and practice there really is no difference between racial preferences today and Jewish quotas back then. “Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard” if it had too many Asians today, just as it wouldn’t have been if it had too many Jews then.
Gladwell finds the logic of this approach compelling. My problem is not with its logic, although even the logic of taking away Bob Jones’s tax exemption for a racially restrictive policy (against interracial dancing) that is arguably no more offensive than the pervasive Ivy League racial balancing that Gladwell seems to accept needs more work than he gives it.
An anonymous but astute reader send the following comment:
I was just about to write you about the gladwell piece but I see you already blogged it, and noted the obvious parallels between avoiding Jews and avoiding Asians. One thing you didn’t mention is the tactical similarity — when overt measures (Jewish quotas, race norming) were found distateful, the desired racial breakdown was accomplished by going fuzzy (“character” at Harvard in the 20s, “holistic review” at the University of California today as well as the endorsement of “winks, nods, and disguises” that distinguishes Grutter from Gratz).