Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (.)


A landmark, revelatory history of admissions from 1900 to today—and how it shaped a nationThe competition for a spot in the Ivy League—widely considered the ticket to success—is fierce and getting fiercer. But the admissions policies of elite universities have long been both tightly controlled and shrouded in secrecy. In The Chosen, the Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel lifts the veil on a century of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. How did the policies of our elite …

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College Conservative works hard(r/AdviceAnimals)

I’m very distrustful of such claims. What is considered a “jobless degree” today was a perfectly reasonable degree 30 years ago. We crack jokes about philosophy majors or english majors or history majors but there is nothing inherently bad about those majors.

We compare them to hard science majors or engineering majors without examining what exactly distinguishes them. Consensus on reddit appears to be that engineering majors are hard and liberal arts majors are easy. This is probably empirically valid in most US colleges but it wasn’t always the case. We used to have a serious liberal arts program in this country and you could expect to devote a considerable amount of effort into getting a history degree or a philosophy degree (or any of the humanities). The idea was “liberal arts” meant rigorous preparation for life in general–critical faculties, writing skills, etc.

A few things happened on the way to the forum. In the late 20th century college ceased to be the limited preserve of the rich and dedicated. Rather for the first time a significant percentage of Americans would attend college–partially due to the GI bill but also due to the spread of secondary education. Go have a look at the percentage of americans with high school diplomas pre WWII. It’s pretty amazing. This rise in enrollment coincided with a much less fortuitous change–the ascendance of the business school. Expanded from an original mission to produce (at the undergraduate level) book-keepers and (at the graduate level) managers, the business school has fashioned itself as a generalist trade school with a more expensive tuition. In doing so it has produced a much higher percentage of wealthy alumni (arguably the true goal of a university) who have in turn spent a great deal of money on the schools. Because of this cycle, the goal of business schools has metastasized to other departments–college must be considered a training ground for future employment.

The first thing to suffer in the training ground mentality is the humanities. Who needs to know about shakespeare or Weber (or Webster!) in order to manage a factory. Here we get to the last unfortunate coincidence.

At the time when liberal arts departments should have been mounting a concerted argument in their defense, they were engaged in internecine strife over cultural politics. The 60s (and really the 70s) marked a watershed in the humanities and social sciences. Colleges which had been segregating student bodies (yes, even into the 60s and even big, important colleges) now faced a huge backlash from students and faculty and opened departments devoted to post-colonial study, feminist and black/latino issues. don’t get me wrong. All of those departments needed to be opened up. anyone who says that we were learning a complete (or even moderately honest/comprehensive) history when it was all white men is ignorant of the actual goings on. But I digress. These professors and students didn’t just devote themselves to teaching black/latino/NA/feminist history. They relished in their victory and focused on the meta-issues like historiography and feminist/marxist/nationalist social theory. The snake began to eat its own tail and outside observers could see it. By the time the humanities awoke from their post-watershed slumber it was too late. The funding and students had gone, along with the expectation that liberal arts meant a strong and rigorous education rather than a simple “rounding out” of a business or engineering student.

There are some other factors at work here. Rising cost and student mobility (compare the average distance traveled for a student in 1960 w/ 1990 from high school to college) have given rise to an entitlement in the student body which the faculty isn’t all that quick to disabuse. One way it has been phrased is that students don’t really like homework and professors don’t like it either, so they both agree to an equilibrium with less of it (that’s from an omnibus study on grade inflation–I can find the cite but it may take me a while). “Good” degrees may just be those in fields which due to their own cultural leanings haven’t succumbed to lowered standards or lack of rigor. In some cases these are art classes (seriously talk to a BFA student at one of the big private art colleges, their workload is insane). In some cases these are math or engineering majors. But in other places they may be philosophy majors or anthropology majors or econ or poly sci.

Whew. Sorry that’s probably way long.

tl;dr American education underwent some serious shit in the last 60 years and we haven’t got it all figured out yet.

Edit: some sources just to let people see what I am and am not pulling out of my ass:

  • Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen isn’t about this issue per se but it does give a great window into how restrictive (in terms or race/class) Ivy Leagues were before WWII
  • Journal of Economic Perspectives article on grade inflation
  • There is a great book on the rise of the American MBA program in the 20th century whose name escapes me
  • On the rise of the “hard social sciences” and government funded lab work from the 30s to the 70s you can read Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams. I didn’t really talk about this above either but it is in the mix as well.

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Jerome Karabel

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (.)

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College Conservative works hard

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