Jews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is both an interesting read and a source for dozens of fascinating anecdotes. Let’s spend a month or so going through it. Today is Day 6.

[P]art of a larger shift, only complete after the end of WWII, from a system in which private boarding schools supplied Williams with its students, to one in which students were drawn equally from public high schools.

A central theme at EphBlog: Williams has changed much less over the last 50 years than most people claim. The College is guilty of feeding this belief with its recurrent claims that Williams is much more wonderful today than it has ever been before. The implication, of course, is that the folks who run Williams today are much smarter and/or less prejudiced than folks like Jack Sawyer ’39, much less Harry Garfield ‘1885. That is an ego-stroking story with, however, little basis in reality. The clearest place to see this trend is in admissions, where, to the extent there have been changes, those changes have been driven by outside forces. We started taking more students from public high schools 50 years ago, not because we started hating (private) Deerfield or liking (public) Scarsdale but because we started getting more interest from high quality applicants from public high schools than we used to get.

Williams does not seem to have experienced the dramatic shift in admissions policies seen at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the 1920s . . .

Correct. Now, we would like to believe the Williams administration was more enlightened and so never would have considered the Jewish quotas — and the rigamarole of “character” assessments associated with them — that HYP implemented. But it is even more likely that Williams was simply lucky. So few Jews applied that we felt no impetus to discriminate against them.

Ironically the very term “meritocracy” only came into widespread use long after the quota system was imposed at the Ivies. Conversations about access to elite institutions such as Williams in the 1870s, the 1920s, or the 1940s were not couched in terms of establishing a meritocracy. It was in 1958 that Michael Young published his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, which playfully attacked the premise that meritocracy could thwart an unjust distribution of wealth and power by presenting a world in which the “best” of the oppressed classes are promoted into the ruling classes—thereby decimating the leadership pool of the former groups, which might have helped to create structural changes that erased inequality at its root. Young’s satire gave great currency to “meritocracy” despite its critique of meritocratic dreams, and it was during the turbulent 1960s that the idea of meritocracy was linked to the goal of making American higher education more diverse.

Young’s book is amazing. Highly recommended.

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