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 8.

Are readers concerned that, eights days into our “book review,” we are only now hitting Chapter 1? Reader feedback welcome!
At our current rate, we have another 30+ days to go . . .

One seemingly minor but important detail is notable when contrasting Harvard and Williams during this period. Harvard, like so many other elite schools, abandoned its strict Greek and Latin requirement for admissions in 1900, whereas Williams clung to a strenuous set of language requirements into the 1930s, the result being that few students from public high schools could attend. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, along with 18 of his 22 classmates from Groton, arrived at Harvard in September 1900, 40 percent of their freshman class had attended public schools. Harvard’s demographic river was, in this period, fed by Hotchkiss, Groton, and other prominent preparatory schools (the “St. Grottlesex” schools, as they are often known), and by many public institutions as well. Williams’ river was fed more exclusively by St. Grottlesex, and relatively few Jews—and precious few from more recently arrived Eastern European families—made it from the flood of immigration to the narrower stream of private preparatory education.

1) Wurgaft should have told us more about why Williams required Latin/Greek for 30 years longer than Harvard. Does anyone know? My guess would be that this decision had nothing to do with Jewish enrollment pressures since that came a decade or more later at Harvard.

2) Are there any current Williams admissions policies which analogous to the old Latin/Greek requirements? Not that I can see. Elite schools are very similar nowadays. Williams is a bit different from some of its NESCAC peers in that it requires the SAT/ACT and they do not. But all of its actual peers (Amherst/Pomona/Ivy/Chicago) require those exams so, again, Williams is less of an outlier than it once was.

3) Are there any policies which Williams should implement that would serve a similar function to Greek/Latin requirements? To some extent, the the quota for international students — or, rather, the pseudo-requirement to have a US passport/green card — is similar. Yet, I am more interested in positive changes that Williams could make which would change the mix of students that apply/enroll. Adding a finance major is one obvious example. More emphasis on the Williams College Equestrian Team might bring in more students from families who could become major donors.

Many would know President Harry Garfield (1908–34), who was thought by many other college and university presidents to possess a secret formula for keeping Jewish numbers at Williams low. Some would attend classes along with James Phinney Baxter III (Williams 1914), who would, as president, hire the college’s first Jewish faculty members, and who also championed the fraternity system at Williams, which by the mid-twentieth century was a stronghold of anti-Semitic sentiment. It was also during this period that Jewish students from non-German backgrounds began to arrive at the college, and this catalyzed a startling series of conflicts, not only between Jews and non-Jews but also between different kinds of Jews.

Calling the fraternities a “stronghold of anti-Semitic sentiment” is a misuse of the term “stronghold.” First, many (half? more?) fraternities had Jewish members! Just how anti-Semitic were they? Of course, there were people at Williams — just as there are now! — who expressed anti-Semitic opinions, or at least opinions that many Jews view/viewed as anti-Semitic. But those people were both in fraternities and outside of fraternities. They were both students and faculty, staff and local residents. Second, there is no evidence that the abolition of fraternities decreased antisemitism at Williams, relative to other schools like Amherst that kept fraternities. Of course, antisemitism was decreasing everywhere in the twenty years from 1950 to 1970. It is unsurprising that it decreased at Williams, as Wurgaft documents. But, if the fraternities were really a “stronghold,” then there abolition would have caused antisemitism to decrease more at Williams than at Amherst. It didn’t, so they weren’t.

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