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 10.

Williams was simply an unusual choice for Jews at this point, and not because it presented insuperable barriers to Jews but simply because most had not heard of it. It was off the map for American Jews unless their families had already become acquainted with the social groups from which Williams drew most of its students, or unless some stroke of luck—a chance encounter with an alumnus, for example—informed them about Williams and led them to believe admission was possible.

Williams was “protected,” as it were, from Jewish attentions during the gentlemen’s era by the social networks it served. They in turn served it by providing new students and loyal alumni.

My hypothesis is that this is exactly the dynamic which drives the lack of discrimination against Asian-Americans at Williams. There is no doubt that Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford discriminate against Asian-Americans, just as HYP discriminated against Jewish-Americans almost a century ago. One current mystery is whether or not Williams (and schools like Williams) employ the same policy. I don’t think we do, not because we are any more moral/non-discriminatory than HYPS, but because proportionally fewer Asian-Americans (relative to non-Asian-Americans) apply to and/or enroll at Williams.

But reasonable people differ on the claim about Asian-Americans and Williams admissions. Recall this discussion from more than a decade ago. I miss HWC!

Between 1880 and 1920, no other New England liberal arts college was as closely connected to the Social Register families of New York and Boston, a group that, with a few exceptions, emphatically did not include Jews. As Robert Farnum explains, it was the only liberal arts college in the “top five” schools (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia are the others) to which the majority of “social registrants” flocked, particularly from the 1880s to the 1920s. It was in fact the fourth most popular destination for registrants from Boston and the fifth for New Yorkers. It was thus part of a tiny cluster of schools serving a social network that crystallized out of the East Coast’s Protestant elite families in the 1880s and 1890s; the first edition of the Social Register was published in New York in 1888.

Hmmm. This would make an great topic for a Williams senior thesis in history. Who will write it?

Related questions: How much does Williams status today as the #1 liberal arts college go back to enrollment decisions made 100+ years ago by the Social Register? How much were those decisions driven by geography? (My understanding is that the Berkshires were a common summer time retreat for the Social Register folks. Imagine what New York City and Boston were like in the era before air conditioning.) If so, did that familiarity give Williams an advantage over, say, Amherst and Wesleyan?

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