Sunday, June 1, 2008


This is commentary on the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

I was disappointed with this book. It's an interesting topic, and the author writes well, but I think there are sever problems with focus.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is way too long. It's over 500 pages of text, plus 200 pages of notes and index. It covers admissions policies of all three universities over about a century, and goes into more detail about the personalities of admissions deans and infighting and such than I can imagine many people really being interested in.

What really disappointed me about the book, however is what it didn't say. It really didn't talk at all about how theses institutions were able to obtain and hold their status as the "elite" universities, while giving strong reasons why this should not have ocurred. Particulary Princeton, particularly in its early "This side of Paradise" days. Princeton appeared less to be an institution of learning than to be a social club, or rather admission to Princeton was a prerequisite to joining its various "eating clubs" that seemed to be what the students were actually interested in. Less academically gifted rich WASPS were preferred as applicants over "unclubbable" Jews, but the author gives no clue as to why Jews, or serious students of any sort, would have wanted to go to Princeton in the first place. I can't exagerate the extent to which the author gives the impression that in the early twentieth century a Princeton degree would mean "your dad is rich and you spent four years goofing off". So why was a degree from such a place worth anything?

The author seems appalled in the early parts of the book that the institutions use anything but strict academic merit as criteria for admission (although he later is delighted by racial preferences and entranced by the possibility of "class based affirmative action"). He is particularly disgusted by subjective evaluations focusing on character (which he always puts on scare quotes), favoritism for legacies and athletes, and favoring those that will actually be able to pay tuition. But he seems to view admission to these institutions as a sort of gift of divine grace. He doesn't really address the question as to if or why some students might benefit from admission more than others, nor what the universities get from the students.

My personal theory is the most boring one imaginable: that the key factor enabling these institutions to maintain their elite status is that they have shitloads of money. Winning football teams, favoring legacies, recruiting heavily from expensive prep schools, these are things that are likely to rake in the alumni contributions. The academically gifted may go on to enhance the prestige of the universities, but if so it will largely be do to their abilities and efforts. Being "chosen" is not some arbitrary blessing. Universities base their admissions policies not on what benefits the students or society as a whole, but what they think will benefit the universities. They are in no sense more altruistic than for-profit corporations.

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