In 1929, Robert Corwin, Yale’s admissions chairman, griped that the list of names of recently admitted students “reads like some of the ‘begat’ portions of the Old Testament and might easily be mistaken for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall.”
If only poor Corwin had had access to the digital search powers of facebook.com. Yale now proudly claims 26 Cohens, 29 Levis and Levins, 14 Rubins, 27 varieties of Rosen (including -thals, -bergs, -blatts, -blums, -felds and, appropriately enough for a keg-happy collegiate environment, -steins), and one O’Malley Greenburg. But nowadays, if Corwin were to sit down to complain about the Jews, he would be remiss if he failed to mention another pesky demographic: the homosexuals.
I have yet to read Jerome Karabel’s new book, “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” and, at 711 pages, I’m not sure I want to. Nor did I attend Karabel’s reading at the Yale bookstore several weeks ago. But, given all the recent buzz the book has generated about admissions practices at the Big Three, I couldn’t resist jumping in to offer some observations from the trenches.
Karabel documents how, in the 1920s, a tidal wave of academically brilliant but otherwise undesirable applicants (read: New York City Jewish whiz kids) began to threaten the sacred system of patronage that, up until that point, had made Yale the exclusive province of ruddy-cheeked, baseball-tossing prep school grads.
Pressured by alumni to stop these Jews from swarming the battlements, elite schools responded by changing their definition of “merit” to better suit the values they hoped to propagate. So, instead of sticking with an academic meritocracy, Harvard and Yale started asking applicants for essays, photographs and letters of recommendation. Soon admissions buzzwords like “character” and “leadership potential” became a tacit proxy for “handsome,” “virile,” “not gay” and “not Jewish” (to check that last category, perhaps admissions officers would examine an applicant’s photograph for evidence of a crooked nose and/or protruding horns).
Nowadays, one need only stand at the intersection of Wall and College streets on a Friday evening and survey the pedestrians to see that Jews are back, and they’re back big. As are gays. In fact, I write to warn the community of a dire threat: the extinction of the straight, non-Jewish, non-athlete male at Yale.
I figure like this: Yale is roughly 30 percent Jewish, give or take a few circumcisions. No one knows how gay Yale is (or, more accurately, how openly gay Yale is), but I’d venture to guess that it’s lower than the “one in four, maybe more” suggested by a now-infamous 1987 Wall Street Journal piece, but higher than one in ten.
Add up these numbers, subtract the football, baseball and hockey teams, and bam. Unless you’re an athlete, it’s likely that the majority of guys you interact with on a regular basis are either Jewish or gay (or, in the case of a few doubly chosen people, both). Do a little detective work. It’s not just the guy running Slifka, or the oily-skinned usurer downstairs. Noted campus activists Ishaan Tharoor ’06 and Kanishk Tharoor ’06, when asked if they were Jewish, said “possibly,” citing a Kashmiri-Jewish hypothesis.
In the meantime, whither the WASPs?
We must ask ourselves serious questions about the future of WASPs in the very fabric of this institution. For example, should they get their own cultural house? Should they get preferential treatment in admissions?
This used to be their club. They didn’t need a cultural house on Crown Street; Yale was their cultural house. Nowadays, you can go a whole day without running into a bona fide Mayflower descendent. What will become of Yale? Who is going to patronize J. Press? What will keep Mory’s in business? Who will sustain the sailing team?
And what about the appellations of our future alumni donors? The gravitas of our buildings depends on them. If our school stops enrolling little Harknesses and Woolseys, will we be condemned to a shared future of Levinson Auditoriums and Goldman Law Libraries?
We’ve still got a long way to go in order to make education accessible in this country. Many historically underrepresented minorities continue to be underrepresented, and that’s a problem that requires concerted action. But on one front, at least, it seems the tables have turned.
Daniel Weisfield is a junior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.