kitchen table math, the sequel: character ed & the decline of Britain

Thursday, March 15, 2007

character ed & the decline of Britain

Ed's been reading Martin J. Wiener's book English Culture and the Decline if the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980.

Martin says Britain lost its position as industrial giant thanks to character education run amok.

I believe it. (more later)

Ed is thinking that character education may always be anti-intellectual.

It's possible:


Gladwell on character

The difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. Lowell’s first idea—a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body—was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.

The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. “Starting in the fall of 1922,” Karabel writes, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ”

At Princeton, emissaries were sent to the major boarding schools, with instructions to rate potential candidates on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 was “very desirable and apparently exceptional material from every point of view” and 4 was “undesirable from the point of view of character, and, therefore, to be excluded no matter what the results of the entrance examinations might be.” The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.” By 1933, the end of Lowell’s term, the percentage of Jews at Harvard was back down to fifteen per cent.

If this new admissions system seems familiar, that’s because it is essentially the same system that the Ivy League uses to this day. According to Karabel, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn’t abandon the elevation of character once the Jewish crisis passed. They institutionalized it.

Starting in 1953, Arthur Howe, Jr., spent a decade as the chair of admissions at Yale, and Karabel describes what happened under his guidance:

The admissions committee viewed evidence of “manliness” with particular enthusiasm. One boy gained admission despite an academic prediction of 70 because “there was apparently something manly and distinctive about him that had won over both his alumni and staff interviewers.” Another candidate, admitted despite his schoolwork being “mediocre in comparison with many others,” was accepted over an applicant with a much better record and higher exam scores because, as Howe put it, “we just thought he was more of a guy.” So preoccupied was Yale with the appearance of its students that the form used by alumni interviewers actually had a physical characteristics checklist through 1965. Each year, Yale carefully measured the height of entering freshmen, noting with pride the proportion of the class at six feet or more.

1 comment:

Janet C said...

So it's true. Antisemitism is the root of all evil.