The Short, Happy Life of the WASP ascendancy

Aristocracy and admissions reform
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Once upon a time in America, when the going was good, there emerged what looked like a ruling class. We’ll call it the WASP Ascendancy. Standing for White Anglo-​Saxon Protestant, WASP was coined by University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell (19161996).

This WASP Ascendancy traces a soft 20th century parabola reaching its apogee in 1940. We are talking about one tenth of 1 percent of the population — one in a thousand, or 130,000 of the country’s 130 million.

America never had a landed aristocracy. But in Europe, the economic and political power of the aristocracy, as well as its social position, was rooted in the possession of land. Primogeniture held it together, with the eldest son receiving both land and title. Under feudalism, and even before, the aristocracy was a warring class; land as the spoils of war was parceled out in proportion to one’s contribution to the victory.

By comparison, democracy began in large scale only upon the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. After visiting the U.S. in 1831, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America”: “In America… I saw the shape of democracy.” He saw rich and poor, educated and uneducated. He noted the equality of social conditions, “At bottom [Americans] feel themselves equal and are.” The Frenchman also perceived that the modest American experiment would unseat millennia of aristocratic rule.

In the agrarian America of Andrew Jackson, Tocqueville saw equality of economic conditions quite distinct from Europe. With the vast outpouring of industrial wealth after the Civil War, the gulf between rich and poor Americans widened dramatically. Could capital replace land as the economic basis for an even watered down bourgeois/​aristocracy? The WASP Ascendancy represented a modest attempt.

The WASP Ascendancy was quite exclusionary: no Jews, no Blacks, no Hispanics, no southern or eastern Europeans, no Irish and, of course, no women. WASP men were closely defined by education. Perhaps half were graduates of Harvard, Yale or Princeton — the Big Three — with the remainder from other Ivies, Stanford and a smattering of East Coast colleges. They were even more closely defined by secondary education. At the core were the New England boarding schools, along with select private schools. A WASP was most likely a business executive or owner, a banker, lawyer or prominent physician. He belonged to the best clubs in his city. On a summer’s day you might pick him out on the street — dark suit, plain or pinstripe, white shirt, rep or paisley tie, black wingtips and hat. He was likely tall, slender, good looking and with a discernable suntan from lots of golf and tennis; he was a good athlete.

And then there were WASP women. Being slender and attractive was their stock in trade. Most were not college educated. Their principal education/​socialization was at expensive and socially selective boarding schools such as Dobbs, Ethel Walker, Farmington, Foxcroft and others. More important than being educated was being “turned out.” Their goal was often to marry someone who in certain ways resembled their fathers. Future generations of WASPs would follow.

Keys to the kingdom

The best vantage point to view the rise and fall of the WASP Ascendancy is in the admissions policies of Harvard, Yale and Princeton throughout the 20th century.

Nobody did more to create the WASP man than Endicott Peabody (18571944). A member of a distinguished Puritan family, young Peabody moved to England in 1870 when his father took a job with Junius Morgan — J.P. Morgan’s father. In Peabody’s five years at Cheltenham, an English public (private) school, he excelled in sports. After five years at Trinity College, Cambridge, he returned to the U.S. in 1880, a staunch Anglophile and as much British in voice and demeanor as American.

After a short turn at the blue-​blood Boston banking firm of Lee Higginson, he enrolled at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge. Upon graduating in 1883, the “Rector,” as he was thereafter called, fixed upon his life’s work by founding a boarding school based upon the English public school. Groton (1884) soon became the elite among elites in the boarding school world, which included St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, St. George’s and Middlesex. Collectively, they were known as “St. Grottlesex.” A dozen or so near-​peer institutions followed, and together they were to secondary education what the Big Three were to higher education.

Groton offered religious education while balancing culture and athletics. Tall, broad-​shouldered, blue-​eyed and authoritative, Peabody laid out his school’s intent in three words: it would cultivate “manly Christian character.” By 1900, the 24-​student school had on its storied rolls the names of the American ruling class: Adams, Biddle, DuPont, Roosevelt, Saltonstall and Whitney. The motto Peabody chose for his school was cui servire est regnare — to serve is to reign.

Pride and admiration were equally shared by the rector and his most distinguished alumnus, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Throughout his life, Roosevelt would look up to Peabody with reverential respect. The two maintained a lifelong correspondence, with Roosevelt beginning, “My dear Mr. Peabody,” and the rector with, “My dear Franklin.”

In 1900, the Big Three were the most prestigious universities in America, but as graduate research institutions they were second to both Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago and well behind the great universities of Germany. Admissions policies were not particularly rigorous. Class size was not limited, but varied with the number of successful applicants. However, with U.S. male high-​school graduates increasing from 95,000 in 1900 to 311,000 in 1920, something had to change.

Barring the door

Vast waves of Jewish immigration during the early 20th century meant increasing numbers of qualified Big Three applicants. Limiting the number of Jews would be at the heart of Big Three admissions policies for two-​thirds of the century. This was anti-​Semitism to be sure, but it was more. It was the vanguard of even more fundamental change. The non-​WASP, gentile public school applicant pool was growing as well.

Always the most democratic of the Big Three, Harvard felt the pressure first. By 1918, the Jewish population of Harvard’s freshman class had risen to 20 percent from 7 percent in 1900. It was three times the percentage at Yale and six times that at Princeton. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell — a man possessed of more than a little hubris— attempted to confront the problem head-​on. The Lowells arrived in Boston in 1639, and Lowell was the sixth generation of his line to attend Harvard. The “Jewish menace,” as Lowell called it, represented a two-​edge sword. More Jews and fewer WASPs might, in turn, lead to “WASP flight” due to a less congenial social atmosphere.

Before 1920, the Big Three had no admissions offices. The faculty fashioned the entrance examination — you passed it and you were in. To their credit, the Big Three faculties consistently advocated meritocratic admissions standards throughout the 20th century. And Lowell’s call for explicit quotas soon became a matter of public debate, with luminaries such as future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and the pre-​eminent journalist of the day, Walter Lippmann, in opposition, along with several notable gentiles. Lowell was rebuffed, and Jewish enrollment rose to 25 percent. Yale and Princeton, however, learned from Lowell’s mistakes and he, in turn, applied their methods to achieve the desired result. By 1930, an unspoken quota reduced the number to 15 percent.

Yale dealt with the matter behind closed doors. Numbers tell the story. By 1923, freshman Jewish enrollment at Yale reached an all-​time high of 13 percent. In 1922, the Yale Corporation set a limit of 850 on the incoming class. Jewish participation dropped below 10 percent, a number that would not be exceeded for another four decades. Other non-​WASPs suffered along with the Jews. From 1920 to 1930, public school graduates dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent, while the sons of alumni advanced from 13 percent to 24 percent.

In 1930, eight private schools accounted for nearly one-​third of Yale freshman: Andover (74), Exeter (54), Hotchkiss (42), St. Paul’s (24), Choate (19), Lawrenceville (19), Hill (17) and Kent (14). At the same time, the public schools of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia sent a grand total of 13 students. Never before was Yale so insular; the WASP Ascendancy was running near high tide.

The “problem” was not as acute at Princeton. By 1921, Jews were a modest 4 percent, along with a 7 percent sprinkling of Catholics. Increased applications forced Princeton to limit class size to 600. In 1922, non-​selective admissions ended with Princeton establishing an Admissions Office and appointing Radcliffe Heermance as dean of admissions. He would hold the position until 1950 and become one of the two most influential admissions officers in Big Three history. A bear of a man with a resounding voice and forceful personality, Heermance was described by a friend as “always conjuring a vision of a cavalry officer, saber at point, galloping toward a line of green hills.”

Heermance’s path was partially cleared by the British industrialist and empire-​builder, Cecil Rhodes (18531902). He endowed the now famous Rhodes Scholarships for study at Oxford with specific criteria: “4 tenths for scholarship, 2 tenths for athletics, 2 tenths for manhood and 2 tenths for leadership.” Princeton had sent more Rhodes Scholars to Oxford than any American university. Rhodes, Peabody and Heermance shared a common ideal of Groton and Princeton students and Rhodes scholars: The WASP man.

Princeton reduced the importance of entrance exams and objective criteria, and the admissions process began to resemble that of a private club. In addition to a letter of recommendation from the headmaster, along with three additional letters, Heermance emphasized the personal interview. Subjective factors became paramount. Leaving nothing to chance, he introduced personal visits to mainline boarding schools to interview prospective applicants. Cards for each student were placed in one of four categories: Class I — very desirable; II — desirable, III — possible, IV — undesirable.

This neat little system gave the admissions office complete flexibility at both ends of the spectrum. It could reject the most brilliant and admit the most stupid, all in the name of that illusive and plastic term, character. On character, Heermance might have paraphrased the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.” With minor variations, the basics of the Princeton system were applied with enthusiasm at both Harvard and Yale. The ugliness of anti-​Semitism was clearly at work, but broader objectives operated at a deeper level.

The world’s largest economy was creating more wealth and educating more people than ever before. The upwardly mobile achievers (Jews and gentiles) were beginning to push hard for their position at the peaks of economical, political and social power. At the Big Three and throughout society, the WASP Ascendancy was still barring the door.

Cracks in the wall

In 1933, the brilliant chemist James Bryant Conant succeeded Lowell as president of Harvard. Conant (18931978) is arguably the century’s preeminent figure in higher education. His institutional power base rested upon the Harvard bully-​pulpit as well as his service as a member of the Top Policy Group for the atomic bomb. The Top Group also included Vice President Henry Wallace, Secretary of War Henry L. Stinson, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and fellow academic Vannevar Bush. Reporting directly to FDR, the Top Group was the Mt. Everest of the American power structure. Conant’s influence was further buttressed by a vast intellectual reach seldom found in men of affairs.

Conant propagated a bold vision of the future of American society. He took as his sacred text a couple of lines in a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to John Adams in 1813: “…there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…” Jefferson compared this to what he called “an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth.” To Conant’s eye, the sons of the WASP Ascendancy often floated through the halls of Harvard, Yale and Princeton on a cloud of wealth and birth. He meant to change this with words and deeds. The deeds came first.

While Conant stood on the bridge with his gaze fixed on a meritocratic future, Henry Chauncy (19052002) was down in the engine room laboring to make Conant’s vision come alive. A product of Groton and Harvard, Chauncy majored in philosophy. Harvard had no psychology department, and philosophy was as close as he could get to slaking his thirst for psychological testing. In 1929, he became an assistant dean at Harvard.

During his first year as Harvard’s president, Conant tasked Chauncy and Wilbur Bender (a future director of admissions) with setting up a national scholarship program. Those selected would receive full room, board and tuition. Conant also wanted a new type of test for his new national program. Since 1900, the Big Three and Ivy League admission tests had been administered by the College Entrance Examination Board, a clubby association of New England boarding schools and the Ivy League. The College Board administered a week-​long battery of essay examinations which essentially tested the mastery of the boarding school curriculum; the schools taught to the test. College boards were not IQ tests, nor were they scholastic aptitude tests. They were achievement tests, and they pretty much gave the boarding schools a stranglehold on Big Three admissions. Conant wanted an objective non-​essay test that would accurately predict academic performance.

Chauncy and Bender found what they were looking for at Princeton with psychology professor Carl Brigham, the author of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). During the World War I, Brigham had helped the Army set up its massive IQ testing program. He tweaked the methods and created the SAT — exactly what Conant was seeking. Chauncy and Bender scoured public schools in the Midwest and, by means of SAT tests (along with transcripts and recommendations), enrolled 10 Harvard national scholars. The tests were validated in 1928 when the scholars graduated, all with honors; five summa, three magna and two cum laude.

By 1942, Harvard had enrolled 253 national scholars, but in academia things always move slowly. In 1940, of the 77 applicants from the St. Grottlesex schools, 76 were admitted. Jewish enrollment had inched up to a modest 15 percent. The adoption of SAT testing proceeded at a moderate pace, still under 20,000 nationwide in 1940. Ten years later, it was still business as usual in the Big Three.

Nevertheless, in two groundbreaking articles in The Atlantic Monthly, Conant laid out his vision for America’s future. In “Education for a Classless Society,” he argued that the very survival of America as a free society rested upon the ability of its educational system to sunder the bonds of heredity, wealth and privilege. The WASP Ascendancy was clearly in his sights. In “Wanted: American Radicals,” he pushed his case a step too far, encouraging his American radical to “…be resolute in his demands to confiscate (by Constitutional methods) all property once a generation.” Conant advised his American radical “not to place a higher value on property rights than human rights.” “American Radical” was a big mistake, and it almost cost Conant his job. Only his towering reputation enabled him to ride out the storm.

Though Conant had called for the SAT to be used across the board as early as 1937, its progress was slow. However, within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the College Board eliminated essay questions as too administratively cumbersome in a time of national emergency. And in one fell swoop the SAT test became by default the sole test for admissions to America’s most prestigious colleges.

On Jan. 1, 1948, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) opened for business at Princeton with Chauncy as president and Conant as chairman. After World War II, college enrollment soared, and with it the fortunes and influence of ETS and the SAT. By the time Chauncy retired in 1970, over 2 million men and women were taking these make-​or-​break tests.

Despite the crush of applications brought on first by returning veterans and later by millions of baby boomers, the advance of the meritocracy against the WASP Ascendancy played out in slow motion during the 25 years between 1945 and 1970. The WASP Ascendancy and its supporters in Big Three admissions offices put up stiff resistance.

Social hierarchies on campus were buttressed by well-​defined club systems. At Harvard, a select 100 were culled from the sophomore class and elected to the venerable Institute of 1776. From this group, the ultra select were then named as members of final clubs, with Porcellian at the pinnacle. Theodore Roosevelt and his sons, Theodore Jr. and Kermit, were members. FDR was not chosen and later admitted it was “the greatest disappointment of my life.” At Yale, 15 percent of the class were elected to six secret senior societies, with Skull & Bones as the Holy Grail. George W. Bush, his father and his grandfather were all Bonesmen. Public school men occasionally made it, but in 1928, of 60 entrants to the top four senior secret societies, 58 came from boarding schools.

Princeton was not called by F. Scott Fitzgerald “the pleasantest country club in America” for nothing. At Princeton, the club system was all-​pervasive. Almost all upper classmen were to be elected to one of 17 eating clubs. The hierarchy was quite specific, with Ivy at the top along with Cottage, Colonial, Tiger Inn and Cap & Gown constituting the “big five.” At Harvard and Yale, final clubs and secret societies had at least the saving grace of taking in a modest minority and for one year only. To be clubless at Princeton was to be nearly homeless.

Meritocracy rises

The sea change between the relative positions of the meritocracy and the WASP Ascendancy played out in two acts. The first was at Harvard. When, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, America began to fear for its technological and military superiority. Big Three faculties had long pushed for higher meritocratic-​based admission standards, and the Soviet threat placed the issue front and center. The noted Russian chemist, George Kistiakowsky, a key member of Robert Oppenheimer’s inner circle at Los Alamos, led the charge. He called for rigorous screening of the top 1 percent of high school seniors by means of SAT scores — no manly Christian character, no athletes, no interviews — just raw brain power. This was neither practicable nor desirable, but it spurred the young dean of the Harvard faculty, Boston Brahmin McGeorge Bundy (Groton and Yale), into action.

Mac Bundy appointed a Special Committee on College Admissions Policies, chaired by rising young historian Franklin L. Ford. The committee comprised an all-​star faculty roster with just two representatives from the administration. A central issue was the yawning gap in academic performance between public and private schools. Academic rankings of the 79 schools that provided four or more students told the story. Of the top 30 performers, not one was a private school. St. Grottlesex did not cover itself with distinction as St. Mark’s, St. Paul’s and Middlesex ranked 63rd, 65th and 76th respectively. Public schools produced the majority of the summas and magnas while private schools led with flunk-​outs and dropouts.

Fortunately, the thrust of the commission was tempered by a question from the noted historian and Rhodes Scholar, Crane Brinton: “Do we want École Normale Supérieure, a ‘cerebral school’ aimed solely at preparing students for the academic profession?” Harvard’s answer, albeit in muted tones, was a decisive no. But when the committee issued its landmark final report on April 11, 1960, the balance between manly character and academic excellence had shifted decisively in favor of academic excellence.

High noon at Yale

While James B. Conant provided the philosophical underpinnings for meritocracy in higher education and for society as a whole, it was Kingman Brewster and Inslee Clark who made it a reality during a tempestuous five years from 19651970. In 1963, Brewster became Yale’s 18th president. He was a direct descendent of Elder William Brewster, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. He was not a scholar in the Conant mold, but had been a commanding presence in the Yale class of 1941. He was the chairman of the board of the Yale Daily News and did the unthinkable by turning down an invitation to Skull & Bones. The ’60s were a decade of tumultuous change; Brewster did more than ride out the storm, he paddled the boat.

In 1965, he took a huge and hugely successful gamble on 29-​year-​old R. Inslee (Inky) Clark Jr., whom he named as Yale’s director of admissions. While the product of the public schools (Garden City High School on Long Island), Clark had a notable four years at Yale. He was a varsity golfer, president of his fraternity and the Interfraternity Council, editor-​in-​chief of the yearbook and, not least, a Bonesman. His blood ran deep blue; he was an insider, but he had an outsider’s perspective.

In a tradition-​bound academic environment, Clark moved at warp speed. He inherited a staff of 11, all Yale men inclined to replicate themselves in the freshman class. He replaced nearly all with non-​Yale public school graduates including a first-​ever black admissions officer. He instituted recommendations of the dormant 1962 Doob Report calling for intellectually brilliant candidates “…to be sought out and admitted without regard for any other criteria save those indicative of emotional maturity and good character…Yale is first and foremost an intellectual enterprise.” He eliminated from the interview checklist any reference to physical characteristics. While two years earlier, Yale had begun need-​blind admissions, references to family finances were still in the candidates folder. He removed them.

Clark inherited a private school rating system, ABC: A (admission virtually guaranteed), B (still in the running), C (rejection virtually guaranteed). These ratings had been developed in two– and three-​day visits to key feeder schools in conversation with the headmaster. It allowed for early acceptance that in part short-​circuited the testing process. Clark killed it. He described his mission as “talent searching.” His goal was to find “the most promising secondary school graduates in the country.”

Clark made no attempt to sugarcoat his broadside at the boarding schools. When asked by a student during a visit to Andover what Yale thought about the bottom quarter of the class, Clark pulled no punches, “Yale can do a lot better than the bottom quarter at Andover. We’re looking for the top kids at Andover. If you haven’t performed well at Andover, what makes you think you can perform well at Yale?”

The early results were dramatic. As recently as 1960, private school admissions had been 56 percent — down from 66 percent in 1950; in 1967, they were 39 percent. Legacies fell from 16 percent to 11 percent. Jewish enrollment skyrocketed from 11 percent in 1961 to 30 percent in 1966. In 1958, Yale admitted two blacks, and in 1966, 35. And as the culmination of Clark’s five-​year tenure in 1969, Yale became co-​educational.

Naturally there was pushback. Publicly, the loudest voice was that of political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. (’50). As part of his quixotic, insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, he wrote in an Atlantic Monthly article: “It is true that a Mexican-​American from El Paso High School with identical success on the achievement tests and identical ardent recommendations from their headmasters had a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards XVI from St. Paul’s school.” With this artful construct Buckley dinged a trinity of alumni grievances: public schools, racial and ethnic minorities and declining alumni influence.

Clark was called before the Yale Corporation board, where a prominent banker was more blunt: “You’re talking about Jews and public school graduates as leaders, look around… these are American leaders. There are no Jews here, there are no public school graduates here.”

If this banker returned for a corporation meeting today, he would find a much different cast of characters. But even then he had lost the battle, as the meritocratic horse was out of the gate and running hard. Inky Clark adopted a Wayne Gretzky approach to admissions, skating not where the leadership puck was, but to where it would be.

A new world

The WASP Ascendancy was not only giving way to the meritocracy at the Big Three, but also at their private school power base. To protect their positions as purveyors of high-​quality students to the Big Three, these schools sought out the talented, through increased financial aid and the admission of women, blacks, increased numbers of Jews and other nationalities.

The Big Three admissions policies throughout the 20th century provide a convenient keyhole from which to observe fundamental societal changes. But at a deeper level, they reflect the grinding tectonic plates of economic and technological change. The last 300 years have seen the economic base of society move from land to capital to knowledge — all at increased speed. The landed aristocracy or a WASP Ascendancy requires a stable hierarchy and moderate change. Our modern social structure must be flexible and informal to accommodate accelerating rates of change. Today our leaders live not in a castle or a mansion but in a vehicle.

At the height of its power before and after World War II, the WASP Ascendancy provided this country with extraordinary leadership. It was the capstone of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.” To men such as Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Douglas Dillon, James Forrestal, Averell Harriman, George F. Kennan, Frank Knox, Bob Lovett, John McCloy, Henry L. Stinson, Sumner Wells, John G. Winant, and, not least, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country owes a great debt of gratitude.

The WASP Ascendancy is now gone. It was not overthrown in a revolution — no rush to the barricades — no walk to the Finland station. The bright, proud plumage of the Ascendancy was simply bleached out by the infiltration of the meritocracy. It died a quiet and almost unnoticed death.

The writer wishes to acknowledge Jerome Karabel’s book, “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” in the research of this report.

William S. Dietrich II

Dietrich was a native of Pittsburgh, who wrote about Pittsburgh history and its greatest industrial leaders and historic philanthrophists. Bill joined that group shortly before his death in 2011, leaving more than $500 million to a variety of Pittsburgh institutions. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton, and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984. He spent his entire business career with Dietrich Industries from 1961 to 2003, eventually serving as president and CEO, and then as non-​executive chairman. He is the author of “In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline.”

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