You’re missing out on a history

Armaan Rashid, Editor-in-Chief

Dear Senior,

What we forget — among other things — is that Leland Stanford was, in the last decade of his life, a vehement anti-capitalist.

Yes, the same Leland Stanford that was an industrial titan in our country’s hyper-capitalist Gilded Age, the man whose namesake university lies not 50 miles from here. Leland — I’ll call him by his first name, for the sake of clarity — saw Stanford University as the seed of a post-capitalist society, one based on a “cooperative” vision, where workers ran themselves, and corporate hierarchy would slowly be disassembled by an educated working class, where the working class was comprised of everyone.

This vision is built into Stanford’s founding documents — most piercingly, Leland saw that “the few very rich can get their education anywhere. They will be welcome to this institution if they come, but the object is more particularly to reach the multitude — those people who have to consider the expenditure of every dollar.”

Fast forward more than a century, and 17 percent of Stanford’s student body — according to data from the class of 2013 — come from the top 1 percent; two-thirds of students are from the top 20 percent. Barely 4 percent of students are from the bottom 20 percent.

The historical shift here is stark, but it’s also one that complicates a narrative — a narrative, dear senior, that has some deal of importance to us right about now.


The story of elite college admissions 100 years ago, as told by sociologist Jerome Karabel in his masterfully detailed “The Chosen,” goes something like this: almost exclusively, affluent white men were shuffled from elite private schools to elite institutions like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, with little attention paid to the criteria we perceive to be important today. Admissions, then, were still “meritocratic” — but that merit did not hinge so much upon intelligence or academic performance, but upon the right kind of family and a strong sense of athleticism. (The Ivy League is first and foremost an athletic league, after all. And there are absolutely historical lines to be drawn from this policy of good blood and good body to admissions practices of today — the preference for legacies and the continued practice of recruiting athletes, for example.) This was all based on the mostly true assump- tion that the people who would go to Harvard, Yale and Princeton would go on to be the leaders of the world.

At this time, the American elite class functioned very simply. Affluent white men were born into status, and the Ivy League college they attended was an almost compulsory gate into maintaining that status. It’s easy to see how the accumulation and insulation of America’s most elite built the severe network of wealth and connection, intellectual or not, that remains there today.

But, for reasons Karabel never really specifies, academically exceptional Jewish men kept applying to these institutions and, due to their qualifications and progressive admissions officers, were admitted. Here we see definitions of “merit” tilting, slightly, away from old standards and towards what we would expect today: academic accomplishment.

Elaborate back-and-forths on what “merit” looks like define this history, but as both Karabel and a couple of key modern-day studies — by Patricia Conley in the late ‘90s and Leslie Killgore in the late ‘00s — note, “merit” is usually defined so that a university can maintain its own prestige. You are admitted based on the institution’s confidence that, one day, they can put you on a prestigious alumni list.

In this way, the reinforcement of capitalist hierarchy by the elite college happens subconsciously — unintentionally, even. As more academically accomplished Jewish men started to populate the Ivies, admissions officers fretted that their universities would be isolated from the still very-Christian institutions around them, the connections which gave the Harvard or Yale name its slowly accumulating power. So admissions became about character.

“Holistic” is the word, one you’ll still find on every elite college’s website. Realistically, the new requirements — like letters of recommendation — were about excluding Jews in a way that could be covered up as part of the process. But history ran its own course, and it no longer became very useful for the Ivies to be the pass-throughs of elite white men — other colleges were attracting students because they were co-ed, so Harvard, Yale and Princeton went co-ed; a fear of racial violence led them to start admitting black students, as well.

By the middle of the 20th century, the “Big Three” suddenly began to prioritize genuine intellectualism, as opposed to the perpetuation of an elite class, which is when admissions began to more closely resemble the “meritocracy” we see today. This meant a shift from focusing on upper class, “old money” children to the children of professionals who embodied the meritocratic ethos of genuine excellence in all aspects of life — from upper-class kids to upper-middle-class kids, basically.

Again, though, we see how the use of this admissions policy based around “merit” excluded, creating hierarchy almost subconsciously, with the well-documented discrimination against Asian-Americans in the 1980s. It happened almost unintentionally — a product of what the definition of merit was at the time, and how Asian-Americans, who were mostly not upper-middle-class at the time, systematically did not match up with it. In this way we can observe how the use of “merit” as a gate to institutional access allows for a subconscious reinforcement of hierarchy.

So very quickly we wind up here, today. For a perception of the state of things it’s useful to look at Raj Chetty’s comprehensive and somewhat damning s t a t i s t i c s for the Equality of Opportunity Project, data compiled from millions of tax returns on college students as recent as the class of 2013. The “Ivy plus” as a whole — eight Ivies plus Duke, MIT, UChicago and Stanford — admits more students from the one percent (around 15 percent) than from the bottom 50 percent, and most of these colleges have around two-thirds of their students coming from the top 20 percent. That demographic shift from the upper-class to the upper-middle-class is still highly visible here, a sign that this is a history still in progress.


What’s happening is “social closure,” as numerous sociologists put it — to be very literal, it’s the closing off of one social group (i.e. the upper-middle and upper classes) from access by other social groups (the lower classes). Those admitted to Ivies and their brethren tend to come from higher socioeconomic status, and graduates tend to have notably higher socioeconomic outcomes. This process — of who and who does not get access to education, particularly “elite” education — is surely related to the U.S.’s historically low socioeconomic mobility. Before someone says “CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION #rekt” I should say that I can’t offer you causal statistical evidence, obviously. But I’d still wager the elite college admissions process is very much a participant in “social closure,” as former Ivy professors (like William Deresiewicz, in his entertainingly broad “Excellent Sheep”) and researchers from various disciplines (David L. Swartz, Amy Liu, Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Ansgar Allen, Raj Chetty, probably more) will tell you.

But still, this is a controversial claim, and examining that controversy tells us a lot. When the aforementioned “Excellent Sheep” came out in 2014, elite college professors absolutely lost it. “Excellent Sheep” is not exactly a book of nuance, but the fact that Pomona professor Kevin Dettmar AND Rutgers historian Douglass Greenberg “blew a gasket” (in the words of journalist James McWilliams) about the book represents how severely the reality of elite reinforcement pushes back against a narrative that elite colleges would like to promote: that they are arbiters of social justice. This, as elaborated upon by Killgore in her study on “Merit and Competition in Selective College Admissions,” is one of many mixed signals that elite institutions are caught up in.

It’s a narrative I’m sure these professors genuinely, deeply believe in, one that’s believed all over. The Yale admissions room isn’t a bunch of people cackling, “Hmmmmmm, how can we enshrine the American elite even further today?” I’m sure the issues I’m bringing up weigh heavily on the minds of admissions officers and professors at elite colleges. But we have to look at a larger system, not the person bewildered within it.

Elite colleges have a desire to project an air of commitment to diversity and social justice, as Killgore states, and as is evident on their websites. UChicago touts their level of “civic engagement” with the city of Chicago; Yale and Harvard have entire sections devoted to congratulating themselves on how much financial aid they offer low-income students, forgetting to mention that they barely admit any. It’s a ruse, to avoid the reality of the closure.

The point is, dear senior: we are enclosed. Dougherty kids, I’d bet, aren’t as uniformly wealthy as they are perceived to be. (Despite the astronomical property values around here, San Ramon does have affordable housing options.) But while I can’t definitively say that we’re mostly upper-middle-class, we do kind of have a culture to show for it.

It’s a culture described academically in Anette Eva Fasang, William Mangino and Hannah Brückner’s study on “Social Closure and Educational Attainment,” described cynically in “Excellent Sheep,” described offhandedly in Dylan Hernandez’s “How I Learned to Take the SAT Like a Rich Kid.” If you go to this school, you know what it is, even if you’re not necessarily a part of it.

There’s all the extracurriculars and APs and SAT prep, and that doesn’t even cover it. More egregiously, there’s the private college counselors and the very, very weird practice of asking everyone, “where did you apply?” and “did you get in?”, and then keeping score.

And, of course, the cheating. The inescapable cheating. Please know, dear senior, I’m not claiming any moral superiority. I don’t think you’re bad if you use or do any of these things — even the cheating. I’m enclosed too. It’s of a history.

This is how our enclosure, which is very much an artifact of elite admissions’ slight shift in preference from the upper-class to the upper-middle-class, operates. It’s not just a matter of the excess economic resources we have access to — it’s the excess social capital, a different cultural focus. It’s not just that we can pay for SAT prep and college counselors but that we know to do so, how to do so, where to do so.

Our enclosure, it’s worth noting, is not the same as everyone else’s. For one, our school is more socioeconomically and racially diverse than people generally give it credit for, than I’ve been giving it credit for — not everyone here is an upper-middle-class Ivy-chasing kid, even if that’s how it might be painted.

Private high school enclosure — where generally many more people end up at Ivies or their equivalents than do from here — is different, and privileged over us in many ways. Think of the compulsory letters of recommendation — our teachers and counselors do astonishing work keeping up with demand, but it’s simply easier for private school staff to deal with given their much smaller class sizes, to know more students more intimately, to spend more time on each letter.

And there’s an especially fascinating enclosure that self-help guru Cal Newport described in his treatise on “How to Be a High School Superstar” in 2010. Newport describes “relaxed superstars” who are “genuinely interesting” and live, well, fairly relaxed lives up until they get into Harvard or whatever. “How to Be a High School Super- star” is also, if you read between the lines, an inadvertent social study of progressive upper-middle-class whiteness in the 21st century — and that enclosure might have even more access to the social capital, the cultural knowledge needed to get in, than ours does.

I hope by now I’ve very fully deconstructed the idea of “merit” in your mind. “Getting in” is fundamentally not about any mercurial idea of “merit,” but about signaling eliteness to an elite institution, signaling that one day they can put you on a list of prestigious alumni. And that signal might align with hard work and accomplishment and talent — it most often does with minority kids like us. But it only takes one look at other “enclosures” — ahem, especially the enclosure of legacy students, who are overwhelmingly white and socioeconomically privileged — to see how signaling eliteness is not always about what one does, but where one’s from. There is, perhaps, an even more pressing argument to be made that what one does has a lot to do with where one’s from.


“Why does aptitude guide the allocation of educational resources?” asked (funnily enough) Harvard sociologist Jonathan J.B. Mijs in his 2016 study, “The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy.” It shouldn’t be a radical question, but in the current climate, it is.

If, at the Ivies and their equivalents, our “best” educational resources are housed — why are they allocated to those who are perceived to be “deserving” of them? Why not give the people who have struggled the most our best educational resources?

I’m not saying this is what should be done. But thoughts like these are scary to us because we like to think of ourselves as in control of our lives. The idea of earning, the idea of deserving, is not just the fuel of capitalism — it’s the fuel of self-worth, at least in this society.

Meritocracy is impossible. Unless there is a reset to pure equality across every single generation, merit is always going to be tied up with privilege, and as we’ve seen, there’s never a consistent definition of what merit even is, anyway.

I think the system is broken. I don’t know what the solution is. But what’s more pressing for me and you, dear senior, is the idea that your future and mine might be bound up in something much bigger than us.

I hold fast to the belief that reality is more complex than a generalized narrative — a narrative like the one I’ve just outlined. There are always exceptions and anomalies, people who are “ahead of their time” — people like, well, like Leland Stanford.

But at the edge of history it’s so easy to find yourself nearly vanished into a statistic, a trend. Even if you’re Leland Stanford.

No one knows — not even researcher Lee Altenberg, who rediscovered Leland’s original vision — how Stanford went from the seed of a post-capitalist society to what it is today, a pipeline to Silicon Valley with most of its students coming from an elite class and departing to become part of a new one. I’ve given you, dear senior, an (incomplete) history of Stanford’s East Coast brethren that cuts a nice narrative about the construction of American capitalism through the centuries. Stanford violates that story, but in the midst of everything its idealistic vision was lost to the annals of history, imperceptibly. It got swept up in a history bigger than itself.

For an entire institution to not be able to maintain its individual spirit is terrifying. At the level of a person? It’s late March, dear senior, and as you and I might be forced to think about the future, I wonder about all the histories we might be missing out on, swept up in without even thinking.