The Aristocracy of Intelligence

Wall Street Journal, October 10, 1994.


A perusal of the Harvard’s Freshman Register for 1952 shows a class looking very much as Harvard freshman classes had always looked. Under the portraits of the well-scrubbed, mostly U.S. East Coast, overwhelmingly white and Christian young men were home addresses from places like Philadelphia’s Main Line, the Upper East Side of New York, and Boston’s Beacon Hill. And yet for all its apparent exclusivity, Harvard was not so hard to get into in the fall of 1952. An applicant’s chances of being admitted were about two out of three, and close to 90% if his father had gone to Harvard.

Let us advance the scene to 1960. Unquestionably, suddenly, but for no obvious reason, Harvard had become a different kind of place. The proportion of incoming students from New England had dropped by a third. Public-school graduates outnumbered private-school graduates. The SAT scores at Harvard had skyrocketed. In the fall of 1960, the average verbal score was 678 and the average math score was 695, an increase of almost a hundred points for each test from 1952. The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10% of the incoming class of 1960. In eight years, Harvard had been transformed from a school primarily for the Northeastern socioeconomic elite into a school populated by the brightest of the bright, drawn from all over the country. A Harvard dean of admissions, Wilbur J. Bender, noticed the transformation and asked: “Would being part of a super-elite in a high-prestige institution be good for the healthy development of the ablest 18-22 year-olds, or would it tend to be a warping and narrowing experience?”