Old tigers should be celebrating the nomination of Elena Kagan, Princeton class of ’81, to the United States Supreme Court. She would the third Princetonian in a row to be elevated to the nation’s highest bench. Still, it’s likely that at least a few old Princetonians are scratching their heads, because they know that in their day, not one of the new justices—not Kagan or Samuel Alito or Sonia Sotomayor—would have had much, if any, chance of admission to Princeton.
An Italian-American Catholic from a modest background like Alito had almost no shot at Old Nassau for the first two centuries or so of the college’s existence. There were almost no Puerto Ricans and very few Jews at Princeton until the mid-1960s and no women before 1969. The success of Kagan, Sotomayor, and Alito is a triumph of the meritocracy that has replaced what columnist Joseph Alsop called the "WASP ascendancy" in the ruling circles of America. Indeed, with the departure of Justice John Paul Stevens and the arrival of Kagan (who is very likely to be confirmed by the Senate), there will be no white Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the Supreme Court, or any Protestants at all. Instead, six of the justices will be Catholic and three Jewish.
WASPs have been losing their dominant hold on positions of power since at least the 1960s. Yet aside from some lamenting of lost manners, no one seems to miss the old days very much, not even the WASPs, who have more or less tried to be chin-up. The 1960s doomed the idea that one ethnic group should or could hang on to the reins of private or public power. Diversity and equality of opportunity became the watchwords. This was especially true at the colleges and universities that had long acted as gatekeepers to power and social prestige.
In the late 19th century, Harvard and Yale were bastions of social Darwinism. Their scholars believed that the rule of the Anglo-Saxon "race" (the word was used loosely then) was a matter not only of destiny but science. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the admissions directors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were determine to keep out "undesirables," which meant as a practical matter the exclusion of many Jews with strong academic records who correctly saw education as the way to advance in American society. In The Chosen, his revealing history of Ivy League college admissions, Jerome Karabel paints an almost comic picture of Princeton’s longtime admissions director, Radcliffe Heermance, doing his damnedest to make sure Prince--ton was kept well stocked with preppies and alumni sons, some of whom were more decorative than studious.
For a number of years in the late ’60s, as the revolution in women’s rights gained momentum, Princeton studied—and considered and pondered some more—the arguments for admitting women. Then suddenly—almost overnight it seemed—the university’s president and trustees decided that Princeton should go coed. What changed? As a few alums somewhat sheepishly admitted, the chief catalyst was Yale’s decision to take women. Princeton knew that failing to do likewise meant falling behind its ancient rival in prestige and the race for top students.
This competitive instinct, so central to the national character, proved to be a saving grace for Princeton. The transition from WASP bastion to genuine meritocracy has been a little bumpy. Princeton alums sometimes gnashed their teeth (or closed their checkbooks) when their sons did not get in. At Prince-ton reunions at the end of May, some WASPy old grads will grumble about Kagan, just as they did about Alito and Sotomayor. But more will cheer.