Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class
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by Ross Douthat
Great minds ranging from Buckley to Belushi have turned time and again to the crucible of the university when looking to illuminate certain truths about American life. On the college campus, so the theory goes, one can find society's greatest preoccupations and concerns writ small. In his new memoir, Privilege, Ross Douthat, class of 2002, provides a warts-and-all portrait of his experience at Harvard, probing the mysterious allure of the most famous name in higher education from the unique perspective of a Catholic conservative on a campus generally geared toward the secular and the liberal. Douthat's desire to attend Harvard took root initially in a childhood wish to be as close as possible to Fenway Park. In time, this yen gave way to an adolescent preoccupation with test scores and class ranks, and then became a suitably complicated young-adult reality at the institution itself.
Privilege is a considered and at times disturbing examination of the structure of the great meritocratic pyramid at whose apex Harvard theoretically sits. The bad old days of smoke-filled admissions offices are said to have passed, but as Douthat points out, the new, fairer regime that largely replaced the old order is not without its cruelties. Might a system devoted to quantifiable accomplishment be even more stifling in certain ways than the old-boy network it replaced? Is meritocracy merely a parody of democracy?
And although Douthat finds much to be concerned about, his sociological fretting is leavened with a deep affection for Harvard and the time he spent there. The heady mix of good friends, young love, and intellectual stimulation that he finds proves richly educational.
Douthat also examines the fringes of the world beyond Harvard, watching as classmates take tentative steps outside Harvard's gates as interns at various think tanks and glossy magazines, filing and photocopying their way toward future glories. And in this world, too, the opportunities that Harvard affords contain hidden costs, for there are always new ladders to be scaled, and new expectations to be exceeded. Even in the real world, Douthat writes, Harvard's high-octane achievement ethos haunts the graduate like a shadow of the successful adult he is to become.
A Harvard education is not easily left behind, it turns out—the pull of privilege is too strong, my efforts to escape it too weak, too halfhearted. I have never braved danger, never feared for my life; the wars of my country are fought by other men. My Catholic faith is real, but so is my worldliness: I seek the approval of men far more than the favor of God. I chose journalism, with its traces of romance, over business, but I had no aptitude for the latter anyway, and my thirst for wealth and achievement is as great as that of any of my classmates. Even this book has been written as much in ambition as in idealism.
Elite meritocratic ennui may not be the most urgent social problem on the national agenda today, but in mapping its contours, Douthat makes an intriguing contribution to the ongoing conversation about the skills, ideals, and affiliations we choose to value most as a society.
Ross Douthat is a reporter-researcher for The Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Washington, D.C.
We spoke by telephone January 19.
[An excerpt from Privilege appears in the March 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.]
I have to say, reading your book gave me sharp pangs of nostalgia for my own time in college. And I'm curious to know how the book came into existence. How did the ideas crystallize for you, and how did you come to find yourself writing a book about your college experience?
The genesis for the book was probably the summer after I graduated from college. I took about three months off before I started working for The Atlantic, and I essentially did nothing, just bummed around southern Connecticut. And while I was doing nothing I thought a lot about Harvard (and missed it very much). I'd written quite a bit about Harvard while I was there—both for the Salient, the conservative paper, and for the Crimson—so I had both fairly sharp memories of the four years and strong opinions about the place. And it seemed to me that there was a dearth of good writing about the current undergraduate experience. You get a lot of books criticizing academia in general—conservatives attacking political correctness in the faculty and academics themselves hand-wringing over whether they're doing a good enough job teaching and so on. But the undergraduate experience itself, particularly from the perspective of a recent graduate, rarely gets covered. Both Tom Wolfe, in his novel that came out recently, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and David Brooks, in "The Organization Kid," an article he did for The Atlantic, have written very well about this subject. But both of them are coming at it from a vantage point that is decades removed from the experience of actually being in college. It seemed to me that there would be value in writing a memoir of a recent college experience—giving people a sense of what it's like, because college is really one of the most interesting places in America.
So I sketched out in my mind something that was roughly the shape of the book as it turned out, a thematic look at college that tracked chronologically through my four years there—including everything from campus politics to academics to social life and dating.
I started writing and banged out two chapters, which became the first two chapters of the book itself. The first was about the interesting dynamics among my freshman-year roommates and a homeless man who ended up living with us. And the second was about my failed attempt to join the Porcellian, Harvard's most exclusive of the "final clubs."
I shopped it around in that form, and the way I ended up selling the book is actually a perfect example of the sort of connection-building and privilege that I talk about in the book itself. I had a friend from Harvard who had interviewed for a job with a literary agent who had said to her, "Oh, do you know any good young Ivy League talent?" She knew that I had been puttering around with these first two chapters, and she told me to send them to this agent. I did, and he made some recommendations, and we developed a proposal and shopped it around.
So before the book even exists, the themes which you're discussing are reproducing themselves on a micro scale.
Yeah. And that's one of the things that I hope comes across from the later chapters of the book. The four years of college really are just the beginning of college's impact—because the rest of your life, if you choose to live it that way, can essentially be just an extension of the friendships and connections and career track that you set up for yourself while at school.
Getting back to the four years themselves, college is an absurdly resonant period in life, and a great deal has been written about it. Were there any particular books about college that you took as a model?