God and Man at Harvard
Ross Douthat, the author of Privilege, talks about the social and academic realities of a Harvard education
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?
What I was trying to do, and hopefully I succeeded to some extent, was not just to capture Harvard but also the era in which I went to Harvard, which was the late nineteen nineties shading into September 11 and its aftermath. There's a book that has the sort of mood I was going for, though it's a very different kind of book—Exile's Return, by Malcolm Cowley. It's basically an experiential memoir of the Lost Generation and what the nineteen-twenties and early thirties felt like to Cowley and his friends. (He was friends with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and all the usual people.) There is a great passage at the end of Cowley's book where he talks about the experience of a New Year's either just before or just after the Great Depression hit—I can't remember which—this experience of the whirl of going to parties and the weird, frantic desperation that everyone feels as this particular moment comes to an end and this phase in their lives and, by extension, the life of the country, comes to an end. And it was that era-capturing spirit that I was trying to get across in the book.
That's interesting, because looking back on September 11 now, it's hard to remember exactly how much it felt like it marked the cusp of a completely different time versus just being one of the usual violent ruptures of history.
Yes, exactly. At the very end of the book I try to get into that question —that is, how big a change was September 11? Obviously, it was a huge change for the world, for U.S. foreign policy and so on, but in terms of the people and the social classes that I'm looking at in this book— the young, elite achievers who basically become the American ruling class—how much did 9/11 really change the way we live and the way we think about our ambitions? And, as I say in the book, I'm not really sure what the answers are yet. We're obviously only three years out, so it's too soon to tell, but I definitely have the sense that everything changed for us a lot less than it seemed to have changed in the months after September 11.
One of the epigraphs in your book is from Christopher Lasch: "Meritocracy is a parody of democracy." Could you talk a bit about what that quote means to you in the context of the book?
Well, it's interesting. The word "meritocracy" was coined by Michael Young, a British thinker in the 1950s, who did not intend it as a term of praise. He wrote a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy in which he argued that if you have a society where everyone advances on merit, it will eventually lead to the creation of an unpleasant aristocracy of talent. (Young's book was a satire, and in it he predicted that the meritocracy would be overthrown sometime midway through the twenty-first century.) His basic thesis resonated with me during my experience at Harvard. Meritocracy seems like a form of the democratic ideal—the idea that everyone who has talent should be able to realize that talent. But the difficulty is that any society and any institution like Harvard is going to privilege a certain set of talents and gifts over other talents and gifts. So meritocracy—meaning the rule of those who deserve it—ultimately ends up meaning the rule of those who get ahead according to a certain set of criteria.
The SAT is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It was originally intended to be the ultimate yardstick of pure meritocracy—an unbiased test that measures intelligence and aptitude and determines who is the most intelligent person and therefore the most deserving of a slot at an elite university. But once it became clear that you could game the SAT by taking SAT-prep courses, the advantage inevitably started going to the people whose parents exerted certain pressures on them and were willing to spend certain amounts of money on them. In most cases these parents were like my parents and presumably like your parents—people who were beneficiaries of the first wave of meritocracy. These are people who often came from working and middle-class families, went to elite schools, and ended up being upper-middle class, determined that their children would stay in the upper-middle class and willing to do what it takes to keep them there. What you get is essentially a self-perpetuating system in which, yes, the people who succeed are clearly smart people and clearly work hard and deserve to succeed and so on, but they are also people who have been given a certain kind of advantage that the rest of society hasn't been given. So ultimately the effect is similar, in certain ways, to that of older class systems.
Now, it doesn't have all the same vices as a hereditary aristocracy. But at the same time it has certain vices that the hereditary aristocracy didn't have. Because people believe so firmly in the principles of meritocracy, there is a sort of unspoken belief at a place like Harvard that you are there because you deserve to be there and that you rule because you deserve to rule—that you really are the best. It's not just a matter of accident of birth. We can scientifically prove that you are the best—we have the tests; we've run the spreadsheets to determine that you are part of the top five percent.
And that's where you shall stay.
Right. And you can see this inevitably in the class composition of places like Harvard. Again, in theory, anyone can get into Harvard. In theory, it's all perfectly democratic, it's a microcosm of America, it's a very diverse school. But the majority of the people you meet at Harvard are from the upper-middle class and above. The amount of wealth at Harvard is frankly astonishing. It was astonishing to me, and I grew up upper-middle class in a New Haven suburb. I wasn't coming to Harvard from the ghetto by any means, but it was still amazing to me to see the amount of money that kids had on hand to spend.
You noted in the book that about ten percent of students at elite colleges are from the lower half of the economic ladder. What sort of society do you think this model produces? What's the endpoint of this sort of arrangement?
I'm not sure what the endpoint is. Michael Young says that it's violent revolution by the people who are left behind. My guess is it will lead to a country like the country we have today only more so—increasing wage inequality, increasing economic segregation, and an increasing sense that there are certain enclaves where the smart people go. If you're a smart person from, say, Glens Falls, New York, or Wichita, Kansas, then you're going to get a scholarship to an elite school, and once you're done with that school you're probably going to go live in one of the major cities around the country. And this is the thing: It's impossible to resist. Once you've set this kind of system in place, you can't then say to the kid from the working-class town, "Oh, no, once you graduate from Harvard you have to go back and live in a working-class neighborhood and lift up your fellow working-class people."
How do you feel about the idea of economic affirmative action in order to level out the composition of the student body?
I would generally be inclined to support it. I certainly think that it's a better conception of how to handle admissions than the current system of race-based affirmative action. There was a New York Times article about six months ago which noted that while the ratio of black students to white at Harvard is roughly similar to that of the American population as a whole, the black students who are getting in to Harvard are not coming from poor black neighborhoods. They are just as wealthy, if not more so, than the average white student there. So affirmative action often isn't helping the people it's aimed to help. It's just providing an extra leg up for blacks and Hispanics who more than likely are going to do well without it.
Given how much effort Harvard expends promoting racial diversity, I certainly think they could do a lot more to promote economic and geographic diversity. But at the same time, the bar keeps on getting raised. Meritocracy has created this huge culture of college admissions—the obsession with getting good grades and doing a large number of extracurriculars and getting a high score on your SATs and visiting twenty-five colleges and applying to fifteen of them. You have more kids applying to college every year, so it's getting harder and harder to get in.
Right, so it's getting more professionalized and more competitive.
Yes, and getting into an elite college has become close to the number one class issue for most middle- to upper-middle-class people in America. What is the ultimate marker of your success? Part of it is having the nice house and the good job and keeping up with the Joneses, but more importantly, it's where your kids went to school.
And then, of course, as you suggest in your Atlantic article and at length in your book, going to a prestigious college doesn't necessarily guarantee the best education. You mention various aspects of Harvard's current curriculum, for example, that left you cold—things like grade inflation and the weak core requirements. What would you most like to change about the curriculum if it were up to you?
I'm afraid this is going to sound hopelessly conservative, but I think that you do have to make an attempt to teach a certain subset of knowledge to every Harvard student. You can call it a "canon" if you want, you can call it whatever you like, but the number one sense that I had, both in terms of myself and my classmates, is that no one was leaving Harvard with a quote-unquote Harvard education. There was no corpus of knowledge that everyone was supposed to have. People were graduating who were brilliant at chemistry but didn't know basic facts about American history. Or, in my case, I was very well grounded in the history and literature of Britain and America, but my science requirements were thin to the point of being absurd.
It's too bad—there was a great opportunity in the sixties and seventies, when many schools went through curriculum reform. In a way, the critics of the dead-white-males approach to education were right—the curricula were too Eurocentric, and they needed to be changed. But that didn't mean that the idea of a canon should have been abandoned. It meant there was a need to enlarge the curriculum, to include Chinese civilization and Arab civilization and Indian civilization and African civilization.
The Harvard core curriculum is a perfect example of what happened instead: in the late seventies people essentially threw up their hands at the question of what an educated person should know. Instead they came up with this "approach to knowledge" method, where what they have looks like a core curriculum, but really all it's supposed to teach is the scientific approach to knowledge or the historical approach to knowledge. This may sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice nobody's learning anything about the scientific approach to knowledge in a five-hundred-person class on the history of trees and forests.
I take your point, but I guess I'd see two main impediments to reinstituting a canon-based curriculum. The first is the radioactivity of the canon in general and the fact that it's difficult either for a society at large or a smaller academic community to have a calm and focused discussion about the nature of knowledge and what everybody should learn. And then there are the market pressures within the academy itself, where there are way more people with Ph.Ds than there are academic jobs. In order to distinguish themselves and make themselves hirable, academics need to latch on to these little slices of their disciplines so they can have something to specialize in.
You're right, we have a collegiate system that is based around the research-university model—a system where the most important thing for professors to do is research and publish some obscure monograph on some obscure thing that nobody's ever written about before. That way they'll set themselves apart and gain tenure. What is left out of any decisions about hiring and tenure is the quality of the teaching. Now, at Harvard there are guidebooks published every year by students rating the quality of teaching. People write out reports saying, This guy gave great lectures; this guy was great in discussion; this guy really gave me a lot of comments on my paper; and so on. It's obviously an imperfect system, but it doesn't seem like it should be impossible to have a system like that used in the evaluation of candidates for hiring.
But as to the larger question, the radioactivity of the discussion of what knowledge is important and what we should be teaching, I guess I would say that if you can't have such a discussion at Harvard—or at any university—then it seems like the university as a model is permanently broken.
I wasn't meaning to say that we shouldn't have that conversation. I'm just saying that it's clear that it's a difficult conversation to have.
Right. I think what you would need, and unfortunately I don't think you're necessarily seeing it with Larry Summers at Harvard, is someone who takes a leadership role at one of these schools and sets the example for the rest of American colleges—someone who is a master diplomat, who is able to talk about canons without having protest marches around the library. I certainly think that Summers has his heart in the right place on a lot of the issues that I'm concerned about with universities, but he has a bull-in-the-china-shop mentality. He's there to shake things up, and you could see it just this week when he made those comments about whether women are by nature less disposed toward careers in the sciences. Now, that is a great thing for someone like Steven Pinker, who Summers has in fact hired at Harvard, to bring up. It's the sort of thing that an interesting intellect at a top tier university should be saying—offending some people, spurring debate. But if you're the university president in charge of a massive curricular overhaul, it's probably the wrong moment to be making large numbers of enemies.
What do you think about the state of academic advising? The general lack of it, especially early on, was one of the things I found most frustrating about my own college experience.
I don't talk about advising that much in the book, because in my experience there's almost nothing to say. My experience was the same as yours. Any good advising I had, I more or less lucked into. This is typical of the way the modern elite university is run. There are people at Harvard—or Brown or Yale or wherever—who will give you great advice. But the administration's attitude is: Go find them. Much of that is predicated on the assumption that Harvard kids are self-starters, that they don't need to be guided through college because they are such achievers that they will figure it all out on their own. But that's not really true. Harvard students are used to going from step to step on the ladder—taking the next test, taking the next set of AP classes, and so on. You get to Harvard and there is no guidance, so what ends up happening is that you take your guidance from your peers.
So people follow the paths that have been laid out for them—they go into investment banking or law school or medical school. A number of people never quite figure out what they really want to do in life. They just get channeled into either the highest paying job or the most prestigious graduate school they can find.
We talked earlier about David Brooks and Tom Wolfe as two people who have the university-chronicling thing down. What's your overall impression of their work? What do you think they get right, and what do they get wrong?
I thought "The Organization Kid"—where Brooks goes to Princeton and essentially discovers what good kids all the children of the sixties radicals grew up to be—was a great essay. But I also thought he was somewhat over-impressed by how nice everyone was. The response of the typical Ivy League student to someone like David Brooks coming to campus is obviously going to be an incredibly well-trained level of niceness that I don't think exists within the universities themselves, at least in how students relate to one another. Every Princeton student would be eager to talk to David Brooks and represent himself as some sort of authority on college life. It's a chance to appear in a David Brooks article. It's a validation of your place in the meritocratic spectrum.
Have you read the Tom Wolfe book?
I have, and I really enjoyed it. In his book I think Wolfe is trying to create a composite of all sorts of big American universities, and so he depicts a jock culture extending over the campus as a whole, which doesn't really exist, I think, at the more self-consciously elite schools, with Duke and Stanford and their good sports programs being the exceptions. For the most part at Harvard there isn't the kind of social pecking order that Wolfe depicts, with the jocks on top ruling over everyone. But I did enjoy the book. Before I read it I was describing my book to people as God and Man at Yale, but with more sex. Now I'm describing it as I am Charlotte Simmons, but with less sex.
Both Brooks and Wolfe would probably identify themselves as cultural conservatives. And it's interesting that, in terms of the people who are looking at academia, it seems like conservative commentators have somewhat cornered the market. It's almost as though people on the left are content to say that they won the battle of the university back in the sixties, and that it's been carrying on under its own momentum since then. So they're perhaps not as willing to examine the university closely today, and it becomes more a matter of conservatives chipping away at this liberal-leaning edifice that has been built.
On paper at least, the left-wing critique of the sixties succeeded in the sense that the people who made that critique took over the universities. But what then happened is that while certain aspects of that critique—mainly the part that dealt with sexual liberation—were adopted permanently, the rest of the critique was set aside. The sixties radicals grew up to be the exemplars of meritocracy—university administrators, lawyers, investment bankers, successful politicians, successful journalists, and so on. And so there is a sense in which the left had its moment of critique, the critique succeeded up to a point, but then meritocracy, and in the larger sense capitalism, co-opted it. This didn't just happen in the universities, it happened everywhere. You can see it in the way capitalism functions. All these self-conscious liberal slogans ended up as Apple advertising slogans.
David Brooks talks about this—his book Bobos in Paradise shows this trend playing out on a large scale. But even today, if you look at the kind of critique that the living-wage movement represents—the people who wanted janitors to be paid more at Harvard—I think there was a lot there that a certain kind of conservative could agree with. The idea that the university isn't an autonomous actor, for instance. That it's responsible for building a community and treating people in that community well and modeling certain virtues for its students. And that not all those virtues have to do with the rule of the marketplace.
And, as you write in the book, you consider yourself the kind of conservative who would be sympathetic to the demands of the living-wage campaign.
Leaving aside some of the trappings of the movement that you objected to personally, did you find yourself in a minority among campus conservatives by taking that view?
I would say that among campus conservatives, there was a reflexive sense that the people leading the living-wage movement were our enemies. That sense was correct in so far as a lot of the underlying beliefs of the student activists were not conservative beliefs. They were left-wing and revolutionary in some sense, not in any true Marxist sense but in a sort of warmed-over Marxist sense.
In so far as that was the case, the reflexive attitude among conservatives was anti living-wage movement and pro-free market. For many campus conservatives the free market is the defining political truth. But I do think that in general conservatives would be advised—and this is true certainly within the Republican Party and within the conservative intellectual movement as well—to be more suspicious of the idea of the unfettered free market than they are. I think there is sort of a hangover among conservatives that goes back to the fifties, for instance when William F. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale—which is a fantastic book and obviously one of the models that I attempted to follow. His critique of universities was that professors were essentially anti capitalist, anti free market—not necessarily communists, but perhaps Marxists. He argued that this was the defining mood of the day. And he was right.
But all of that has changed. There are still lots of semi-Marxist professors, but they're professors of English literature or sociology. The spirit among campus administrators and in the economics department and in the places that shape the way college students think about the free market is that markets are good, markets are great. In general it's a good consensus: the free market is good. But I think it can lead to an unreflective embrace of certain ideas—for instance, about how you pay your janitors—that may not be the best way to run a university.
At one point in the book you write that there are two types of young conservatives. There's the type who is raised as a conservative from birth. And then there's the kid who gets into conservatism the way someone else might get into indie rock or Dungeons and Dragons. What was your personal experience like?
I was a convert, but my political trajectory as a teenager was different from the typical convert to conservatism. What often happens is you get people who discover conservatism by reading Ayn Rand—the people who, in rebellion against the economic center-left ideology of the elite upper-middle class, rebel into a kind of libertarianism. First they read Rand, and then they get a little bit more serious and read some Hayek or some Milton Friedman. And then they say: We've got to get the government out of the way and privatize the post office and so on. Eventually those people settle down into a kind of more mature libertarianism, which is essentially the economic philosophy of the Republican Party today.
But I didn't do that. I came to conservatism through religion, really. I came from a family that became more religious as I was growing up. We started out as sort of lukewarm Episcopalians, then became fairly committed Evangelicals, and then while I was a teenager we all converted en masse to Roman Catholicism. We did the tour of American Christianity. And during that time, I was raised a liberal Democrat. My earliest political memory was watching my parents vote for Mondale and Ferraro, which was a lonely and miserable activity.
But in my teens I started doing a lot of reading about religious issues, and a lot of the intellectual firepower in religion, particularly in Catholicism, was on the conservative side. Over time, I gradually started adopting more culturally conservative positions, particularly on abortion. And I remember there was a moment in the '96 election when I suddenly thought to myself, Well, gosh, maybe I support Bob Dole. And then I thought, If I support Bob Dole, I'll support any Republican. From there I started reading National Review and the whole neo-conservative corpus—Dinesh D'Souza and Charles Murray and Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb. And you step into a world of conservative ideas, which in the mid-nineties for me—a teenager growing up in a liberal suburb of New Haven—was something I'd never encountered before. It was very intellectually exciting. So I started out culturally conservative and became more economically conservative over time.
But ultimately it's the cultural conservatism, much more than tax cuts, that's the grounding of my conservatism. It isn't just about the social issues like abortion, it also extends to a general sense of aesthetics—what do I value in art and books and architecture and so on.
Your book is about Harvard specifically, but it's also about college in general. How representative do you feel your experience at Harvard was of the elite college experience and of American higher education as a whole?
I tend to think that the experience at Harvard is pretty well representative of elite higher education in general—except that everything is amplified. At elite schools you get the obsession with achievement. At Harvard you really get the obsession with achievement. Elite schools tend to inculcate a certain degree of arrogance and self-satisfaction in their student body—and then at Harvard that's taken to the max. And on down the list.
College on steroids.
Elite colleges on steroids, yeah. In terms of the country as a whole, I think there are commonalties to the college experience that are true anywhere, but it's definitely the case that certain aspects of college life that are really powerful at other schools are not powerful at Harvard—particularly college athletics. People go to the Harvard-Yale game and maybe they go watch Harvard play Penn if Harvard's undefeated or something, but there isn't the same sort of culture of school spirit that there is at the big state schools. Also, because Harvard and elite schools are such achievement-obsessed places, there's a lot less of the fun, hanging out, doing nothing and drinking aspect of college than I think a lot of people experience.
But in general the college experience is the college experience, no matter where you are, because all colleges are places that take a bunch of kids that have never been away from home before and stick them all together in dorms. Their hormones are raging; they have to go to classes at the same time and do intellectual activities; they all really want to drink more than they have ever drunk before; and it all lasts for only four years and then it's over and you're suddenly shoved out into the real world. It's a very strange way station between childhood and adult life.
And it seems like that would be the case no matter where you are.
The one difference I would point out is that, even for kids on financial aid, there is much more of a sense of insulation from the real world at Harvard or at any elite school than you're going to get at a smaller school or a state school. There's just much more of a sense of things being taken care of, of not having to work your way through college not having to take a year off to pay for something.
As you point out in the book, Harvard's endowment is gigantic, and is continuing to grow with no end in sight. Do you think the institution itself will keep growing and growing and becoming more dominant, or do you think it could somehow lose the cachet that it has had for the past four centuries or so?
I think it's going to keep going in the direction it's going as long as the wider society keeps going in the direction it's going. Harvard is the embodiment of the American elite, and as long as the American elite are getting wealthier and more powerful and more important, Harvard is going to stay wealthy and powerful and important. There may be some school in the future that eclipses Harvard in terms of overall importance, but that doesn't mean that Harvard is going to stop being important. Harvard has achieved a critical mass both in terms of its history and pedigree and in terms of its financial resources and intellectual star power. That sort of critical mass is very difficult to dislodge. And look at where Harvard's going right now—it's buying more land, building larger campuses, trying to expand the brand overseas. It's a very business-oriented viewpoint, but there isn't any reason to expect that it will disappear. Money feeds money.
Past a certain point, the endless focus on achievement that you describe just seems exhausting. Do you think that aspect of Harvard did any damage to your native curiosity and general interest in the world by putting everything into the same framework of achievement?
I'm not certain that I worry about the damage Harvard did to that side of me, but I worry in a way that Harvard doesn't produce good people, people who are properly grounded or have a good sense of what really are the most important things in life. I worry about the extent to which that culture has affected me and produced a level of ambition that is ultimately unhealthy for a happy life. But that said, do I regret going to Harvard? No. Harvard is not necessarily a good place, but it is one of the most interesting places in the world. It's hard to imagine a better university experience for a would-be writer than going to a place like Harvard where there is always something crazy going on and where so many aspects of our society are brought into relief. It's sort of like New York in that way. Is New York, particularly in elite echelons, the sort of place that produces good human beings? Well, if you read something like New York Magazine that follows the lifestyles of the New York upper crust, you're not reading about the moral heroes of our age. But is New York the most interesting, fascinating, wacky city in the United States or in the world? Absolutely. And where do all the would-be writers go? They go to New York. Or in my case to Washington, but we'll leave that aside.