Book Review: Privilege

Privilege:  Harvard And The Education Of The Ruling Class, by Ross Gregory Douthat

Although I have never studied at Harvard or any other ivy league school, there was a lot I could identify with concerning this book and the author’s somewhat embarrassing discussion of his own undergraduate studies and life.  I grew up myself as a rather poor and bright and moderately ambitious young person and attended the University of Southern California as an undergraduate student, where I saw a similar set of circumstances to the one the author describes for his own Harvard education [1].  Admittedly, my own experience of being a poor, Southern-raised, deeply Conservative college student way out of his depth in the world of decadent higher education is not a particularly common one, but whether you approach the author’s book with a great degree of self-knowledge and identification with the author’s struggles as an outsider to feel as if he belongs among the ruling class (something the author has succeeded at far more than I have), or whether one looks at the author’s experience with envy and/or contempt, as may be a more common reaction, the author certainly provides in this book an intriguing and frequently disturbing look at America’s contemporary elite.

This book of about 300 pages is divided into nine mostly large chapters.  The author begins with a prologue that examines the chaotic and somewhat drunken graduation ceremony the author experienced in June 2002 at Harvard, which sets up the rest of the discussion.  He moves to Harvard’s social engineering as seen in the breakup of Straus B-32 during the author’s freshman year, as efforts at bringing a diverse group of people failed in the midst of drama and division (1).  The author examines his own embarrassing attempts to be accepted into the old boys’ club of the various unofficial social houses and Harvard’s desire to end the partying and socializing of its students (2).  After that comes a chapter that examines the striving and crimes of one Suzanne Pomey, a person the author (and this reader at least) can identify with perhaps a bit too closely for comfort (3).  The author then turns his attention to Harvard’s much maligned core curriculum and the lack of emphasis on knowledge on the part of many students (4).  The author gives more embarrassing love stories (5) and a discussion about safe sex and the general absence of a healthy sex life among many contemporary undergrads (6), again, something I have deep personal experience of.  After that comes a discussion of the simmering civil war between “parlor” and “street” liberals over the acceptance of capitalism and the push for activism (7), something I have seen myself.  The book closes on a melancholy look at the author’s last summer before graduation (8) and the temporary change in campus culture that took place after September 11, 2001 (9), at which point the book ends with a note of hope concerning the author’s successful relationship with a bright friend and classmate after college.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this book is the way that the author discusses the transformation of Harvard’s WASP elite into something somewhat more amorphous but ultimately no less elitist in its contemporary privileged class.  In giving a warts and all look at the unsettling and often unpleasant behavior of undergraduates from privileged families who act richer than they are, use their college experience in very traditional ways to gain connections and an entry into the larger cultural elite rather than in the acquisition of knowledge or in the broadening of one’s perspective as a whole, the author demonstrates how it is that elites perpetuate themselves through institutions by watching carefully for interlopers and keeping connections strong generation after generation for those who can charm their fellow elites.  How one views these elites and their problems is not something that the author seems interested in telling–he tells his own story about what he saw and what he experienced, and the response of the reader to this demonstrates the extent to which they care about those who rule over this country to a great extent.  If you read this book, you probably at least care a little about these subjects and about the struggle to be just while also getting ahead.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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