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Thoughts on Ross Douthat’s Privilege


This summer I’ve been deliberately trying to slow down and do some fun reading. I don’t have as much free time for reading these days, but its important to me that reading for fun never completely dry up, even if it becomes more of a slow trickle during certain seasons. So I recently ordered Ross Douthat’s Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion 2005), which I started a few days ago and found myself unable to put down until I finished it. Ross is a conservative columnist at the New York Times (do such juxtapositions exist? apparently they do), and I find him a likeable and thoughtful spokesperson on culture and politics. He first came to my attention for his interchange with Bill Maher on religion, in which I thought he struck a good blend of winsomeness and forcefulness—no small feat when talking about religion with Maher!

The book is mostly narrative, but filled with commentary along the way. Its basic message amounts to a sharp criticism of Harvard—he calls it “an incubator for an American ruling class that is smug, stratified, self-congratulatory, and intellectually adrift” (4)—but it also comes across that he loves Harvard, and misses his experiences there (he attended there from 1998-2002). Even when he is absolutely skewering Harvard, and the culture of privilege and elitism it represents, he does with humor more than venom.

41QVW6QWKVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ross is a good writer. I learned lots of interesting words, like detritus (3), lucre (64), vulpine (68), pallor (86), thrall (101), perfidy (103), splenetic (104), stultifying (131), halcyon (132), wonkish (220), suasion (228-29), skullduggery (248), ennui (265), gala (285), and many more. His sentences are lyrical, unburdened, inviting; his language is pictorial; his analysis is sharp. Here’s a sample sentence, describing the effect of rain on his graduation day: “picturesque, postcard-ready Cambridge was vanquished by mud-ridden, rain-spattered New England, and we shivered and peered miserably into the endless cameras that clicked and clattered and whirred, preserving forever the dreary ending of our Harvard education” (4). Here’s another, while discussing campus protests: “the chasm that the 1960s opened is still there, dividing not left from right (conservatives on elite campuses boast the approximate clout of Methodists in Mecca) but left from far left, Democrats from Socialists, The New Republic from The Nation—and, most fatefully, Al Gore from Ralph Nadar “(200). Its a fun read.

The prologue outlines the basic idea of the book, and provides a basic look at how he views Harvard. Chapter 1 deals with the topics of diversity and affirmative action, as viewed through the lens of the drama of his freshmen dorm. He argues that despite all its appearance and effort, Harvard is a remarkably non-diverse place. It pushes racial diversity, but not without significant backlash in the form of self-segregation, and it is decidedly not a place of intellectual, socioeconomic, regional, or political diversity. The main story of this chapter, about a homeless man who moves into his dorm and the ensuing chaos and conflict among his roommates, captures something of how difficult it can be to find your way at a place like Harvard when you don’t fit the “profile” (wealthy, blue state, liberal, etc.).

Chapter 2 is about classism and social elitism, as viewed through the lens of his sophomore bid for a “final club” (Harvard’s version of fraternities). The story reveals how much of an “inner circle” mindset drives Harvard—a culture of social climbing, glad-handing, cutthroat competition, and always wondering whether you’re “in.” Of course, a lot of places are like this, but it seems to come in a concentrated dosage at a place like Harvard. Chapter 3 is about the wealth, corruption, competition, and greed of Harvard culture, told through the story of a classmate who was convicted of grand larceny for embezzling over $90,000 from a campus theater group.

Chapter 4 focuses on the actual Harvard education, especially the problems of grade inflation and overspecialization. Ross shows that doing well academically at Harvard is as much about “working the system” as it is intelligence or effort. One problem is that the educational philosophy undergirding Harvard’s core curriculum emphasizes “methodology, not facts,” with the result that students take increasingly obscure and hyper-specialized courses. There is also the problem of postmodern deconstruction theory gutting more and more of the humanities, so that the sciences are perceived to be the only sources of real, tangible, beneficial knowledge. Later in the chapter cites Andrew Delbanco’s reference to academia as a “self-consuming artifact,” which for me captures quite vividly some of the problems I see in academia (self-focus, pretentiousness, game-playing, detachment from real life concerns). There is too little connection in academia to the world of non-academia: too little generalization and translation to the nonspecialist.

Although the problems Ross outlines in this chapter are probably not unique to the Ivy Leagues, his critique is compelling nonetheless—especially since he acknowledges that Harvard’s wealth of resources and brilliant faculty do make it possible to get a good education there. In other words, it would not be accurate to say that the Ivy Leagues, or upper echelon academia in general, have no value, or that you can’t learn from them. It would be more accurate to say that their value is limited; that being there does not necessarily guarantee you will get a good education; and that you can get a great education without being there. Harvard is a powerful machine, and there is a lot of good about it; but overall its surprising how much of the machinery is driven by causes other than genuine learning.

Chapter 5 is about love stories, which I skimmed because it was not my interest. Chapter 6 is about the dating and “hook up” culture at Harvard, and its consequences on individual people and the broader culture. This chapter was difficult to read; it is crude and sad and vulgar and cheap and raw. I skipped parts, but I’m glad I made to the end, where the point of the chapter emerges: that our cultural idol of “sex on demand” has a dark side. As he puts it, “there is a price to be paid for belonging to Harvard’s most sexually liberated generation. But it isn’t paid by us…. There are 1.2 million abortions every year in the United States” (190). Sad, sad, so sad. How do we become numb to this? God, have mercy on us.

Chapter 7 is about campus protests, which Ross uses to comment on the difference between the Center Left (“parlor liberals”) and the Far Left (“street liberals”)—and along the way, what its like to be a conservative on an Ivy League campus. Chapter 8 is about his final summer working in New York; he spends a lot of time talking about William F. Buckley, Jr., whom he was around that summer and whom he obviously admires. Chapter 9 focuses on events during his senior year, especially 9/11, and other various University happenings like the clash between President Larry Summers and Professor Cornel West that resulted in West’s departure to Princeton.

There were two moments in this book that particularly moved me. First, at one point during his summer in New York, he realizes that all of the elitism and inner-circle-ism of Harvard is only one particular instantiation of a much larger reality that exists outside of Harvard. He is describing the thoughtful, slow walks he would take around Manhattan, observing the hustle-and-bustle of the city. Then he writes:

There were moments in that summer when I felt that I stood at the very center of the world, the fixed point around which all else moved. At such times I was swollen with epiphany, and I understood the secret of Harvard’s success—which is that it doesn’t end with college, that it still exists out in the wider world, and that all of my adult life, all the people I would know, the jobs I might have, and the worlds I would conquer, would be nothing more than an extension of my four years in Cambridge…. But all my fears remained, all my doubts about my place in the world, and as I stared up at the frowning apartments ringing Central Park like battlements, it seemed that their doors were shut and locked against me, and that I was outside still. I wondered, then, if this was the other secret of Harvard, that no matter how far you go toward the center of the world, there is always another door, another inside—a place you cannot go, a prize that is denied you, and a hunger that isn’t satisfied” (250-251).

This, to my mind, is a poignant insight into the allure and emptiness of the Ivy League, and all species of worldly glory: no sooner do you get “inside” than find there is some new inner circle you are excluded from, and you must start all over. “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

It strikes me that Harvard, in some respects, is a good window into what is beautiful and what is broken in larger American culture. There is industry, there is drive, there is intelligence, there is value—but O, what a broken system it all comes in! At one Ross makes reference to “an entire system of selfishness in which our university was just a small wheel turning within a larger ones” (222), and it struck me that what is ugly about Harvard is the fruit of our broader cultural idols, greed, self-indulgence, materialism, and vanity.

Then, in the final pages of the book, there is a moment of honesty in which Ross seems to see himself as part of the problem with Harvard culture:

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…. Even this book has been written as much in ambition as in idealism (287).

What emerges in the few paragraphs after this one as the book closes is the sense of ambivalence Ross has about Harvard. He is both repelled by it and drawn to it; for all the sharpness of his criticisms he can’t seem to disentangle himself from it and leave it behind. There is an emptiness, a meandering, a restlessness that comes out—he went to Harvard; he experienced something profound and unsettling there; he hasn’t quite disentangled himself from it; and he is trying to sort it all out now.

The reason I find this moving is that since my seminary days I have had a deep longing to go to Princeton, to live in that beautiful city, to push my academic drive to the max, to see what its like to be in that culture. God has closed that door and redirected my desires, but every now and again, in a moment of loneliness or longing, in a quiet night listening to the wind blow through the leaves, in an unexpected moment seeing a picture of snowy New England—the old stab returns.

Reading this book reminded me that its not Princeton I’m longing for, but heaven. There is good in Princeton; its not that it would be wrong to go there. But its not the answer to that longing ache; its not the fulfillment of that desire for tradition, for substance, for learning, for culture, for adventure, for life.

I already knew that; I know that. But reading this book helped me feel that.

I wrote at the bottom of the last page: “this same restlessness would have happened to me if I went to Princeton. Thank you for unanswered prayers, Lord.”

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4 Responses

  1. Gavin — I absolutely loved your review of Privilege as well as your closing comments regarding your personal feelings about what it would be like if you went to Princeton.

  2. Wonderful, son. Thank you. Cambridge was my Princeton. But Aberdeen turned out to be my heaven-on-earth.

  3. This was an encouraging piece. I felt the same way about not getting into Yale for undergrad or similar elite programs for graduate school. Yet as I know from relatives who attended Harvard, the longings for glory will only be satisfied in the New Kingdom.

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