While Harvard eases its collective migraine caused by Larry Summers’ girl problems, another headache is on the horizon for our dear Cantabs. Forget the women-in-science controversy, a new book written by one of the school’s recent alums thoughtfully and convincingly argues that the institution is facing an existential crisis.
“Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class,” by Atlantic Monthly writer Ross Gregory Douthat, is a startling recount of the author’s four years at Harvard. Douthat tackles the usual targets — political correctness, racial tensions, unbridled ambition — yet, because he graduated in 2002, the book is fresh and relevant. Though the author is an out-and-out religious conservative, “Privilege” is best described as a lament that deftly avoids political polemic. That Douthat makes no attempt at providing solutions to the various ills of the social elite does not help matters much — he deliberately diagnoses a disease without offering any sort of prescription.
Essentially, Douthat claims that colleges, at least the Ivy League universities with which he is most familiar, have simply become pit stops for shamelessly determined, upper-middle-class kids. Gone are the days when students would spend most of their days occupied with reading the great works and discussing ideas with their peers and professors, he complains. He sees today’s elite students as brats concerned with taking the classes most likely to earn them the highest possible GPAs with the least amount of work, and check off the other requisite boxes on the road to success. One of Douthat’s main targets is the popular conception of meritocracy — as opposed to ancestry and inheritance — which he derides as “a religion of success.” While elite schools may be diverse on their face, he shows that nearly all students at schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton hail from the upper-middle and richest economic classes.
Douthat’s careful observations of student malaise and cynicism largely ring true. It is fortuitous that Douthat’s opus comes out on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s controversial bestseller “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” which similarly disdains the modern collegian’s penchant for casual sex and less-than rigorous academics. But while Wolfe focuses obsessively on the changed sexual norms of college life — which led most critics to find his novel dreary and behind the curve — Douthat digs deep.
One of the book’s strongest points is how it is told. Douthat alternates between sweeping, historical analysis of issues like campus activism, and chapter-long, brutally honest personal stories. One such anecdote, which comprises the opening chapter, documents the tensions that arose amongst Douthat’s suitemates when a homeless black man, posing as a Harvard Law Student, started crashing on their common room couch. But Douthat is at his best when he is both memoirist and social critic. In perhaps the book’s most thrilling chapter, Douthat reveals “The Strange Career of Suzanne Pomey,” the outgoing and ruthlessly social-climbing Harvard senior who was expelled for embezzling over $100,000 from Hasty Pudding Theatricals, perhaps Harvard’s most elite social institution.
One would think that merely getting into an Ivy League school would cure the deep longing that ambitious people often feel to be recognized for their great talents. But Douthat makes the college admissions process look like kindergarten compared to the madness of college itself — which he describes as a four-year struggle for unparalleled power and prestige.
As a former columnist for the Crimson, Harvard’s college newspaper, Douthat is well equipped to provide a colorful and informative description of political life at Harvard, which differs little from that at Yale. Douthat uses the Living Wage Campaign’s sit-in of 2001 as the focus for his discussion of campus politics, and surprisingly comes out in favor of the protesters. His support of the liberal cause speaks to his open-mindedness, and makes his conservative judgements more compelling.
While Douthat comes off as an expert on the social ambitions of his peers, one of the most obvious examples of this elitist mentality — the so-called Harvard mystique — eludes him. For the prospective students who can have their pick at any of the nation’s top colleges, perhaps the Harvard’s most appealing asset is its very name.
The most significant problem with “Privilege” is its unapologetic cynicism. It would have only helped his cause to sprinkle in a few happy stories, yet Douthat is relentlessly negative. His pessimism is clear from the very first sentence, which recounts his graduation ceremonies: “It never rains on a Harvard commencement, the myth-makers say, but it rained on ours.” One can only imagine how cranky Douthat must have been while at Harvard.
But perhaps Douthat was just hanging around with a bad crowd. While we all know over-ambitious and obsequious Ivy League students, those characteristics hardly fit the majority of undergraduates. Yet the problems Douthat complains of are important not so much for their pervasiveness, but for their effect on culture at large.
Aside from the misanthropy, the book’s other fault is its sporadic but obnoxious self-indulgence. Recounting the time he went skinny dipping with William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 during a sailing expedition on his yacht may impress some readers, but it’s difficult to see how it serves any substantive purpose. Thankfully, these boastful moments are few and far between. In fact, Douthat goes out of his way to appear self-deprecating.
Whether or not you agree with Douthat, “Privilege” is a worthy read. It’s undeniably interesting to discover what one exceptionally thoughtful recent grad has to say about his varied experiences at one of the nation’s most important institutional assets.