Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class


In the spirit of Scott Turow's One L and David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise, a penetrating critique of elite universities and the culture of privilege they perpetuate, written by a recent Harvard alumnus.

Part memoir, part social critique, Privilege is an absorbing assessment of one of the world's most celebrated universities: Harvard. In this sharp, insightful account, Douthat evaluates his social and academic education — most notably, his frustrations with pre-established social...

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In the spirit of Scott Turow's One L and David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise, a penetrating critique of elite universities and the culture of privilege they perpetuate, written by a recent Harvard alumnus.

Part memoir, part social critique, Privilege is an absorbing assessment of one of the world's most celebrated universities: Harvard. In this sharp, insightful account, Douthat evaluates his social and academic education — most notably, his frustrations with pre-established social hierarchies and the trumping of intellectual rigor by political correctness and personal ambition. The book addresses the spectacles of his time there, such as the embezzlement scandal at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and Professor Cornel West's defection to Princeton. He also chronicles the more commonplace but equally revealing experiences, including social climbing, sexual relations, and job hunting.

While the book's narrative centers on Harvard, its main arguments have a much broader concern: the state of the American college experience. Privilege is a pointed reflection on students, parents, and even administrators and professors who perceive specific schools merely as stepping-stones to high salaries and elite social networks rather than as institutions entrusted with academic excellence.

A book full of insightful perceptions and illuminating detail, Privilege is sure to spark endless debates inside and outside the ivied walls.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” and the flap surrounding Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, comes this memoir-cum-polemic about Harvard by a 2002 graduate. Douthat critiques his peers’ sense of entitlement from the perspective of a cultural conservative, although his high moral tone is somewhat compromised by an eagerness to bolster this account of campus life with salacious anecdotes of debauchery, greed, and snobbery. Douthat skewers the political and sexual shenanigans of his classmates and provides a thoughtful analysis of the prevailing liberal politics of the campus. But his righteous indignation can seem misplaced, when so many of the injustices that exercise him are so petty. It’s hard to get really upset about charges of button-stealing in a campus election.
Publishers Weekly
"Harvard is a terrible mess of a place," Douthat writes, "an incubator for an American ruling class that is smug, self-congratulatory, and intellectually adrift." It is also Douthat's beloved alma mater (he was class of 2002), a place where a young man sneered at by the "high school jockacracy" could finally become "cool." Or so he thought. In this memoir-cum-pop-sociological investigation, Douthat reflects on campus academics, diversity, class and sex, "the lunatic schedules and sleepless nights, the angst and the ambition, the protests and r sum -building." He comes down against grade inflation and mourns the "smog of sexual frustration" that floated over Harvard's campus; he reflects longingly (though with mixed feelings) on the tony clubs to which he did not gain entrance; he explains the lack of real diversity on campus (most students are privileged blue-staters, despite differences in race); and he serves up anecdotes about the homeless man masquerading as a Harvard student, the senior who embezzled from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and his failed trip to Smith College to look for girls. It's an interesting book, if a little self-centered and self-serving (it was "written as much in ambition as in idealism"), and it'll no doubt be read eagerly by Crimson students-at least the ones like Douthat, who are not quite "the privileged among the privileged, the rulers of the ruling class." (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Memoir of four years in Harvard Yard, "written as much in ambition as in idealism" by a member of the class of 2002. The acquisition of an Ivy League education, Douthat reveals, is still a special privilege, and diversity remains limited. In the time-honored tradition of college memoirs, this avowed undergraduate rebel against good form reveals all the faults of higher education-along with a few of its pleasures. Douthat provides plenty of obligatory material about freshman housemates and the nubile girls upstairs and down, as well as much fretting about the clubs where the elite meet to eat and to grope the opposite sex. To be sure, he also spends time pondering the academics, from class shopping to the age-old custom of procrastinating and cutting corners on assignments. Yes, he descries grade inflation: what was once a "gentleman's C" is now a coed B, and As abound, especially in the cut-rate humanities. Fun tidbits include the story of a wildly popular campus queen and her mild-mannered friend who got busted for embezzlement. Harvard's core curriculum (which seems to include the movie Love Story) yields spotty learning, contends Douthat. A wider education is provided by clubs, campus publications, and, in due course, fervid hooking up. He analyzes the Crimson way with faculty and the occasional dissident movement, making some astute comments about the differences between parlor and street liberals. Once a summer intern at the National Review, the author (now working at Atlantic Monthly) recalls an idyllic sail with Mr. Buckley himself. It's all about class, classes, geeks, grinds, and girls: college days when "academics were the easy part."Quite thoughtful, and the controlled verve ofDouthat's prose deserves better than a gentleman's B in Expository Writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781401301125
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 663,785
  • Product dimensions: 0.81 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 6.00 (d)

Meet the Author

While at Harvard, Ross Gregory Douthat wrote a biweekly column for the Harvard Crimson and edited the Harvard Salient. He now works at the Atlantic Monthly and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents

1 The fall of Straus B-32 13
2 The old boys' club 53
3 The strange career of Suzanne Pomey 85
4 Approaches to knowledge 111
5 Love stories 141
6 Safe sex 169
7 The liberal civil war 193
8 The last summer 235
9 The days after 257
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2009

    Modern Life at College

    This book by a recent Harvard graduate is amusing and well-written. Ross Douthat came to Harvard expecting to find an environment composed of smart students, great professors and the finest in undergraduate learning. What he found was something very different, and this is the story of how he came to terms with it. The title makes the book sound like an indictment, and indeed there is in the early chapters an underlying current of disappointment, but before long it's clear Ross eventually grew to love the place, warts and all.

    Readers familiar with Harvard University will find the book most enjoyable, but anyone who has, either as a parent or a student, seen the modern university up close will find it worthwhile.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2005

    America's Ruling Class Has Lost its Sense of Noblesse Oblige

    Ross Gregory Douthat insightfully tells us that today's 'ruling class,' composed of the graduates of Harvard and other elite institutions, has lost its sense of noblesse oblige. This is so because our country has become so meritocratic. Douthat tells us that Harvard students feel they deserve to be there because they are the most talented and have worked so incredibly hard in high school to compile an impressive enough resume to get in. 'They belong exactly where they are---the standardized test scores and college admissions officers have spoken, and their word is final.' Our meritocratic society has reduced the arbitrariness of a student's acceptance at elite schools, and there will be less arbitrariness than in days-gone-by about a Harvardian's place in America's elite when he or she graduates. This attitude contrasts with that of Harvard students and graduates of 100 years ago ('in the days before Verdun and Passchendaele'). In those days students were accepted and attended because of birth, i.e. their parents had the money, their families had social connections, etc. Douthat tells us that ideals of noblesse oblige grew from the 'knowledge that God (or blind chance) had given the elite much that was not necessarily deserved.' Douthat goes on to tell us that 'on Harvard's campus reminders of that vanished era are inscriptions, on bridges and gates, that offer exhortations redolent with late-Victorian themes of honor and chivalry, patriotism and piety...ENTER TO GROW IN WISDOM, Dexter Gate tells those who pass through, and DEPART TO BETTER SERVE THY COUNTRY AND THY KIND.' However, Douthat also tells us that 'No one speaks like this anymore---not at Harvard....' Because at today's Harvard, according to Douthat, knowledge of the source of noblesse oblige 'has been wiped away. The modern elite's rule is regarded not as arbitrary, but as just right and true, at least if one follows the logic of meritocracy to its logical conclusion.' As a result, Harvard students are concerned only with themselves and their personal success, and Douthat's memoir points to apparently real life characters, like Suzanne Pomey, as examples of the troubled path down which this attitude can take us. Douthat's comparison of her with Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby is well done. 'Society gets the sociopath it deserves,' warns Douthat, and for this reason Harvard alumni, students, faculty and administration should read this well written memoir. A novel that contains an excellent contrast of a pre-World War I Harvard graduate with a late 20th Century Harvard graduate, and the themes from Douthat's book that I have discussed above, is 'American Blue Blood' by William C. Codington.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2005


    This book is hilarious he talks about Ivy League he needs to go to Historically Black Colleges they are even worse speaking for someone who graduated from the creme of the crop (Howard University)when you have Dignitaries children flunking out and politicans childrens strung out on drugs this is absolutly true nothing is required of you at these elite schools the only way you get in is through somebody you know i.e. parents(Alumni)know intellectual authority at these schools nothing,so this book to me is on point.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2005

    Friends we've had

    Mr. Douthat's book isn't just a critique of the Ivy League Educational system. It's a story of love, hope, and the friends who have passed in and out of our lives. It's also pretty funny at times.

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