The Ruling Class

Ross Gregory Douthat ’02 argues that Harvard has produced a class of complacent, intellectually lazy corner-cutters who treat academics less as an exploration of the mind than an extension of the resumé.

Offended yet? Careful, you’re dealing with one of your own. In Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, Douthat has penned a scathing look at the culture of the “meritocratic elite” he believes pervades the modern academy—and not the least, his alma mater.

For Douthat, also a former Crimson columnist, it’s no coincidence that Harvard is run by an economist­—the entire place is a case study of rational choice theory put into wide effect.

When Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan come calling, we’re ready with our stellar GPAs and glowing resumes, bloated by malleable TFs and overenrolled, steeply curved core classes. Intellectual curiosity is lost amidst a culture that encourages individual profit above all else.

He cites as evidence the myriad techniques Harvardians use to get the highest grades for the least effort: duping TFs with intentionally garbled e-mail attachments, forming study groups to avoid heavy reading, writing jargon-heavy papers that manage to avoid any empirical evidence and still snatch an “A.”

Some of his points ring depressingly true. Douthat cleverly turns sex and academia into a cold calculus: attempts to glean maximum success from minimal effort.

Whether the ultimate aim is an A or an orgasm, the impetus is the same: another crossed-out item on the laundry list to success.

His cynical take on the Core curriculum will cause many a recent Harvard graduate to nod in agreement. Douthat suggests a Columbia-style great books curriculum as an alternative, allowing Harvard undergraduates to gain a traditional, broad-based liberal arts education in lieu of the narrow, overly specific “approaches to knowledge” introduced in esoteric classes like Literature and Arts C-42, “Constructing the Samurai” and Literature and Arts B-31, “The Portrait.” No argument here—undergrads have wasted too much time learning about the Swing Era and too little understanding the foundations of the Western canon.

But the argument grows repetitive after a while, lapsing into conservative rhetoric and reaching its nadir with a drawn-out chapter on the campus tumult of the ’60s, complete with tiresome condemnations of “parlor liberals.”

Douthat should stick with what he knows; Privilege suffers when the focus moves beyond the temporal bounds of its author’s undergraduate career.

TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE

Luckily, readers can ignore the rehashed ideology in favor of the thoroughly enjoyable memoir embedded in the book. With his endearing, well-written anecdotes of romantic bumbling and freshman foibles, Douthat produces a fun little gem of narcissism, a pleasant indulgence for author and reader alike.

Douthat’s dissections of class dynamics in his first-year Straus entryway, ethnic self-segregation in the College, and the Hasty Pudding embezzlement scandal are entertaining and provocative, raising salient questions about the role of race and status at an ostensibly diverse university.

He notes that “you’re twenty-five times more likely to encounter a wealthy student than a poor student at an Ivy League or Ivy-imitating college.” The figure should have a chilling effect on any reader who still thinks meritocracy allows all walks of life an equal shot at success. The average household income of a Harvard student soars into the six-digit range. We’re as representative of the national mosaic as Congress.

Douthat’s sharpest observations are reserved for an illuminating chapter on final clubs, chronicling his ultimately unsuccessful punch for the Porcellian. Against all odds, the shy, unconnected Douthat survives two rounds of cuts, allowing him access to cocktail parties at the vast estates of well-endowed club alumni.

The scenes set here are unnerving—wealthy students discuss summer resorts as servants flitter about and septuagenarians crack racist jokes over schnapps.

Though jealous of the fact that Douthat nearly broke into the ranks of the Porc while I was summarily rejected from the lowly Spee, I must concede that Privilege offers a remarkable primer on the particularities of the punch process.

At times, Douthat demonstrates the consistency of dining hall frozen yogurt.

He pines for hook-ups while condemning the culture they represent; he blasts the classroom shortcuts of undergraduates while reminiscing about his own corner-cutting; he faults Harvard for taking too many upper-middle-class, white Northeastern males—a demographic he conveniently fits into himself.

A subtle sense of guilt runs throughout the book. “My thirst for wealth and achievement is as great as any of my classmates,” Douthat writes in his conclusion. “Even this book has been written as much in ambition as in idealism.”

At least he’s willing to admit it.

ALMA MATTERS

Why single out Harvard for lambasting? It certainly isn’t the only school with lazy students and lax grading, random hook-ups and social cliques. And college isn’t the only milieu in which a culture of unscrupulous ambition is endemic.

For Douthat, Harvard is what he knows—not to mention that dropping the H-Bomb can never hurt a book’s bottom line. But even if Harvard College is a sufficient springboard for a cutting cultural commentary, what Privilege fundamentally lacks is the suggestion of a viable alternative.

In nearly 300 pages, Douthat offers us no solution, no recourse for reforming the system he finds so corrupt. The question hangs over the book like a dagger: Where do we go from here? Our current meritocracy doesn’t work perfectly, but it works well. After all, Harvard got Douthat where he wants to be—he’s currently a staff writer at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of a potentially bestselling book. He can’t be too upset about it.

Ultimately, Douthat never emerges as a particularly funny narrator, nor an especially dynamic one. His tales of romantic travails and adolescent awkwardness are accessible, but never unique. The claims of complacence among the privileged are nothing new. We’re left with tired arguments and wistful nostalgia.

Privilege works as a memoir. It is technically proficient, well-written, and an easy read; enjoyable, but certainly nothing transcendent. In other words, Douthat emulates the very qualities he excoriates: hit the highlights just right, do what’s needed to make the grade, move onto the next step.

Privilege may be a launchpad for Douthat’s career, but it lacks the intellectual passion he spends the book searching for—the authenticity and originality he expected at Harvard but never found.

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.