Ross Gregory Douthat’s memoir of his four years in college, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, is filled with familiar set pieces, from meeting the suitemates to the first college kiss to the bittersweet pangs of graduation. But at its heart, Privilege is an indictment. “I thought at the time, and still think now, that Harvard is a terrible mess of a place,” Douthat, a member of the Harvard class of 2002, intones, “an incubator for an American ruling class that is smug, stratified, self-congratulatory, and intellectually adrift.” These are fighting words, but none more so than ruling class, a rubric intended to strike at one of modern Harvard’s guiding ideals: that success is a reward for aptitude and industry, and not a simple birthright. At Harvard, Douthat believes, “Meritocracy is the ideological veneer, but social and economic stratification are the reality.” To further his case, Douthat cites statistics: 22 percent of students enrolling at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton come from fewer than 0.3 percent of America’s high schools. Only 3 out of 100 students at America’s top 146 colleges come from the poorest 25 percent of the American population. Only 10 percent come from the lower economic half.
Douthat is in possession of one central insight: that even operating under the most stringent meritocratic guidelines, success is cumulative and self-reinforcing, and gets passed on to children as “privilege,” or unearned advantage. From that insight, Douthat has drawn one conclusion: The culture of privilege is built on bad faith and is therefore inevitably rotten. “Privilege, I have termed the sum of these poses and prejudices, though I don’t mean privilege of old,” writes Douthat. “No, ours is the privilege that comes with belonging to an upper class grown large enough to fancy itself diverse; fluid and competitive enough to believe itself meritocratic; smart enough for intellectual snobbery but not for intellectual curiosity.”
Douthat is an old soul trapped in a young campus conservative’s body, and true to type, the principal victim of the culture of privilege is Douthat himself. If Douthat wishes he had encountered one more poor student while at Harvard, he never lets on; and Privilege doesn’t waste a precious syllable on how to make Harvard a more vigorously fair institution. We do, however, hear—and at great length—about how Douthat failed to get into the “final club” of his choice (apparently he wasn’t among those who “lived in the right suburb, vacationed in the right windswept part of Long Island or Maine or Nantucket or the Vineyard”) and how a certain campus starlet (who “would have been pretty had it not been for the ghostly, heavily made-up pallor of her skin and the coldness of her eyes”) refused to acknowledge his existence.
If peer status among Harvard undergraduates is once again based on having the right zip code and access to coastal second homes, then this is indeed a scoop, and worth mulling over. But nothing in Douthat’s tone, an awkward mix of Brideshead elegy with the National Review Online, renders his anatomy of college life trustworthy. As with many a promising young fogy, no adults have interposed themselves between Douthat and his first book contract; and so he has been allowed to persist in the belief that sounding wearied and a little bored will aid him in sounding adult and worldly. Douthat delights in reducing other people to the insulting giveaway, as with the “blank-faced Asian kid” who sidles away from Douthat at a party, or the ancient Harvard alum “Alistair Woolvington,” who is a “great, sagging wreck, with jowls and liver spots and burst blood vessels, and the strange, vulpine look that so many aging bluebloods seem to acquire.” And my favorite: Harvard students from the American South are “corn fed.”
In the end, Privilege is more a symptom than a diagnosis. The wound-up, overachieving children of the wound-up, overachieving professional elites find themselves ensnared in a paradox: the more intense the competition for social rewards, the more advantages their parents feel compelled to confer on them, and at earlier and earlier ages. Even as these children compete harder to achieve more, they may suspect they are less and less deserving. This is a recipe for neurosis, in which a style of condescension appropriate to the old Protestant upper crust mingles nonsensically with the gaping insecurity of the striving middle classes. And this is precisely the voice in which Privilege has been written.
Douthat is confused; but only because everyone is confused. As the smartest people writing about higher education—I’m thinking now of the critics Louis Menand and Andrew Delbanco—agree, the period between roughly 1945 and 1975 constituted a Golden Age for the American university system. In the decades after the GI Bill, college enrollment exploded, from a quarter-million to 10 million students, and standardized tests became a near-universal requirement for college admissions. (College admissions in turn became increasingly “need blind.”) Starting in the 1970s, growth slowed and the student population diversified. As Menand has pointed out, on the typical college campus a non-Hispanic white male is now a minority. Each period—the period of growth, and the period of diversification—contributed to the vocabulary of “fairness”: The Golden Age opened up universities to white males of intellectual talent, regardless of background. The period of diversification aggressively extended that openness to women and minorities.
Not coincidentally, the period covering the Golden Age of universities is also referred to as the Golden Age of capitalism. In the decades immediately following the war, the white-collar universe expanded—the professional sector of the American economy grew by a factor of 12 over those 30 years—while the blue-collar universe contracted. Universities acted as the principle training and staffing mechanism for that new white-collar universe. They went from being hoarders of opportunity to distributors of opportunity, a pit stop for a new army of Ragged Dicks.
The ideology behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call an ideology of relative social mobility, in which everyone, regardless of social origin, is given an equal opportunity to advance up the ladder of success. But the reality behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call absolute social mobility: Everyone did better, and because there were so many new white-collar jobs to go around, no one did worse. When the Golden Age came to an end, ideology failed to catch up to reality. We still pay lip service to equal opportunity, even though, absent an ever-expanding white-collar universe, some children of the middle class will need to fail in order to make room at the top of the occupational ladder for the talented children of the working class. And well-to-do middle-class parents do not like it when their children fail.
To prevent failure, middle-class parents pass along to their children every possible advantage, in the form of “social capital,” or those habits of speech and self-discipline that allow a child to thrive in the classroom. Middle-class parents who can afford the property taxes move to the best school districts, or send their children to private schools. Economists have a vocabulary for this: They write about “Cobb-Douglas utility functions,” whereby parents forgo current consumption in order to secure for their children high levels of future income. Legal theorists have a vocabulary for this: They talk about inter vivos bequests, whereby parents pass along a good education as a kind of inheritance. (Even literary critics have a vocabulary for this: They talk about Bourdieu-ian “reproduction.”) So there’s a technical language for inherited middle-class advantages; but as of now no ideological, no emotional, and no public-policy language for the phenomenon. Held to the impossible standard of the Golden Age, universities are now easily portrayed—even public universities, and even the old land-grant colleges—as finishing schools for a stable professional elite. The less they are viewed as purveyors of a public good, the easier they are to underfund. The more underfunded they become, the more expensive they are, the fewer scholarships they provide; the fewer scholarships they provide, the more exclusive they become … and on and on and on.
With inexhaustible resources, Harvard has made itself free-of-charge for children of parents earning less than $40,000 a year, and other Ivies are following suit. If this appeases Douthat, he doesn’t say; and maybe it shouldn’t, as the problem lies deeper than even a total tuition rebate can address. At Harvard, the leftover ideals from the Golden Age and the age of diversification are each used to mask the current reality, in which education in general, and Harvard in particular, are weapons with which the middle class—and increasingly an upper-upper-middle class—sustain and defend the status of their own children. But Douthat, bear in mind, is a conservative. Is he really so upset that a “ruling class” has consolidated in America? His real target is Harvard’s hypocrisy, a liberal self-image sustained by the multicolor skin tones of its brochures. Toward the end of Privilege he finally meets someone he genuinely likes; and we get a vivid and admiring portrait of William F. Buckley Jr. In Buckley, Douthat sees a “great man” and an obvious mentor; and when Douthat and a friend join Buckley and his personal “boat boy” on the family yacht (the Patito), Douthat’s immense powers of condescension are finally set aside, and he writes with genuine pleasure and admiration. In Buckley, Douthat finally glimpses an escape from the endless competition for self-esteem that is Harvard. No one knows where this current era in higher education is taking us; but if Douthat’s longing for a life of unchallenged patrician stability is any indication, there is serious cause for alarm.