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Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class

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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, Dout 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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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, Dout 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.

30 review for Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class

  1. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    Although I have never studied at Harvard or any other ivy league school, there was a lot I could identify with concerning this book and the author's somewhat embarrassing discussion of his own undergraduate studies and life.  I grew up myself as a rather poor and bright and moderately ambitious young person and attended the University of Southern California as an undergraduate student, where I saw a similar set of circumstances to the one the author describes for his own Harvard education [1].  Although I have never studied at Harvard or any other ivy league school, there was a lot I could identify with concerning this book and the author's somewhat embarrassing discussion of his own undergraduate studies and life.  I grew up myself as a rather poor and bright and moderately ambitious young person and attended the University of Southern California as an undergraduate student, where I saw a similar set of circumstances to the one the author describes for his own Harvard education [1].  Admittedly, my own experience of being a poor, Southern-raised, deeply Conservative college student way out of his depth in the world of decadent higher education is not a particularly common one, but whether you approach the author's book with a great degree of self-knowledge and identification with the author's struggles as an outsider to feel as if he belongs among the ruling class (something the author has succeeded at far more than I have), or whether one looks at the author's experience with envy and/or contempt, as may be a more common reaction, the author certainly provides in this book an intriguing and frequently disturbing look at America's contemporary elite. This book of about 300 pages is divided into nine mostly large chapters.  The author begins with a prologue that examines the chaotic and somewhat drunken graduation ceremony the author experienced in June 2002 at Harvard, which sets up the rest of the discussion.  He moves to Harvard's social engineering as seen in the breakup of Straus B-32 during the author's freshman year, as efforts at bringing a diverse group of people failed in the midst of drama and division (1).  The author examines his own embarrassing attempts to be accepted into the old boys' club of the various unofficial social houses and Harvard's desire to end the partying and socializing of its students (2).  After that comes a chapter that examines the striving and crimes of one Suzanne Pomey, a person the author (and this reader at least) can identify with perhaps a bit too closely for comfort (3).  The author then turns his attention to Harvard's much maligned core curriculum and the lack of emphasis on knowledge on the part of many students (4).  The author gives more embarrassing love stories (5) and a discussion about safe sex and the general absence of a healthy sex life among many contemporary undergrads (6), again, something I have deep personal experience of.  After that comes a discussion of the simmering civil war between "parlor" and "street" liberals over the acceptance of capitalism and the push for activism (7), something I have seen myself.  The book closes on a melancholy look at the author's last summer before graduation (8) and the temporary change in campus culture that took place after September 11, 2001 (9), at which point the book ends with a note of hope concerning the author's successful relationship with a bright friend and classmate after college. One of the more intriguing aspects of this book is the way that the author discusses the transformation of Harvard's WASP elite into something somewhat more amorphous but ultimately no less elitist in its contemporary privileged class.  In giving a warts and all look at the unsettling and often unpleasant behavior of undergraduates from privileged families who act richer than they are, use their college experience in very traditional ways to gain connections and an entry into the larger cultural elite rather than in the acquisition of knowledge or in the broadening of one's perspective as a whole, the author demonstrates how it is that elites perpetuate themselves through institutions by watching carefully for interlopers and keeping connections strong generation after generation for those who can charm their fellow elites.  How one views these elites and their problems is not something that the author seems interested in telling--he tells his own story about what he saw and what he experienced, and the response of the reader to this demonstrates the extent to which they care about those who rule over this country to a great extent.  If you read this book, you probably at least care a little about these subjects and about the struggle to be just while also getting ahead. [1] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I think he nails some of the behaviors, attitudes, and trends of students, faculty, and administrators at elite institutions. Often as I read I found it remarkable how much he got right, at least according to my early 2000's college years at UVA (the so-called public Ivy, pretentious as that is). He's a talented writer, though he seems to realize this and frequently goes overboard with unnecessarily melodramatic sentences and semi-obsc I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I think he nails some of the behaviors, attitudes, and trends of students, faculty, and administrators at elite institutions. Often as I read I found it remarkable how much he got right, at least according to my early 2000's college years at UVA (the so-called public Ivy, pretentious as that is). He's a talented writer, though he seems to realize this and frequently goes overboard with unnecessarily melodramatic sentences and semi-obscure cultural references (obscure only to us plebians, I suppose, but irritating nonetheless). This book asserts itself as a sociology text. It is NOT; it is a memoir. The author throws around impressive sounding statistics, but he includes no citations--didn't they teach him better at Harvard? According to his critiques of the Core Curriculum at Harvard, no. He probably spent too much time in "Indigenous Cultures of the Canary Islands" and "Politics of 14th century Russian Villages" and not enough in a basic research methods class. Perhaps what bothered me the most is that for all his complaining about Harvard, Douthat comes off as the exact same spoiled, over privileged, entitled student that he lampoons. He offers little vision for how Harvard should or could be different, and is entirely unconvincing in any attempt to set himself apart from his classmates. He observes, he writes, he complains, but the missing piece is ACTION. Don't complain and do nothing--that's called whining. I was also appalled at some of his comments about women and events like "Take Back the Night." The chapter on student advocacy almost made me slam the book shut in disgust. Bottom line: if you went to a pretentious college and you felt uncomfortable with some of the attitudes and behaviors you saw there, you will find some interesting and very identifiable reflections in this book. Tangible solutions to revamping elite education? Won't find them here. But you will find a lot of thinly veiled snobbery and smugness that may make you want to throw the book out the window. I'm glad I only spent 3.50 on this book in a "Bargain" pile. Guess I'm not the only one who was unimpressed.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    How can Douthat write so well so young? He wrote this memoir of his years at Harvard just a few years after graduation. Extremely well done. Take-aways: 1. he's a great writer. 2. I'm so glad I didn't go to Harvard, not that it was ever in the cards for me.. 3. I wonder what my Dad's years at Harvard (med school) were like. He didn't talk about it much, but I would be so intrigued, and now I can't ask him. I would have given is 4.5 stars just because of some content issues and it gets a little bi How can Douthat write so well so young? He wrote this memoir of his years at Harvard just a few years after graduation. Extremely well done. Take-aways: 1. he's a great writer. 2. I'm so glad I didn't go to Harvard, not that it was ever in the cards for me.. 3. I wonder what my Dad's years at Harvard (med school) were like. He didn't talk about it much, but I would be so intrigued, and now I can't ask him. I would have given is 4.5 stars just because of some content issues and it gets a little bit draggy in the middle, but overall, just a great read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Darius Liddell

    Pretty good read. It seems like Douthat has a good idea of what Harvard is and what it's about. Privilege, class, and money are still important social markers -- even in this "dreamland" called America. Being a Stanford grad, I have nothing against Harvard and am sure they give a world-class education. Some of the stories he gave were shocking. He talked about race and gender politics. And about how school was a race to the top and not a quest for learning. College and admissions is turning into Pretty good read. It seems like Douthat has a good idea of what Harvard is and what it's about. Privilege, class, and money are still important social markers -- even in this "dreamland" called America. Being a Stanford grad, I have nothing against Harvard and am sure they give a world-class education. Some of the stories he gave were shocking. He talked about race and gender politics. And about how school was a race to the top and not a quest for learning. College and admissions is turning into a game where students are engineering themselves for a high-powered career. Padding the resume, joining the right clubs, becoming president of the student body. Those things aren't bad in themselves, but so many students today have incredibly misplaced motives. Sometimes, you really wonder if the student body president actually gives a shit about what happens. Prestige is the strongest magnet that we have in society today -- and Harvard is the intellectual (and monetary, to a degree) pinnacle of this black hole. Prestige makes you want to want that meticulous job with those shitty hours but high pay (lawyer, i-banking). Think about it. I digress. Anyway, very interesting book. Douthat is bright and sardonic.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    The title of this book intrigued me and having read another by the author, had to check it out. I appreciated his honesty relaying the disappointments and failures many of us encounter in college but also pinpointing what makes the ivy league experience a bit different with far more illustrious history, alumni and campus visitors. I was surprised to learn Harvard has no ROTC program, has living wage issues for many employees and rumored grade inflation. The author points out while the admission The title of this book intrigued me and having read another by the author, had to check it out. I appreciated his honesty relaying the disappointments and failures many of us encounter in college but also pinpointing what makes the ivy league experience a bit different with far more illustrious history, alumni and campus visitors. I was surprised to learn Harvard has no ROTC program, has living wage issues for many employees and rumored grade inflation. The author points out while the admission process is tough, the academic work is not difficult (at least not for him). He does note the demands of some students who expect to be served but that is true everywhere. I especially related to his feelings as his undergrad time ended. I walked my college campus the autumn after I graduated, hit with the deep feeling in the pit of my stomach that I no longer belonged there, that time of life having passed. I am grateful my parents had the ability to send me, paying for an extra year due to a change of major, and then the decision to pursue a double major (bless my Dad!). College is like many experiences in that by the time you really understand how to manage and enjoy it, it has concluded. Those years will always be special but I suspect many people look back wishing they had stressed less over minor issues which of course loomed large at the time.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    Since admission to Harvard University is granted to a select few, I figured that "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class" was about the privilege of simply being accepted there. I was surprised to realize that author Ross Douthat believes that students who come to Harvard are ALREADY privileged. “I don’t mean the privilege of old – of social registers and massive Newport cottages, or farther back, of titles and family crests. No, ours is the privilege that comes with belonging Since admission to Harvard University is granted to a select few, I figured that "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class" was about the privilege of simply being accepted there. I was surprised to realize that author Ross Douthat believes that students who come to Harvard are ALREADY privileged. “I don’t mean the privilege of old – of social registers and massive Newport cottages, or farther back, of titles and family crests. 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’s thesis is that while the student body is ethnically diverse, it is, in fact, not at all geographically or socio-economically diverse. Many of his undergraduate classmates went to suburban, private schools in politically “blue” states such as Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and California. Few urban, southern or mid-western students are represented as are “poor” students. While there are 30,000+ high schools in the country, less than 1,000 sent four or more students to join his class at Harvard. The top ten most represented high schools are in New York and Massachusetts, and send nearly 20 percent of their classes each year to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, according to Worth magazine. (The reference to other highly selective colleges begets the mention of the Educational Testing Service survey that showed that “you’re twenty times more likely to encounter a wealthy student than a poor student at an Ivy League.” Maybe Douthat’s treatise should have been "Privilege: Top Ten Colleges and the Education of the Ruling Class – as viewed from Harvard.") So, while his dorm-mates are Sri Lankan (by way of Texas); Indian (by way of Tennessee); half Jewish and half Catholic; half Chinese; white; black; and Muslim; they were generally blessed with a competitive, secondary education that enhanced their raw intellectual ability and drive to surpass their peers. This is another point that Douthat likes to make- that everyone at Harvard is super competitive and eager to rack up the grades and activities to order to get that i-bank job (that’s at an investment bank, folks) or a cush consulting job after college. The beginning and end of the book consistently make these points. The middle, however, portrays the author as a bit of a whiner, complaining about his inadequate social and romantic life (a continuation of the awkward, dorkiness begotten in high school), disappointment with undergraduate class offerings (too specialized), rampant grade inflation (widely and resolutely acknowledged) and disillusioned with his peers’ work ethics (can you say procrastination?). There are times when I thought that he really could have substituted any Top Twenty college experience for his own. Was Harvard the only place where people came home drunk, peed on statues, slacked off on studying or skipped class? I don’t think so. Perhaps his title could have been "Privilege: American Youth Grow Up during Expensive College Years?" Aside from that quibble, Douthat did an impressive job writing about his experience as he traversed four years through Harvard Yard. It’s not an easy thing to share your vulnerability during a tremendous time of personal growth to the world. (In some regards, I think that personal growth is really what college is all about.) While he was at Harvard, he wrote for the daily Crimson and, in the end, secured a PRIVILEGED job with The Atlantic Monthly. It’s tempting to say, “How ironic,” but, really, it was all about having been PRIVILEGED enough to earn a spot at Harvard at all.

  7. 4 out of 5

    R

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Honest admission: I couldn't wade through "The Liberal Civil War" after numerous pages, so I skipped about 10 or 20 pages and moved on to the next chapter. "Even this book has been written as much in ambition as in idealism." Mr. Douthat, I suspect, wrote the book in internal conflict. He criticizes people for name-dropping, yet dedicates a whole chapter to a summer hobnobbing with William F. Buckley, Jr. He talks about the privilege (meaning power) that comes with having attended Harvard, yet on Honest admission: I couldn't wade through "The Liberal Civil War" after numerous pages, so I skipped about 10 or 20 pages and moved on to the next chapter. "Even this book has been written as much in ambition as in idealism." Mr. Douthat, I suspect, wrote the book in internal conflict. He criticizes people for name-dropping, yet dedicates a whole chapter to a summer hobnobbing with William F. Buckley, Jr. He talks about the privilege (meaning power) that comes with having attended Harvard, yet only supported increasing minimum wage because he felt a little guilty. I appreciate that he discussed grade inflation, which is probably too real; as one recent graduate of a prestigious institution told me that "meets expectations" is akin to failing, not that they are literally "meeting expectations" and thus was taught to remind their graders that they needed a higher grade. Most recently, we have celebrities admitting they paid to get their kids into the colleges of their choice, so what is real any more? He was writing in a holier-than-thou tone which was awkward, and referenced numerous times when he had much more insight than others (except when he had a crush on Rachel Polley). Mr. Douthat became what he criticizes - an elitist. Perhaps he speaks truthfully when he says: "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." Not all attempts at diversity fail like his Straus neighbors, although perhaps he noted this more during his time at Harvard (it also seems that most of his friends are Caucasian in descent and wealthy). It fails when we do not mutually strive to understand where others come from and instead attempt to shoehorn them into what we expect them to be. This is not idealism, just straight up social ladder climbing / ambition. Mr. Douthat depicts a class separation in which he is clearly grateful to be part of the upper class. I was hoping for so much more from this book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Brandon T.

    "Privilege" is the story of Douthat's time spent at Harvard, and how he came to be disillusioned with and yet paradoxically enamored by the assumptions of success, entitlement, and ambition that consumed the college. Douthat's book explores some of the sociological impacts of these assumptions within the historical context of Harvard's traditions, explaining those ways in which the privileged set has both changed since the days of family crests and somehow managed to stay as entrenched and presum "Privilege" is the story of Douthat's time spent at Harvard, and how he came to be disillusioned with and yet paradoxically enamored by the assumptions of success, entitlement, and ambition that consumed the college. Douthat's book explores some of the sociological impacts of these assumptions within the historical context of Harvard's traditions, explaining those ways in which the privileged set has both changed since the days of family crests and somehow managed to stay as entrenched and presumptive as ever. Each chapter looks at a different aspect of student life, telling personal stories and applying those to broader facts and events. Douthat tackles everything from academics to politics to sex, and is brutally honest about all of them. Despite being highly critical of a lot of Harvard's culture, "Privilege" also goes to great lengths to convey to the reader how much the author grew to love the university and some of the people he met there. He also admits his own acquiescence to the thumbscrews of ambition. He mentions that the book itself is as much a way for him to increase his success as it is a critique of that drive. If only more people were so honest in their self-scrutiny...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Brian Ayres

    Douthat, who will soon be in the print pages of the New York Times as an op-ed columnist, certainly doesn't provide a gripping tale of college life. It's a dry version of Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons." However, what I found most enlightening as a teacher of students who believe that a university's status means a better education was Douthat's well-written chapter on the decline of Harvard academics. Harvard has led the way (primarily because the brand is so strong everyone tries to emulat Douthat, who will soon be in the print pages of the New York Times as an op-ed columnist, certainly doesn't provide a gripping tale of college life. It's a dry version of Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons." However, what I found most enlightening as a teacher of students who believe that a university's status means a better education was Douthat's well-written chapter on the decline of Harvard academics. Harvard has led the way (primarily because the brand is so strong everyone tries to emulate it) in the fragmentation of the curriculum and the solidification of grade inflation that began in the Vietnam era of the 1970s. For a sticker price of $50,000 a year, the Harvard undergraduate education has turned into the $3 bottle of water -- simply an overpriced commodity that the upper-middle class can slap a "My Son Goes to Harvard" bumper sticker on their Volvo.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Anamaria

    Interesting how many of the things that are true of Harvard are true of ND, in terms of student life, particularly ambition over an idea of the good. The snippets of post-graduate updates (Hi all, I just got back from a summer spent in x doing y. It was an amazing experience to see another part of the world. Now I'm in z city working for l company....) were hilarious because they were so true. It made me more grateful that I went to ND, because most of the things that were negative about Harvard Interesting how many of the things that are true of Harvard are true of ND, in terms of student life, particularly ambition over an idea of the good. The snippets of post-graduate updates (Hi all, I just got back from a summer spent in x doing y. It was an amazing experience to see another part of the world. Now I'm in z city working for l company....) were hilarious because they were so true. It made me more grateful that I went to ND, because most of the things that were negative about Harvard were less so at ND, largely because of Catholicism. It also makes me fear for the university's future and its ambition to be like Harvard.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Teaghan

    I would do 3.5 if that was an option. A lot of the commentary feels sort of inessential (though in fairness, the book was written more than 15 years ago, and I'm sure a good deal of it felt more revelatory at the time). But Douthat is an underrated storyteller and I found many of the anecdotes scattered throughout the book embarrassingly relatable. Rounding up rather than down both as a handicap for the book's age and because I'm a Boss Ross fan. I would do 3.5 if that was an option. A lot of the commentary feels sort of inessential (though in fairness, the book was written more than 15 years ago, and I'm sure a good deal of it felt more revelatory at the time). But Douthat is an underrated storyteller and I found many of the anecdotes scattered throughout the book embarrassingly relatable. Rounding up rather than down both as a handicap for the book's age and because I'm a Boss Ross fan.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ezzy

    I thought this was going to be about Harvard and higher education, but 1/3 of the way in and he hasn't said anything that's not basically true on any campus in the US (excluding the history of the school, which is just blah blah regurgitation of facts). It's just a generic college memoir [did you know he went to Harvard? He went to Harvard. no doubts, he went to Harvard, and is willing to fulfill all stereotypes by telling you all about it.] Also, he whines a lot. I'm not surprised to learn he w I thought this was going to be about Harvard and higher education, but 1/3 of the way in and he hasn't said anything that's not basically true on any campus in the US (excluding the history of the school, which is just blah blah regurgitation of facts). It's just a generic college memoir [did you know he went to Harvard? He went to Harvard. no doubts, he went to Harvard, and is willing to fulfill all stereotypes by telling you all about it.] Also, he whines a lot. I'm not surprised to learn he wrote this within a few years after graduating; a hallmark of recent graduates (especially those hung up on where they went to college) is the non-stop "OMG you guys we were SO CRAZY freshman year! Remember all the CRAZY SHIT that went on! We were wild and totally unique!!!" It's a DNF for me, so maybe it gets amazing and insightful later on. But there are better generic college stories out there, and many bring a lot more self-awareness to the table. It's disappointing, because I think he and I fundamentally agree that the meritocracy is largely a myth. The difference (in general between conservatives and liberals?) is that he seems okay with it, and I'm interested in exploring the implications of that and ideas about changing it. And... he just seems like the kind of guy who would dedicate an entire evening to telling me shit I already know. Maybe IRL he's a super-nice guy, but... I didn't find it surprising that he whines about being rebuffed by his love interest in this book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    brooklyn

    Touches on elitism and the fact that harvard students are just spoiled rich kids, which I appreciated, but as you read on about his views on activism, sexism and racism, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is actually sexist, racist and is a neoliberal who has never read theory or done any critical thinking but despite this, repeatedly tries to dunk on leftists for not knowing what they’re talking about - when he very clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. Anyway, this completely ruin Touches on elitism and the fact that harvard students are just spoiled rich kids, which I appreciated, but as you read on about his views on activism, sexism and racism, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is actually sexist, racist and is a neoliberal who has never read theory or done any critical thinking but despite this, repeatedly tries to dunk on leftists for not knowing what they’re talking about - when he very clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. Anyway, this completely ruined the book for me and i don’t think he should be given the platform to talk about class because he doesn’t understand it outside of the fact that he wasn’t accepted into a fraternity at harvard. Just one particularly heinous quote out of many: “Instead of combatting heterosexism, freeing Tibet, and pushing for faculty diversity, the Undergraduate Council began to focus on issues where it could actually effect change, like creating “Fly-By” lunches for students on the run between classes, or installing frozen-yogurt machines in the dining halls.” This is in response to the student body voting to end a grape boycott in solidarity with impoverished farm workers, an attempt he calls “overzealous activism.” Sorry, but I don’t want to read about class from someone who thinks frozen yogurt machines are a better investment than human rights.

  14. 5 out of 5

    John

    Entertaining and insightful. Even if you didn't go to Harvard, many of the experiences and observations here are universal, especially if you went to private school and live along the I-95 corridor. Entertaining and insightful. Even if you didn't go to Harvard, many of the experiences and observations here are universal, especially if you went to private school and live along the I-95 corridor.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    Interesting perspective on the elite ruling class - socially and politically. Moreover, interesting perspective on socioeconomic and regional diversity in college board admissions.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    The smug superiority made this a grating read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    This book can call itself whatever it wants, and is Dewey-decimaled 378.xxx, but it's mostly a memoir with plenty of associated VGRS. Sort of interesting to see how many building names at Harvard are matched at my alma mater. Random homeless dude crashing your dorm suite.... been there done that. Exclusive and expensive social clubs not unlike fraternities (at Harvard they were all men-only as of 2005). Sociopath chick embezzling $100K from her student group in order to fake a fancy lifestyle... an This book can call itself whatever it wants, and is Dewey-decimaled 378.xxx, but it's mostly a memoir with plenty of associated VGRS. Sort of interesting to see how many building names at Harvard are matched at my alma mater. Random homeless dude crashing your dorm suite.... been there done that. Exclusive and expensive social clubs not unlike fraternities (at Harvard they were all men-only as of 2005). Sociopath chick embezzling $100K from her student group in order to fake a fancy lifestyle... and she was hardly the only one, just one to get caught. Working hard to do the absolute minimum for inflated grades (as always, a form of resume padding) A totally non-existent Core Curriculum at Harvard, where kids just take classes from a handful of different categories to fulfill distribution requirements. [My alma mater had the same problem; the ONLY class required by all Arts and Sciences majors was English Comp, and the rest was you-pick from a bunch of different categories. Most of the courses were ridiculously specific and there were almost zero survey courses. Classes weren't that difficult and weren't usually strenuously graded. Most kids didn't bother with more than the absolute minimum of coursework. Douthat's recounting of "long awkward pauses during subsection meetings" brought back a lot of memories.] College "marriages." Starter relationships of convenience that sort of mimic real marriage and in some cases turn into marriages later on. The dearth of casual coitus on elite campuses. Ain't nobody got time for chlamydia and unwanted babies, and vibrators and morning-after pills are so cheap! Condoms are also ubiquitous but no one has the time (or the social skills?) for sex. Student activism! It's often a war between the center-left and the insane radical left. A lot of incidents at Harvard during his tenure but none that weren't also familiar at my alma mater (too bad he graduated before Iraq War and Oil for Food). Featuring a lovely "Living Wage" sit-in by student activists, and an informal club of the few "Evangelical Conservatives" on campus (been to some of those, too). Summer jobs (gotta have one, preferably in NYC or DC), and his weekend on a sailboat (including skinny dipping) with William F Buckley. He was a senior when 9-11 happened, and like on campuses everywhere, at Harvard, it was a Real Big Deal. But of course didn't lead to lasting change, but it set back the causes of the Radical Left for a year or two. Also administration/faculty tensions especially involving Cornel West, who was probably quite overrated, in the eyes of all but Cornel West.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tiny Pants

    If you mainly know Douthat from his stint as the conservative op-ed voice on the New York Times, you'll be surprised how reasonable he comes off here, in a book that reads more like a memoir than a cultural critique. Don't worry though, he still lets his conservative cred show. This is particularly the case in the chapter meant to excoriate the naked careerism and bloodthirsty networking of Harvard students and their summer internships, which turns out to be a rhapsodic account of time spent in If you mainly know Douthat from his stint as the conservative op-ed voice on the New York Times, you'll be surprised how reasonable he comes off here, in a book that reads more like a memoir than a cultural critique. Don't worry though, he still lets his conservative cred show. This is particularly the case in the chapter meant to excoriate the naked careerism and bloodthirsty networking of Harvard students and their summer internships, which turns out to be a rhapsodic account of time spent in the company of William F. Buckley, Jr. He keeps it just center enough to make this a reasonable read for liberals (particularly those whom Douthat describes as "parlor liberals"), while at the same time making his right-wing bona fides shine through. Though surprisingly entertaining, this book could have as easily been titled "Biting the Hand That Feeds You: Life as an A- in a World of A's." Luckily for Douthat, being an A- at Harvard isn't that bad -- clearly, since in just a few years he's leapfrogged from the National Review to the Atlantic Monthly and then the New York Times. Nonetheless, many of the sections -- while cleverly skewering the predilections of his pampered classmates -- read like sad-sack Charlie Brown stories. Hamden Hall instead of Choate, really? Aw Ross, you didn't get into a final club? Ohh, poor Ross. Even Smith girls won't make out with you! Though he frequently points out this tension himself (and it carries through to the final page), Douthat's continual attraction to all things Harvard outweighs his repulsion, and thus adds a grain of salt to his excoriating words. How different would this book be if he'd gotten into Porcellian, or didn't resemble a character from his beloved Tolkien? Long story short, yes, he's right -- elite universities (and colleges) are bastions of well, elitism. It is who you know, where you went, and so on. At the same time though, if we all know who you know, where you went, and where you've wound up, too much complaining looks more like sour grapes than a clear-eyed critique.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Justin Lonas

    I've long enjoyed Douthat's column in the New York Times. He is an unusually clear and reasonable voice for social conservatives in today's media. This is his first book, published in 2005, not too long after his time as a student at Harvard. I was expecting something in the snarky and insightful essay style typical of his columns, but this is much more of a college memoir. It still has some high points of excellent writing and commentary on the stratification of American life (specifically the g I've long enjoyed Douthat's column in the New York Times. He is an unusually clear and reasonable voice for social conservatives in today's media. This is his first book, published in 2005, not too long after his time as a student at Harvard. I was expecting something in the snarky and insightful essay style typical of his columns, but this is much more of a college memoir. It still has some high points of excellent writing and commentary on the stratification of American life (specifically the growing gulf between the media, business, and government elites and "everyone else") alluded to in the subtitle, but it struck me as a bit sophomoric on the whole. Douthat's narrative of his early days at the university paint a picture of old-fashioned American decadence blended with centuries-old traditions, giving the impression that Harvard student life is akin to residing at Hogwarts while partying with Jay Gatsby. His chapters on the lovelorn hopelessness of college freshmen and the hypersexual motivations of much of campus life are positively stomach-churning, which I suppose is his point in relating the folly of it all. His skewering of the overwhelming liberalism (and the divide between "parlor liberals" and "street liberals") of elite higher education is spot on. Again, an interesting read, though Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" is a much more thorough and analytical look at the same cultural phenomena Douthat depicts. I can guarantee, though, that you won't find the phrase "skinny dipping with William F. Buckley, Jr." in Murray's work.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I love college memoirs. I don't know why they fascinate me so much, but I think they're great. Privilege is Ross Douthat's tale of his four years at Harvard. And unlike other memoirs I've read, it digs deeper than mere social issues and classes. Now don't get me wrong; he does talk about his final club experience and his attempts getting a girlfriend. It's clearly hard to get a girl at Harvard since you can't use the "I go to Harvard line." What interested me the most was that he tried to give h I love college memoirs. I don't know why they fascinate me so much, but I think they're great. Privilege is Ross Douthat's tale of his four years at Harvard. And unlike other memoirs I've read, it digs deeper than mere social issues and classes. Now don't get me wrong; he does talk about his final club experience and his attempts getting a girlfriend. It's clearly hard to get a girl at Harvard since you can't use the "I go to Harvard line." What interested me the most was that he tried to give history on traditions in the university as far as classes, grading and professors go. He even goes into the political climate on campus and more specifically what it was like being a campus conservative surrounded by liberals. Ross also goes into a variety of campus scandals. It's nice to see that college students are college students. People, and students for that matter, will always make the distinction between Ivy and non-Ivy institution but when it comes down to it, we're all pretty much the same. Student government people, for example, act the same everywhere. The only thing I would say is that the writing did drag on at some points, but not to the point where I couldn't enjoy/finish the book. This is a great book for juniors looking into Harvard and even seniors admitted to Harvard to read before arriving on campus.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jakob Hansen

    This was more memoir-of-a-college-experience than book-with-a-coherent-point. Which was kind of disappointing, but understandable since it was written just a couple years after Douthat's graduation. Ross Douthat's careful, measured conservatism is refreshing among the ideologues that dominate political conversation today, and that rhetorical style is on display in this book. A few sections are essentially political commentary on events that happened during his college career, including 9/11. If This was more memoir-of-a-college-experience than book-with-a-coherent-point. Which was kind of disappointing, but understandable since it was written just a couple years after Douthat's graduation. Ross Douthat's careful, measured conservatism is refreshing among the ideologues that dominate political conversation today, and that rhetorical style is on display in this book. A few sections are essentially political commentary on events that happened during his college career, including 9/11. If the book has a thesis, it's that despite its claims to diversity and meritocracy, Harvard is just as much a bastion of privilege as it ever was. Rather than serving to safeguard intellectualism and learning, it serves to perpetuate the elite class while giving its members the conviction that they deserve everything they get. It's an important critique, and is both weakened and strengthened by Douthat's proximity to the institution. He has the status of an insider, but admits that he harbors a natural affection for his alma mater. It's a quick read, but I don't think it's necessary to read the entire thing to get his point. Particularly, there's a chapter describing the summer he spent as an intern at National Review that seems superfluous and self indulgent--essentially an excuse to brag about meeting William F. Buckley.

  22. 4 out of 5

    James

    Oh my.... I have read very few books as self-indulgent as this one. An entire book devoted to one person's gripes and disappointments with his undergraduate experience. (Reading about his awkwardness with woman/unrequited crushes of all sorts was a particular waste of time) I imagine that it received attention and a publisher because it was about a prestigious place (Harvard) from an unconventional viewpoint (conservative). Perhaps what is funniest is the sense of disillusionment at the heart of Oh my.... I have read very few books as self-indulgent as this one. An entire book devoted to one person's gripes and disappointments with his undergraduate experience. (Reading about his awkwardness with woman/unrequited crushes of all sorts was a particular waste of time) I imagine that it received attention and a publisher because it was about a prestigious place (Harvard) from an unconventional viewpoint (conservative). Perhaps what is funniest is the sense of disillusionment at the heart of the book. I suspect very few people would be as surprised at his findings as he was. In some ways, I sympathize. I love to publish a book at some point settling any number of scores with those who have disappointed and rejected me. (The problem with a criminal embezzler isn't the theft, it was the snobbery and the social climbing and the fact that she didn't seem particularly interesting in knowing me!) It could also have been about 100 pages shorter, if he had avoided trying to appear erudite by sprinkling in rather boilerplate history and just stuck to the narrative.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mia

    I enjoyed this look into Douthat's Harvard world, it felt reflective and honest in ways I wouldn't expect from someone only three years out from the experience. As the product of the un-Harvard, a huge state school with open admissions, I found it oddly comforting that he experienced Harvard as a school where, if you wanted educated, you'd need to largely educate yourself--the faculty was mostly busy doing their own work or their own publicity. When friends say they don't want their kids to go t I enjoyed this look into Douthat's Harvard world, it felt reflective and honest in ways I wouldn't expect from someone only three years out from the experience. As the product of the un-Harvard, a huge state school with open admissions, I found it oddly comforting that he experienced Harvard as a school where, if you wanted educated, you'd need to largely educate yourself--the faculty was mostly busy doing their own work or their own publicity. When friends say they don't want their kids to go to a state school because of the large class sizes and grad students teaching intro-level classes at a "diploma mill" like Ohio State, I just think about how easy it was to not have that generic experience there, for anyone who wanted to try. Sounds like Harvard was the same. Douthat portrays Harvard as the mother of all diploma mills--once you are in--at least in the humanities-- grade inflation will carry you through to graduation, Goldman Sachs, and beyond.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Acacia

    I got this book off a table outside the book store at my alma mater a few years ago because of the provocative title and the unbeatable price ($0.00). The thing I love and hate about Ross Douthat is that he frequently looks at the same things I do, in much the same way, and consistently comes to the exact opposite conclusion I would. It baffles and delights me. It's a much greater pleasure in short form, though (especially his blog); he's very insightful, but his commitment to Republican politic I got this book off a table outside the book store at my alma mater a few years ago because of the provocative title and the unbeatable price ($0.00). The thing I love and hate about Ross Douthat is that he frequently looks at the same things I do, in much the same way, and consistently comes to the exact opposite conclusion I would. It baffles and delights me. It's a much greater pleasure in short form, though (especially his blog); he's very insightful, but his commitment to Republican politics leads him to take stands that quickly become untenable. I didn't think it was possible to write a book-length treatment of privilege at Harvard this shallow. I give it two stars because I like being surprised.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    As a regular reader of Douthat's excellent work at the NY Times, I was pleased to get a chance to learn a bit about the person behind the personality. Douthat uses his own experiences at Harvard as a jumping-off point for broader commentary on the failings of the meritocracy and the culture of the 21st century. It's a fast read and definitely worth the handful of hours that it requires. It's also the type of book that I would encourage teenagers entering college to read. It might give them some As a regular reader of Douthat's excellent work at the NY Times, I was pleased to get a chance to learn a bit about the person behind the personality. Douthat uses his own experiences at Harvard as a jumping-off point for broader commentary on the failings of the meritocracy and the culture of the 21st century. It's a fast read and definitely worth the handful of hours that it requires. It's also the type of book that I would encourage teenagers entering college to read. It might give them some needed perspective on the peculiarities and the irritations of the four years awaiting them, along with a reminder that a lot of the self-confidence and success that they see all around them is mere bluster. Perhaps I'll buy a copy for my younger sister...

  26. 5 out of 5

    Spenser

    I read this book hoping to get some insight to what happens at Harvard and how going to school there is different. this book showed me how going to school at Harvard is a whole new experience unlike anything i could have imagined. Ross Douthat shows that even though there is grade inflation and self serving professors and administrators, the real education comes from the extracurricular activities and how each students earned their spot. The experience you get from reading this book is what happ I read this book hoping to get some insight to what happens at Harvard and how going to school there is different. this book showed me how going to school at Harvard is a whole new experience unlike anything i could have imagined. Ross Douthat shows that even though there is grade inflation and self serving professors and administrators, the real education comes from the extracurricular activities and how each students earned their spot. The experience you get from reading this book is what happens to people when you have an incredibly bright future. There are so many different anecdotes and traditions in this book i have to wonder why i didn't try harder in high school.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jana

    My friend Jamie sent me this book years ago and I skimmed it then and finally read it for real this week. I could write a book about my opinions on privilege and college, and it would be absolutely nothing like this one, and I think that's what I didn't like about it - rather than examining why and how this deep divide exists in our higher education system, it was more of a whiny memoir of his own privileged experiences that led to gainful employment and will lead to the next generation of privi My friend Jamie sent me this book years ago and I skimmed it then and finally read it for real this week. I could write a book about my opinions on privilege and college, and it would be absolutely nothing like this one, and I think that's what I didn't like about it - rather than examining why and how this deep divide exists in our higher education system, it was more of a whiny memoir of his own privileged experiences that led to gainful employment and will lead to the next generation of privileged Ivy League graduates. I will say that it's good fodder for thoughtful discussion and is an excellent choice for an education-related book club.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    A quick and enjoyable read. Douthat has a nice blend of funny and analytical, and does not hesitate to make fun of himself. Douthat gets quite nostalgic and wistful near the end - he sounds exactly like a young adult who is writing several years after graduating college. Much of the book is more light and episodic - relating anecdotes, thoughts, and analyses of his college years - so one of the last chapters, "Liberal Civil Wars", packs a surprising punch. It's worth reading for that chapter alo A quick and enjoyable read. Douthat has a nice blend of funny and analytical, and does not hesitate to make fun of himself. Douthat gets quite nostalgic and wistful near the end - he sounds exactly like a young adult who is writing several years after graduating college. Much of the book is more light and episodic - relating anecdotes, thoughts, and analyses of his college years - so one of the last chapters, "Liberal Civil Wars", packs a surprising punch. It's worth reading for that chapter alone. My major reservations are a) if you're not familiar with conservative thought, many of his word choices and arguments are shocking, and b) he rarely, if ever, cites statistics.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jim Cupples

    interesting book, because the social world of harvard is interesting, but overall, disappointing. russ thinks of himself as an 'outsider' from harvard, although he went to a prep school in connecticut where the tuition is 20K+. pretty much takes him the whole book to bitch about more popular people than he was while he was there. i'm not sure, but when you're the editor of the conservative harvard campus paper, whether you think you are or not, trust me, you're on the inside. if he's one of the interesting book, because the social world of harvard is interesting, but overall, disappointing. russ thinks of himself as an 'outsider' from harvard, although he went to a prep school in connecticut where the tuition is 20K+. pretty much takes him the whole book to bitch about more popular people than he was while he was there. i'm not sure, but when you're the editor of the conservative harvard campus paper, whether you think you are or not, trust me, you're on the inside. if he's one of the best thinkers/columnists from young conservatives, they're doomed.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Billie

    I expected this book to be a critique of contemporary college culture, and certainly there are some elements of that. I thought the chapter about Approaches to Education was interesting and insightful, if largely misguided. However, I felt like most of the book was too personal to be credibly critical, and eventually I just got tired of reading about this poor little privileged boy. Douthat's unreflective political stance also became increasingly annoying as the book progressed, and it kept gett I expected this book to be a critique of contemporary college culture, and certainly there are some elements of that. I thought the chapter about Approaches to Education was interesting and insightful, if largely misguided. However, I felt like most of the book was too personal to be credibly critical, and eventually I just got tired of reading about this poor little privileged boy. Douthat's unreflective political stance also became increasingly annoying as the book progressed, and it kept getting in the way for me. I actually gave up and skimmed the last two chapters.

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