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Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class [Hardcover]

by Ross Gregory Douthat
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 2, 2005 1401301126 978-1401301125 First Edition
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

From 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 résumé -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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From 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.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion; First Edition edition (March 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401301126
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401301125
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #719,912 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
149 of 172 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Someone Else's Harvard August 28, 2005
I graduated two years behind Mr. Douthat, and in the same concentration, so I greeted the news that this book was going to be published with a great deal of anticipation.

Some of it was justified. Some of it was hype. And some of it jarred so substantially with my experience of Harvard that I couldn't believe that we had, for at least a couple of overlapping years, occupied the same two or three square miles of Cambridge.

In praise of Douthat: his writing is clear, and the dialogue he records is pitch perfect. He chronicles experiences that older writers attempting to "get" the modern college experience miss, like the so-called "college marriage," which perhaps doesn't get the "Time" and "Newsweek" headlines that the casual hook-up seems to grab with such alacrity, but which nonetheless deserves notice and comment. He's absolutely right, if a bit ponderous, about Harvard's lack of academic rigor, and the extent to which this is a national phenomenon that appears to be catching.

On the other hand, however, there's that ponderous. First-hand accounts of his life at Harvard are followed by long parades of statistical data that resemble a social science paper more than a memoir, and the curious hybrid produced tends to feel awkward and over-generalized, as if Douthat is trying to provide justification for his experiences with numbers. Too many times, his positions seemed to be culled directly from David Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise", which is an obvious and very direct influence, and, in the end, a book that says much of what "Privilege" is saying, but with less of the deadly earnestness which casts a pallor over Douthat's otherwise reasonably good prose.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars reflects college life as it is July 17, 2005
As a college senior, I didn't realize how similar colleges can be until I read this book and talked to friends at other schools. There are certainly differences between Stanford, Chicago, Harvard, and other top schools but there remain similarities. It seems that students generally aren't very focused on long-term relationships or the life of the mind, choosing instead to focus on building resumes and doing well for themselves. This isn't news, but what I liked about this book was how the author used great stories from his time at Harvard to flesh out that generalization of what students are like. As a college student, I liked this book because it rang true with my own experience. If you're older, you may like this book because it can give you a vivid picture of college life today. My only criticism is that I thought the book could have been tighter, which means that I wasn't particularly interested in everything the author had to say. But whether you end up captivated for all 300 pages or just briefly interested, I recommend taking a look.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fairly Bland! September 7, 2006
Douthat tells us that the real business of Harvard is the pursuit of success, and personal connections from which such success flows - professors, summer internships, pundits and politicians who flock there to speak, and fellow classmates.

"Privilege" tells us that Harvard (like everywhere else) suffers from grade inflation (limited to the humanities and social societies) and a Great Society urge to broaden and integrate its campus. (The latter ultimately ended up with Afro-American Studies Professor Cornell West walking out on President Summer's request for more scholarly output. The point of a broadened student body is to expand one's understanding of life - however, at Harvard it was undermined by subsequent self-segregation. Regardless, most of the students were liberals, usually from blue states, moneyed, and predominantly from a few top private schools.)

Douthat then takes us through the world of joining (or not) an exclusive male club (a substitute for fraternities), the pursuit of young love and sex, "working smarter" - splitting up reading assignments and sharing notes, skipping class while relying on the professor's notes being on-line, ways to submit late papers, and campus protests of anything and everything.

It was disappointing to learn that much of a Harvard education consists of hair-splitting and academic trivia, not the solid lessons one would hopefully learn from generalizing major points and trends in history, etc.

"Privilege" makes one wonder whether getting into and paying for Harvard (and probably any other high-cost private school) is worthwhile. President Summer's efforts to reform Harvard probably would help, but then he got the boot for not being politically correct - even more reason to wonder.
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52 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent analysis from a Harvard insider. February 27, 2005
This is the second excellent self-deprecating book about Harvard I have read. The first one is "Harvard Schmarvard" by Jay Matthews, a must-read college guide for any one going through the college admission/selection phase. On the other hand, Ross Douthat book is not a college guide, but it is a fascinating insider documentary on one's Harvard education experience.

Contrary to what we believe, Harvard is not an academic pressure cooker. Grade inflation is actually so rampant, that a notorious professor decided to adopt a dual grading system. Thus, he decided to give his students two grades, the first one is the grade they truly deserved. This grade is known by no one else but the students themselves. The second grade is curved reflecting Harvard's grade inflation and is the one that will go on the transcript. Thus, you could have a bunch a B- students graduating with very impressive A - GPAs going on to the top business, law, and med schools in the country. The author explained this process is the result of the inevitable commercialization of grades. In other words, GPAs now mean access to the top graduate schools, and thus mean a lot of money over the lifetime career earnings of Harvard undergraduates. Thus, professors are under rising pressures to give good grades. The days when a professor may be subject to lawsuits for giving less than sterling grades may not be far away.

The author goes on criticizing Harvard's "Core" curriculum that has not changed since 1978. He states that the Core was a politically correct effort to get away from the "elitist" framework of the more rigorous earlier curriculum that had a traditional "Great Books" framework. Thus, nowadays a student is increasingly unlikely to have studied Shakespeare, Goethe, or Proust.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read
Interesting account of Douthat's perception of the socio-economic culture at Harvard. A good, thought provoking read. Recommend this book as a good read.
Published 11 months ago by Harold
5.0 out of 5 stars I Know What He's Talking About
I didn't go to Harvard, but I almost did. I got wait-listed and was eventually rejected, before going to a state school. Read more
Published on August 17, 2010 by Conservative Postmodern Polyglot Abroad
2.0 out of 5 stars Privilege?
I didn't know much about the author when I started reading this book except that he was Catholic and a Republican. Read more
Published on March 31, 2010 by Steve
2.0 out of 5 stars Thing change
The author contends that the Harvard final clubs are an important part of the university's social life these days. Read more
Published on October 24, 2009 by William M. Doolittle Jr.
2.0 out of 5 stars Enormous change
This book is either wrong or things have changed a great deal since I was a student at Harvard, 50 years ago. Read more
Published on October 3, 2009 by William M. Doolittle
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of
The timing of my reading this book was fortuitous. I finished the book within a few days of my very moving experience of being at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for the... Read more
Published on March 28, 2007 by Alan L. Chase
1.0 out of 5 stars Bummer when the facts get in the way
Ross Gregory Douthat often tells a good story, but ultimately runs into trouble when his assertions, which are nearly never supported with data, turn out to be wrong, as shown by... Read more
Published on December 29, 2006 by po1058
5.0 out of 5 stars GO HAVARD GO
havard's book privilege is a great book it experses facts that are evenly supported throught the book. Read more
Published on August 7, 2006 by southieboy
5.0 out of 5 stars A good text.
However, the rampant liberal ideolougues who run the institution are now creating a culture that promotes radical thinking to the nth degree and justification for any actions, be... Read more
Published on February 1, 2006 by Patricia Carter
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring!
The author thinks his four years in college demonstrate some important sociological truths. They don't. His book is boring in style, boring in substance. Read more
Published on January 19, 2006 by Richard R. Reynolds
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