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5.0 out of 5 stars America's Ruling Class Has Lost its Sense of Noblesse Oblige, June 1, 2005
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This review is from: Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hardcover)
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 everywhere...in 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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 2, 2010 3:42:29 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 2, 2010 4:18:28 PM PDT
So college admission should be based on hereditary right and privilege of birth and not personal achievement? Maybe the Senate, like the House of Lords of yore, should be constituted on a similar basis? And of course, the Irish, Italians and Eastern European immigrants from the public schools need not apply. After all, it was President Lowell of Harvard, motivated by Brahmin noblesse oblige, who gave the imprimatur to the frame up of Sacco & Vanzetti, even though 25 Italian-American witnesses put them elsewhere. No, the idea that the frivolous sons of the robbers barons of the Gilded Age were more socially conscious and philanthropic than today's alumni is ridiculous. Look at Bill Gates. As Galbraith aptly put it, Harvard and the Ivies went from being a ridiculous aristocracy to a genuine meritocracy. Thank God for that; it's ironic that those who rail against the "Eastern Establishment" would nostalgically pine for the return of such insufferable Yankee snobbery. And of course the author bites the hand that fed him. Finally, the series "Deadwood" gives us a more jaundiced stereotype of the Victorian Ivy Leaguer and his place in society than reviewer's fictional example.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 30, 2011 4:01:53 PM PDT
RLA says:
"And of course the author bites the hand that fed him." Do you mean the author of the book (Ross Gregory Douthat) or the reviewer?

"Finally, the series 'Deadwood' gives us a more jaundiced stereotype of the Victorian Ivy Leaguer and his place in society than reviewer's fictional example." By fictional example did you mean one of the characters in "American Blue Blood" by William C. Codington or Jay Gatsby in the Fitzgerald novel? ?
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