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Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class Hardcover – March 2, 2005

3.6 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books; First Edition edition (March 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401301126
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401301125
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #354,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Shannon Chamberlain on August 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
The modern iteration of William F. Buckley's classic God and Man at Yale, conservative commentator Ross Gregory Douthat's main arguments have a much broader concern than Harvard, namely, his disquiet with the present state of the American college experience. While the examples center on Harvard, the book is really a crtical rumination on students, parents, and administrators and professors who view elite colleges merely as stepping-stones to high salaries and elite social networks rather than the keepers of the flame of learning and academic excellence. As Tom Wolfe did in his fictional I am Charlotte Simmons, he also focuses on the moral guidance (or lack thereof) regarding sexual relations, career, and social relations at today's universities. All in all a thought provoking book, told from a somewhat conservative perspective (which to his credit, the author makes clear where he is coming from.)
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