Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, by Ross Douthat

I heard a podcast of Brian Lamb’s interview with Douthat, who has recently been hired by the New York Times to write an op-ed once a week (replacing Bill Kristol). Since he’s only written two columns for the Times so far (though he’s been with the Atlantic for several years), they spent much of the interview on this book, his account of his time at Harvard c. 1998-2002.

The book’s strongest chapter is the first, in which Douthat describes the disparate characters in his dorm and the university’s diversity policy that threw them together like the stereotypical platoon in a World War II movie. The university can only do so much, though, and self-segregation is inevitable in the cafeterias, at parties, etc. There are other chapters on rushing the final clubs, college politics, and romance. The book has a modular quality; you could rearrange the chapters at whim without changing it. Still, most of it is very good. The description of his summer job at National Review, and a night out on the yacht with WFB, if slightly off-topic, alone nearly justifies the effort.

Douthat describes Harvard as a meritocracy, where all students are strivers from the same types of elite high schools, no matter what their ethnic background (but not everyone can get in the final clubs, as he finds out; in that way, the old aristocratic character of the university lives on). Only one chapter deals with academic content–mostly grade inflation. There is a relatively weak chapter on the living wage controversy, which apparently seemed very important at the time, but was soon forgotten; maybe that was his point.

He ends with wistful regrets at leaving this special world, a Brideshead without the Marchmains. I hope he’s moved on by now.

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