Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Ivy Life: Ross Douthat's Privilege

I never took the time to plug Ross Douthat's Privilege, an excellent memoir of his Harvard years. His glimpses into the world of the overclass are enlightening, and a bit disillusioning. Harvard, it seems, is hardly an academic juggernaut as far as its undergraduates are concerned. I was perversely pleased that Douthat and I share the same complaints of a superficial, unsystematic educational regimen, only I was fortunate enough to receive my education at perhaps a tenth of the cost at the University of Colorado.

But who besides aspiring intellectuals goes to college for an education? Douthat's depiction of Ivy League social life is the real meat of the story. His visits to posh parties at the Harvard clubs, those supreme social networks, reveal both Douthat's reverse snobbery and his outsider's anxious craving to enter the inner sanctum as if one who belongs there. In his accounts of such events he is self-consciously nolens volens, covetous of high privilege while feeling he should really be disdaining the shows of the elite.

Douthat does not gain a club membership(which seems to have done no harm to his journalism career--he now writes for The Atlantic Monthly), but the rigors of high society are evident throughout the book. The mix of competitive upper-middle-class meritocrats and spendthrift scions can be poisonous. One rising college star, a young woman from flyover country, manages to compete with the old money on campus only by embezzling one hundred thousand dollars from a university theater troupe to fund her lavish parties.

Yet that campus socialite's fall is in Douthat's view symptomatic of far deeper problems at Harvard. While the old elite at least recognized their place at society's peak was somewhat accidental, the meritocracy has no such humility. Meritocratic culture encourages a sense of ruthless entitlement since it "indoctrinates its students in a religion of success, and seduces them, oh so subtly, with the promise that what they have is theirs by right of talent." And elsewhere: "The modern elite's rule is regarded not as arbitrary but as just and right and true, at least if one follows the logic of meritocracy to its unspoken conclusion." Though this ethos is subconscious, it is reinforced by the lack of acknowledgment that their careful grooming begins even in infancy with the privileges of wealth: selective schooling, private tutoring, and family networks.

The mores of this elite are libertine, but its members are too careerist to let such a lifestyle ultimately interfere with their personal advancement. Though the scare tactics of sex ed are less effective on the less well-to-do, for the overachievers of the Ivy League the prospect of a ruined future among the powerful is fearsome indeed. Douthat writes: "we don't get pregnant young or married too early, we don't get STDs, we don't have abortions--though we find it comforting to know that we always could, if it came to that." The consequences of such licentiousness among the less fortunate are known to the privileged only in the increased opportunities for charitable(and resume-padding) service work among the shattered families of America.

The educational system only reinforces this collapse of values. Even when truth is a criterion, "the only absolute truth that the upper class accepts these days is the truth of the market." Postmodern fads in Harvard's history and English departments have crippled the response of anti-capitalist progressives, and this is not entirely a good thing. The professoriate's patina of skeptical philosophy can only extend so far among the wealthy, and, as Douthat says, this outlook "amounts to a tacit acceptance of capitalism's ruthless insistence that only science is important, only science really pursues truth, because only science has tangible, quantifiable, potentially profitable results."

But Ross Douthat's book is not entirely glum. The active and inquisitive student can actually find a decent education at Harvard. So, too, can he even find professors who don't contemn undergraduates as a hindrance to their research. There's even some outright comedy: Douthat relates an anecdote about skinny-dipping with the aged William F. Buckley, Jr., and afterwards talking politics, whiskey, and cigars aboard his yacht.

The very mention of Buckley, the conservative movement's last patriarch, prompts comparisons to Buckley's debut book God and Man at Yale. Buckley was eccentric enough to believe that his 1950s Yale was sidelining Christianity, patriotism, and sound education in favor of agnostic, anti-American scholastic trifles. Buckley's focus on the now-faded Christian sympathies of the American academy deserves a follow-up.

Though Douthat, a Catholic like Buckley, mentions both God and Man at Yale and Harvard's religious atmosphere, or lack thereof, his treatment of religion as such is too cursory. Considering the graduates of his alma mater adflicta are now dealing with the highly religious problem of militant Islam, perhaps a second book is in order.

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