Monday, February 26, 2007

Review of “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” by Ross Gregory Douthat

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 tribute to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That event, in my opinion, represented Harvard at its best. Ross Gregory Douthat’s moving memoir of his four years as an undergraduate student at the Ivy League’s flagship institution paints a more complex and ambivalent picture of the university. There can be no doubt that Douthat loves his alma mater, but it clearly has been a tempestuous affair. I view this book as a love letter written by Douthat to a paramour who has not always been faithful, but to whom the author will nevertheless remain in lifelong thrall, despite his keen awareness of her failings.

As I read this very balanced and insightful glimpse inside the kimono of Dame Harvard, I was reminded of Senator James Webb and of Winston Churchill! After he graduated from the United States Naval Academy, Jim Webb wrote “A Sense of Honor,” a novel that was a thinly-veiled rendering of his four years as a midshipman – revealing the good, the bad and the ugly about life at Annapolis. The book was, in a phrase that Webb used in explaining to me his view of his controversial book, “A Valentine to a flawed lover.”

Churchill, in a 1947 reflection on the post-war state of the world and of the institution of democracy, made this memorable quotation: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill's sardonic observation seems to capture perfectly Douthat’s ultimate message: Harvard is the worst possible liberal arts environment – except for all the rest!

I found his writing style to be compelling and vividly descriptive. I almost felt as if he had mounted a literary Web cam on his shoulder and allowed me to see the nooks and crannies of Harvard through his eyes. He is unblinking in his self-criticism and self-observation. I felt his ambivalence when he was simultaneously repulsed by the notion of auditioning to join of the prestige “final clubs” and disappointed when he did not make the final cut. These anachronistic societies continue to exert a strong gravitational pull on what passes for social life on campus. His personal anecdotes of the dating scene among the students at Harvard were revealing and fascinating – the sexual revolution demythologized and deconstructed.

The saga of Winston, the homeless man who squatted in Douthat’s dormitory for most of the school year, serves as a wonderful microcosm for taking a fresh look at the traditional “town vs. gown” tensions that are part of the fabric of most university towns. The juxtaposition of the disenfranchised camping out with the ruling class is rife with irony and pathos.

The author makes a strong case for the need for reform of the Harvard Core Curriculum and grading system. He points out with wonderful specificity the folly of focusing on arcane minutia within an academic discipline, while failing to give students a broad grounding in the basics of that discipline.

The struggle by students to help the university’s custodial staff earn a living wage serves as a center of Douthat’s consideration of the perennial tensions between the street liberals and the armchair liberals. As a conservative – a rare breed in the People’s Republic of Cambridge – Douthat casts an outsider’s bemused eye at his left-leaning compatriots and their internecine warfare.

As one who has walked most of Harvard’s vast campus and who spends time with many friends who are Harvard alumni, I found this book to be a valuable read. I recommend enthusiastically. Douthat currently works as an editor at the Atlantic Monthly.



1 comment:

Anthony Lorizio said...

Dear Al:
Bravo on your masterful review!

As one who entered Harvard through a shadowed and well kept secret door, yet exited the "Commencement Yard" as a Harvard Fellow, this writer concurs with your Winston analogy on democracy and the author's conclusion, "Harvard is the worst possible liberal arts environment –except for all the rest!"

As one who jetisoned himself from a modern day "Plato's Academcy," which was anything but liberal (institutions survive centuries because they do not change on finciful or majority supported whim),into an academic environment whose focus was the pragmatic examination of the inter-relationship between mercantilism and government,in the very center of the free world, the demanding Liberal Arts curriculm delivered in Cambridge was the intellectual keel that kept this ship on a centerist course.

This writers Harvard experience was one of academic and intellectual discipline. There was nothing at all LIBERAL about the four year logistical and mental challenge.

While one has yet to read the reviewed book, one is excited that a respected writer as literate as Al Chase would author a review of a book about a fellows' experience within the walls of the "YAAAD."

As one of this fellows' professors, Dr. Dennis Skiotis, now deceased, but who will be long remembered, said, "What gets delivered at this institution is the "Harvard Experience." That experience is different for each and every individual that passes through Johnston Gate. Make sure you get yours for it will energize and empower your life."

Based on Dr. Chase's review the author got his as did this writer. Harvard is liberal and conservative, arrogant and benevolent. The hope of this writer is that Harvard never changes.