Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class
Ross Gregory Douthat
Hachette Books, 2005
304 pp., 36.00
A Tale of Two Schools
In 1998 Ross Gregory Douthat enrolled in Harvard University. The it school, known to Ross Douthat and countless other hopefuls as the H-Bomb. Twenty thousand students. Twenty-two-billion-dollar endowment. More than one million dollars per student. Begun in 1636, the school denies entry to 91 percent of applicants while admitting the best and brightest. Harvard is Harvard.
That same year, I, Nathaniel Jon Daniel Taylor, began my studies at Bethel University. The it school for Baptist General Conference diehards and their ilk. Three thousand students. Fifteen-million-dollar endowment. Five thousand dollars per student, 220 times less than Harvard. Bethel wants to be a good school that educates and trains students in a Christian context. And Bethel is Midwestern to a T: only 27 percent of the students are from out of state. The student body is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and, of course, Christian.
I majored in English Literature and graduated in glorious sun in May of 2002.
Ross Douthat majored in History and Literature and graduated in a downpour a week later.
Three years after our entrance into the "real world," I'm working at Starbucks and leading high school orchestras on tours of Europe. Ross Douthat works at The Atlantic Monthly and now has written the story of a young man's four years at the richest, best, most desirable school in the world. Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class is a commentary on the culture of Harvard and the privileged of America. For Douthat, Harvard was not the "refuge of genius and a sanctuary of intellect" he had expected to find; rather, he soon discovered that "the real business of Harvard … was the pursuit of success." Harvard is the "best known ticket" to entrance into "a privileged class of talented students [that] sits atop the world … secure in the knowledge that they rule because they deserve to rule, because they are the best." Harvard is the place where the ruling class is educated and maintained.
Both Harvard and Bethel are sold as known quantitiesâ€”brands that parents can trust. Parents understand that Harvard means success. Bethel promises a solid education in an evangelical setting. At Bethel parents know their children will be kept safe from godless professors, a sexualized culture, and binge drinkingâ€”and may even find a good Christian spouse. Their children will enter as Christian teenagers and leave as Christian adults. And at the end, after the entire bill is paid, both sets of parents will be happy.
Harvard is fully entrenched in the world of the American Dream, the world of liberal piety, capitalist joy, status, and money. To a degree Bethel is caught in this same world. Bethel wants to be high on the US News and World Report college rankings, proudly informing donors and prospective students that it is the eighth-ranked university in such-and-such region. It wants recognition for its success as a school educating doctors, professors, pastors, professionals, teachers, and nurses. It wants its students to go out and claim great fame and success. It wants all this, yet Bethel is an avowedly Christian school that is "committed to a distinctly evangelical Christian philosophy of education." Bethel's definition of success is constrained by the calling of God to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. In God's kingdom success is not measured by the percentage of alumni that give money or which former students walk the halls of power or the latest academic research. In God's Kingdom success is loving God and loving your neighbor and giving hope to the hopeless and blessing your enemies. Unfortunately for Bethel, these are difficult things to measure and even harder to execute. How do you help students see the Kingdom of God? Where is the course that trains Samaritans to be good?
Bethel's particularistic commitments are sharply at odds with Harvard's fervent pluralism. In step with the wider culture, Harvard is dedicated to Tolerance. As long as the students are happy with their moral position, then so is Harvard. Harvard is Las Vegas to Bethel's Vatican City. Where Harvard turns a blind eye to rampant pornography, Bethel combats it.
It's true that, in this admirable desire to mold Christian character, Bethel is too often simplistic in its answers. Like many other Christian schools, Bethel has a lifestyle statement that focuses on prohibiting drinking, premarital sex, and other vices. Students are exhorted through Bible studies, chapel, church posters in the hall. This unceasing barrage, this chorus of affirmation and certainty, however well intentioned, leaves many students frustrated and cynical about Christianity, especially in its evangelical permutations. In our moments of doubt, fellow students may urge us to "just pray about it and believe." It seems that questions are wrong and doubting is faithless. Like many a good parent, Bethel has a hard time letting students find their own way in becoming adults.
But then comes a moment when we notice that Bethel hasn't simply replaced our parents in telling us what to do. To our surprise, relief from cynicism is found in the classroom, where professors honestly and humbly engage difficult issues of literature, history, physics, philosophy, and a life well lived. This is Bethel's secret: it is a school blessed with a group of wise and wonderful professors who ask hard questions and seek honest answers. From my freshman discussion of the nature of faith in Shusaku Endo's Silence to my senior Literary Theory course where voices quivered in defense of feminism, I found professors who didn't allow unexamined convictions to pass unchallenged.
The faculty at Bethel engage in students' experiences and provide a framework for students to understand their changing lives. Professors show by their example what it means to be a Christian living an intellectually full and honest life. This direct interaction with strongly committed teachers is what makes Bethel work as a school.
For all the glories of its faculty, Harvard does not offer this intensive interaction. By Douthat's account, Harvard "rarely rewards devotion to undergrad education." Its professors are off doing research, maintaining tenure and status, and traveling far and wide, leaving the dirty work of teaching undergrads to graduate student assistants. The demands of faculty to produce and to be a success are too high to bother with teaching.
Outside the classroom, Bethel's audacious mission to encourage Christian discipleship provides abundant opportunities for service: mission trips to Mexico, tutoring in Minneapolis, volunteering as tax preparers for the poor, and countless others, large and small. Harvard, of course, offers similar opportunities, and I'm sure that many students there (Christian and otherwise) give their time and energy to service (just as there are many at Bethel who can't be bothered). But the ethos of Harvard, as Douthat describes it, is fundamentally about success. Harvard will prepare the way for you.
This has certainly been true for Douthat himself. At Harvard he wrote for the Crimson. He interned at National Review and went skinny-dipping with William F. Buckley, Jr. From Harvard and National Review and the drive to succeed he landed at The Atlantic Monthly, where he wrote Privilege. He's been interviewed by NPR and skewered by Slate. His book has been widely and (mostly) favorably reviewed. At the age of 25 he is wildly successful, and he clearly deserves it. He is a very capable and insightful writer who will go on to do great and good things. But his success is due in part to Harvardâ€”the institution, the education, and the culture.
Success, in an odd way, found me too. From Bethel I got work on an Indian reservation and rode horses with Lonnie Little Bird and saw a world outside my own. From Bethel I struggled to teach math to a kid who can't get 2 + 9 and learned to love a neighbor. From Bethel and tutoring I landed at St. George's in London, a window on the wider world.
Bethel was good to me and Bethel was hard for me. It was a strange place, mixing stereotypical puritanical living with the boundless love of Godâ€”signing covenant statements about community while finding community in the inner city of Minneapolis. At the beginning Bethel, for me, was not a place of hopes and dreams; rather it was a place of societal duty. I needed a degree, and Bethel would provide one. But by the end of my four years, I was surprised by what I had learned and how I had changed. At Bethel I began to understand how to live a good life, a kind of success even Harvard might envy.
Nathaniel Taylor is a dutiful Starbucks employee and sometime tour guide residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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