Ross Douthat used to be my waterboy.
Coffee? You call this coffee? Too light! Darker, kid, darker!
Ross Douthat, a former National Review intern, is author of the Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, about his time as an undergrad at Harvard. He’s now a punchy staffer at The Atlantic Monthly. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez, for once not shouting orders, recently chatted with him about the book, higher education, and the seamy underbelly of conservative journalism internships.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Okay, most important revelation in your book: What was that you say about long lunches while you were working that summer at National Review? Did you not have enough work, Ross Douthat: Look, given that you were keeping us up all night feeding the coal-burning printing presses, sneaking out for long lunches (while you and Jonah were downing martinis on the NR roofdeck) was our only chance to eat anything at all. The year before, several interns actually starved to death because they never left the NRO sweatshop–er, office–and we weren’t going to let that happen to us.
Lopez: So there’s a lot about sex in your book–or at least the Harvard student’s frustrations over it and often pathetic attempts (no offense) to get some, as they say. How big a role does sex actually play in Harvard life?
Douthat: Less of a role than it does at a typical American college, I imagine, in part because the student body contains more than its fair share of dorky and socially awkward kids (of which I was certainly one), and in part because the spirit of the place emphasizes the pursuit of a successful career over the pursuit of the opposite (or the same) sex. Everyone–or at least every male student–spends a lot of time talking about sex and thinking about sex, but this has more to do with the smog of sexual frustration hanging over campus than it does with any real licentiousness. I think that most Harvard students come to college with great expectations for either debauchery, or romance, or both–consequence-free sex and true love, the great promise of the sexual revolution–and for the most part, they’re disappointed by what they find. But this doesn’t mean that anyone’s rethinking the sexual revolution itself; it just means that everyone complains a lot about how little sex they’re having. I’d like to agree with, say, Wendy Shalit of Return to Modesty fame, that we’re poised for a large-scale backlash against the oversexualization of American culture. But I’m not holding my breath.
Lopez: Did anyone in your family suffer from a little too much information reading Privilege?
Douthat: Well, I told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to read it until after she graduated from college (she’s sixteen), but apparently she didn’t listen, because whenever I go home for a visit she keeps threatening to read certain chapters aloud to everyone at church, school, the doctor’s office . . . You name it. (I think she’s kidding.)
Lopez: In a sentence, what did you learn at Harvard?
Douthat: A smattering of academic knowledge, and a great deal of knowledge about how to compete in the American meritocracy.
Lopez: Is there, uh, actually learning going on in, like, classrooms at Harvard? You say that’s the easy part?
Douthat: There’s plenty of actual learning going on–but all too often, it feels optional, both because the environment of the place is career-focused rather than learning-focused, and because the curriculum makes it easy to skate through without being challenged. So it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard (the professors and students are, as you might expect, brilliant), but you have to go out looking for it, and you have to seal yourself off from all the other pressures that the place presents. And the number of people who make resist these pressures, and make academics the center of their Harvard experience, is far smaller than it should be.
Some of this is the students’ own fault, admittedly, but a greater portion of the blame belongs to the people running the university, who have let undergraduate education founder for decades, with terrible-to-nonexistent advising, a disastrous Core Curriculum, and a general sense of academic drift. The prevailing attitude seems to be that “if you’re smart enough to get into Harvard, you’re smart enough to get what you want out of it”–which sounds swell, until you consider that however smart Harvard students may be, they’re also just teenagers away from home for the first time, with all the confusion that entails.
And depriving them of any kind of guidance–because guidance might require actually asserting that some forms of knowledge are more important than others, and nobody’s willing to do that anymore–turns out to be good way to ensure that they aren’t as well educated as they should be, given everything that a school like Harvard has to offer.
Lopez: Was liberalism–or Marxism–shoved down your throat at the big H?
Douthat: Not at all, actually. There was very little of the kind of political-indoctrination horror stories you often hear about on college campuses, and insofar as there was pressure to conform politically, it was soft pressure–the pressure that comes with being surrounded by a campus where liberalism is the default position (the “conservative” position, in a sense), and some kind of quasi-Marxism is the only approved form of political dissent. Today’s elite universities are surprisingly depoliticized places, which sounds like a good thing after the excesses of the last few decades–until you realize that they are depoliticized because everyone, students and faculty and administrators alike, are primarily concerned with careerism and the bottom line, rather than with the older ideological debates. There were times at Harvard when I actually longed to hang out with a few more Trotskyists, rather than yet another set of future consultants and investment bankers. At least the Trotskyists cared about the important stuff.
Lopez: Would you send your daughter to Harvard-assuming the atmosphere were the same? Would you send a son?
Douthat: It would depend on the child, I think. I was very happy at Harvard, and I think if I hadn’t gone, part of me would have always regretted not getting a taste of what such a famous (and fantastically weird) place is like. To borrow from St. Augustine, Harvard is the “city of man” in all its glory, and however much you’d like to shelter your kids from the worldliness of modern American life, a certain kind of kid (the hyper-ambitious kind, mainly) is going to want go out and experience it eventually. Or to use another analogy, Harvard is like New York City: It’s not a place for everybody, and it’s not necessarily the best place to form good moral character or pursue the life of the mind. But for all its faults, there are people who simply wouldn’t be happier living (or in Harvard’s case, going to school) anywhere else.
If I was certain, though, that my child would be happiest at a smaller or more intellectually-focused college–if they were interested in a more contemplative college experience, let’s say–then I would probably discourage them from going to my alma mater.
Lopez: What do the non-privileged–the rest of America that didn’t go to Harvard or an Ivy–get out of your book? Why do we care about spoiled sex-starved kids?
Douthat: Well, you should care because Harvard is the model for nearly all of American higher education, and many of the trends that show up at schools all around the country–in academics, in campus politics, and in campus culture overall–are thrown into relief by looking at the nature of the Harvard experience. You should also care because the elite schools–Harvard and the dozens of prestigious places like it–are still the incubator for much of the American ruling class. It’s true that there are probably fewer Ivy Leaguers in positions of direct political power than there were in the 1950s (though you wouldn’t know it from looking at the last decade’s worth of presidential candidates), but every “soft power” field in the country–from law to finance to entertainment–is still dominated by graduates of a fairly exclusive network of schools. So if you want to understand the people who populate commanding heights of American life, you need to understand the culture of a place like Harvard–because that’s where they come from.
Lopez: Is Larry Summers going to weather his storm?
Douthat: I think he already has–in the sense of keeping his job, at least. The problem he faces is less one of being forced out than of being hamstrung in his efforts to bring desperately needed changes to Harvard, particularly in the curriculum. I worry that he squandered all of his political capital in staving off the feminist assault–an assault that was outrageous, but that wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t have such a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth.
Lopez: Do you, Ross Douthat, deserve to rule? Is that why you took so long at lunch?
Douthat: Well, those Tuesday afternoon Trilateral Commission meetings did probably play a role in my tardiness–but I’ve been in Washington for almost three years and I still haven’t been asked to join the Carlyle Group or any of the six or so Official Neocon Cabals. So I guess I’m not quite as powerful as I’d hoped.
Lopez: What’s the coolest thing you got out of skinny dipping with Bill Buckley? Besides, well, the story.
Douthat: Alas, I’m sworn to secrecy. I will say this, though–Skull and Bones is a lot bigger on the inside than you’d think . . . And they have the best roller coaster.
Lopez: You recently wrote about Philip Anschutz in your day job. Has he got a real shot at changing the culture?
Douthat: Well, changing the culture is a pretty big job even for billionaire. But in a small way, sure he does, if only because he seems to have a chance of making movies that aren’t just “conservative,” but actually good. Cultural change is always incremental, so the most important thing for any right-leaning artist, writer, or media mogul is to focus less on making political statements and more on producing high-quality work. And with the unfortunate (though intermittently enjoyable) exception of Sahara, everything that Anschutz has done so far in Hollywood suggests that he understands this.
Lopez: What was the weirdest reaction you’ve gotten to your book?
Douthat: Well, one person (who appears, briefly, under a pseudonym) came up to a party and said “I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether to shake your hand or punch you in the face.” I haven’t seen him since, so I’m not sure which option he decided on . . . But I’m keeping my head down.
Lopez: What should everyone know about Harvard?
Douthat: They should know that even though Harvard often seems to out-of-touch with America as a whole–the “Kremlin on the Charles,” as people on the Right are fond of saying–there are few better places to look at if you want to understand the state of our society, and the way that the political and cultural developments of the last thirty years have worked themselves out. On the one hand, Harvard–like America–is a fantastically wealthy place, a pioneer in science, medicine and technology, and possessed of an enviable degree of power and influence. People from around the globe flock to Harvard Yard, as they do to the U.S. generally and it’s a fantastically diverse place in many ways, having successfully integrated people of every color and creed into its micro-society.
So it has many of early-21st century America’s strengths–but many of the country’s weaknesses as well. Its diversity is skin-deep: like the country as a whole, Harvard is actually getting more class-stratified, not less so, both within the school and in how well the student body reflects the broader society. Its scientific successes have been balanced by drift and even rot in the humanities, which mirror the larger rot in American popular culture; its formidable clout is undercut by a deep insecurity about its purpose and it founding ideals; and perhaps most importantly, its unprecedented wealth has too often fostered a spirit of materialism, greed, and success-at-all-costs. Harvard doesn’t “hate America,” as one conservative writer once put it–it is modern America, with all the good and bad that being modern America entails.
Lopez: You owe me a few long lunches.
Douthat: Oh, Kathryn, I owe you far more than that. (For instance, that stapler you “lost” that summer? It’s sitting right here on my desk. And the NR bound volumes from 1967-85? Part of my library . . .)