Privilege (Twice!), Class, and Collectivism

May 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Privilege* is the title of Shamus Khan’s 2011 study of St. Paul’s, an elite New England prep school where he had been a student. The difference between the new elite and the old is the difference between “entitlement” and “privilege.”

Whereas elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connection, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them. The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done.

Privilege** is also the title of Ross Douthat’s 2005 memoir of Harvard, an elite New England university where he had been a student. He sees the same evolution from the old entitlement (the “right to rule”) to the new privilege.

Ruling classes have always believed in their own right to rule, but it once was understood ... that their place in the social order was arbitrary, an accident of birth and breeding, rather than a matter of cosmic justice. Ideals of noblesse oblige grew from just this sense: the knowledge that God (or blind chance) had given the elite much that was not necessarily deserved.

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. For today’s Harvard students ... there is nothing accidental or random about their position in society. They belong exactly where they are – the standardized tests and the college admissions officers have spoken, and their word is final.

At Harvard, and at similar schools around the country, a privileged class of talented students sits atop the world, flush with pride in their own accomplishments, secure in the knowledge that they rule because they deserve to rule, because they are the best

For both authors, the new elite see themselves and the world through the lens of individualism. The old elite saw themselves as a class. For Khan, the crucial function of that class was to protect its economic and political advantages (“walls around the resources that advantaged them”). Douthat, though he uses the old Marxist term “ruling class,” emphasizes their sense of humility and social obligation (“ideals of noblesse oblige”).

The irony is that Douthat, the conservative, dislikes a system based on individual merit; he seems to prefer the more collectivist elites of the past.  (That picture of the past is necessarily romanticized and heavily edited).  This is quite a contrast with an older conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., one of Douthat’s heroes and early benefactors. Buckley’s first book was about Yale. Like Douthat’s book about Harvard, it could have been called That Really Famous College I Just Graduated From – Here’s Why It Sucks. For Buckley, the big problem was godless atheism. The actual title was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”  

I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

That was then – 1951.  Three generations later, at Harvard (and presumably Yale) individualism is the only view left standing. That ascendance didn’t go the way Buckley would have wanted it. These campuses are largely liberal and godless, politically correct and feminist. But the young elites there see themselves as individuals, not as members of some class or collectivity.  To quote once more from Shamus Khan:

[The elite] have gone from seeing themselves as a coherent group, a class with particular histories and tastes, to a collection of the most talented and hardest working of our nation. They look more diverse, by which I mean that they now include members formerly excluded. They have rejected moat and fence building around particular resources and qualities that might identify then as a class and have accepted the fundamentally American story of “work hard, get ahead.” They think in terms of their individual traits, capacities, skills, talents, and qualities.    

* The full title is Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

** The full title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

1 comment:

Denis Colombi said...

In France, Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon (yes, they're a couple) have studied French Elites ("bourgeoisie") and concluded that they're now "individualist" in what they say but "collectivist" in what they do. Maybe something to think about.