The Harvard Dilemma: The Trouble With Privilege Breeding Privilege

This past weekend, the son of a well-known political family was getting drunk in New York City. A Harvard final club had taken him and a few other prominent students into Manhattan for a few nights of partying, which they hoped would end in recruiting a big name to their social club.

As his girlfriend told me over brunch, “They’ll probably take him somewhere in the Meatpacking [District], get him drunk, and try to get him to agree to join The Spee. I hope he doesn’t immediately commit though. He should take the time to think about it.”

The Spee is one of eight all-male social clubs at Harvard. Admission to these final clubs, which serve as alumni networks and prestigious venues for partying, is administered by a series of “punches.” Since it’s a bit crass to ask to be “punched,” someone who is in the club will have to know you and think you’re fit for their final club. If you’re the son of someone very important, for instance, you can rest assured you’ll be asked to join.

These types of clubs certainly aren’t exclusive to Harvard. Princeton has “eating clubs,” Oxford has the Gridiron Club, Cambridge has the Pitt Club, and the University of Pennsylvania and Yale have “secret societies,” like the famous Skull and Bones.

In order to be seen as good enough for these clubs, one must generally have legacy, be socially prominent, be wealthy, and have gone to a prestigious private high school. While there’s nothing wrong with bringing together the future leaders of the world and giving them even greater access to privilege and professional connections, it can seem as though it’s all a little too easy. Once you’re admitted to schools like Harvard, Princeton, or Oxbridge, you’re almost all set to choose your future career as you please.

This privilege is only compounded once you’re given access to a powerful social club. In fact, it’s rumored that the Porcellian — often said to be the most prestigious final club at Harvard — promises that if members haven’t made their first million dollars by the time they’ve turned thirty, the club will give it to them.

So what exactly must one do to get into these social clubs? Well, nothing really — and that’s the problem. Social classes are already stratified by the time one gets to college, and, while this can of course change further down the line with hard work, for the most part, the gap only widens with time. The vast majority of people who get “punched” weren’t sought out because they personally did something remarkable, they’re selected because of who they are — that’s to say, it’s because of who their parents are.

This idea of privilege creating more privilege isn’t anything new. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu wrote at length about it, and is perhaps most famously remembered for his idea of “cultural capital” being both cause and effect of social class. The idea is that at a young age the upper-class are taught what it means to be upper-class — you’re taken to fancy parties, you learn to appreciate high-culture activities, and, most importantly, you’re introduced to the right people. It’s not a wonder that a recommendation letter from Oliver Stone got Claire Danes into Yale, that Brian Williams’ daughter Allison was cast on Girls, and that Frank Rich’s son, Simon, received a two-book contract from Random House as a Harvard undergraduate.

But how easily is this cultural capital and early privilege translated into future success? Turns out, there’s not too much work involved.

Mélanie L., a friend who studied at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) — the “Harvard of France” — and who is now a graduate student at Cambridge, told me, “ENS is like Club Med. It’s actually very relaxed and easy once you’ve been accepted.”

So too with many top American and British schools. Of course, you can take challenging courses if you wish, but you can also take notoriously easy routes like Harvard’s “Government” concentration, whereupon you can coast along and be recruited by McKinsey to make six-figures right out of college. However, that’s not to say that the admissions process beforehand isn’t still rigorous. There are essays, recommendation letters, grades, and, for American schools, the massively important SATs.

Naturally, the people who can afford to take comprehensive tutoring courses are more likely to do well on the SAT1, which means two important things: your family’s wealth matters and how much your family knows about the college admissions process matters. It’s a classic example of how, even in a country that claims to extend privilege to everyone, education still functions as the gatekeeper to future success.

In fact, an op-ed in The New York Times published earlier this year and entitled “The Ivy League Was Another Planet,” discusses the problem of very intelligent, poor students not getting into top schools. The reason, the article says, is because they don’t even apply. Top schools don’t go to poor areas to recruit students and uneducated parents don’t understand the application process.

The idea is that top schools are open to everyone, but in reality the rich find shortcuts and the poor run up against barriers.

It’s not always smooth sailing, though, just because you come from means. The Upper East Side may be home to prestigious schools like Trinity and Dalton, but some students feel pushed too hard not just by the academics but also by the underlying implication of their privilege. A recent study published in The Atlantic showed that areas of New York with the highest income also had students reporting the highest levels of stress and accounting for a disproportionally high amount of suicides.

Often, wealthy students feel required to go into certain careers they would not have otherwise chosen. It’s the pull of prestige, driven by family expectations, which can take one away from their passion and into a job that, while perhaps flashy, is a bit of a bore. And while not all families believe that a Harvard or Oxbridge acceptance letter means a Maserati, strong-jawed husband, and a law degree in their child’s future, beneath it all, these gains seem to be implicitly expected.

After all, there hasn’t been a single Kennedy who hasn’t gone on to law school or to work in the public service. Surely one of them has wanted to be a writer, a sportsman, or a musician, but that’s not really a possibility for them; it wouldn’t meet the family’s expectations.

It’s a shame to see how privilege so quickly gives way to more privilege in a country that claims equal opportunity, and that even those who seem to be reaping the benefits are still constricted by the system — the privileged often feel like they can’t do what they really want even though they have the means.

Yet, there is no need to feel sorry for the privileged. It was Albert Camus who wrote, “There is only one class of men, the privileged class.” That’s to say, no one else really matters.

There’s a particular type of certainty that the rich have. They know that things will be okay no matter what, that even if they rashly decide to jump up and down on the tight rope, they know that the safety net is so close and so resilient that if they fall they’ll be popped right back up again as if nothing even happened. Perhaps, the most unfortunate part is that the privileged know they’re privileged. They know what they can get away with.

A few days ago I had dinner with a girl who had just gone to a party at The Owl, another Harvard final club. A 20-year-old student at Pratt, she asked to not be identified by name. Her experience had all the trappings of dealing with people who’ve known privilege their entire life.

“One of the boys – he was wearing a blazer and a tie – came up to me and asked if I would go upstairs with him. He said they only take the most attractive girls to other rooms, and he kept repeating that I was special and that he could ‘be helpful to me later in life.’ He said it was the most exclusive room in the house, and he tried to make me feel really good about myself, like I was privileged for getting to be in his company at this club. It wasn’t anything special though. Just a bedroom where he tried to have sex with me. I said no, but I kind of doubt he gets that a lot. He seemed like he’d be a powerful guy someday. A lot of women are attracted to that, a lot of women like that.”

She paused to take a sip of her drink and to linger on a thought. “He didn’t convince me, but he probably got the next girl he told was special. He’s probably going to be rich and famous one day. Good for him, I guess.”

image – Paul Lowry

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