Boomer here -- came from comfortable, but not rich background. Went to flagship state universities for undergrad and grad degrees. It's all great to ramble on about "privilege", but I wonder if the way to deal with this is to seek to have a life dedicated to service. Become a teacher, a nurse, a firefighter, a police officer.I spent my career as an early childhood educator. I personally believe that working with young children and their families is an important contribution to society -- low status, low pay -- but so rewarding. And I was only able to do because my husband also chose a low paying professional level, service-oriented job as an Episcopal priest.

We were raised by a generation where our fathers had mostly served in WW II. I dislike the generational titles that assume more value to one generation than another -- we're all made up of people -- but rather than grimacing about the privilege one possesses, I think you can leverage that privilege to serve others.

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As an elderly academic, I was irritated, though perhaps the commentary is well-suited for college students. I find Mr. Deresiewicz's comment "...go into banking or consulting or law or medicine or tech...all of which... are highly lucrative, and four of which do much more harm than good" annoyingly glib. The guy has a point, and says it with style, but the embedded assertion is that banking, consulting, law, and tech do much more harm than good. I suppose a case could be made for this claim, but one could make a pretty good argument to the contrary for most of these. What I find especially annoying is that this and other assertions are rhetorically phrased in ways that make it difficult to question or debate.

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Another message to college students is for them to drop their generational chauvinism. They may part of a great generation, but they have not done anything yet. Remind students at elite schools that they are standing on the shoulders of the principled and unprincipled, the honest and the dishonest.

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You wrote:

"A friend of mine who teaches in the Ivy League once told me that her students do indeed talk a lot about making the world a better place, but their idea of how to do so invariably involves some version of getting to the top: becoming a federal judge, writing for the New York Times, founding a tech company, running a socially conscious investment fund. So be honest: if you had to choose—either money and/or status, or changing the world—which would you go for? I thought so."

But you or your "friend" never put forth "changing the world" alternatives to the aspirations you scoff at. What are they?


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I liked the article. Agree that it is irreverent, even snarky, but I took that as a reflection of the irreverence and snarkiness of those telling others to 'check' 'priviilege.' Rich, coming from many of those the most privileged in our society, as noted in the article.

Do have to add that many others at elite institutions did not come from the top 1%, 10%, or 20%. There is still some attempt to include a few from the first in the family to graduate college - I was one of those in the 1970s who got into Yale Law, where I went to become a 'change agent.' Some of us volunteered for legal aid while in law school, some continued after, and a few of us did become teachers - not just in elite institutions, but in our public K-12 schools as well.

Still, I get the sense that most are still 'privileged' and have no real intent in letting go of that privilege - for many that is the primary purpose for going to an elite institution in the first place - to stay privileged.

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This piece has cleared up the meaning of "check your privilege" for me, assuming the author's own understanding is correct.

I really had never known whether the "check" of "check your privilege" was the same as in "check your battery" or as in "check your impulses" or as in "check your six-shooter at the door." Each meaning works to some extent.

So "check your privilege" means "take a look at your privilege and understand how much you've got." Or doesn't it? I'd like to understand the phrase correctly while it's in vogue.

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The concept of straight white Christian male “privilege” seems to me to be a euphemism for our status (I pass for a member of that group) in a nation founded and operated on notions of white supremacy and laissez faire capitalism. Straight, white, Christian males are not inherently superior to others, but they do enjoy a superior status to others groups due to historical prejudices and how those impacted economics in favor of white men. At least elite schools are now attempting to broaden the opportunity for elite economic and social status to members of other races, sexes, genders, and religions. The author points out how odd it is for one group of elite students to chide another for flaunting their “privilege” as if almost everyone at elite universities did not reek of it. Rather “checking their privilege” (whatever that actually means), elite students (and elites generally), need to check their arrogance - their unfounded confidence that their superior individual merit raised them to their exalted status. In fact, their impressive ability and hard work combined with opportunity, support, the right parents and connections, and luck that other students did not have led to their admission to elite schools. They were not derailed by natural disaster, war, crime, accident, disability, disease, geography, or any other hardship that might have afflicted the less fortunate.

I have no doubt that Harvard could pick a new freshman class with entirely different students that would equal or surpass the current freshman class. I suspect that it could do so many times over before experiencing any noticeable drop off in overall ability of the class. Elite college admissions appear to be a lottery for the very talented and highly motivated, with a thumb on the scales for the connected, wealthy, and/ or famous. The elites should appreciate that factors other than their merit led to their success, and that for all of their astonishing brain power and drive, they can be foolish, petty, neurotic, and flat out wrong; i.e., they are human and not Godlike. Indeed, for all of their impressive ability, they may shortly be inferior to AI if not so already.

Socrates was wise because he knew that he did not know everything but engaged in conversations to learn and evaluate his thinking and opinions. “Checking privilege” seems to be a catchy, but less useful, admonition than “show some empathy and humility,” rare qualities in a celebrity worshipping era.

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Can one not aspire to an elite college/university because one wants an elite quality liberal education and has the intellectual chops to merit and benefit from it? And is that an OK motivation, Mr. D? Or am I missing something here?

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