How to Rule: Read These Books and You Too Can Be an Oligarch


On Wednesday, Washington Post’s Wonkblog ran a piece with the title, “What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t.” The headline, you can see, is straightforward: it bravely preys on the fears of middle class parents and overachieving public school students around the nation. The piece proper kicks off like this:

If you want an Ivy League education, you could fork over $200 grand or so and go to Cornell or Harvard for four years. Alternatively, you could save a ton of cash by simply reading the same books Ivy League students are assigned.

Now, my first thought was that I don’t want an Ivy League education. I like my self-education, which is inexpensive. Then I considered that many of the students who matriculate at Ivy League schools already have the necessary “$200 grand” it takes to attend, whereas non-Ivy League readers likely don’t. In fact, students who attend Ivy League schools have (disproportionately) spent thousands of dollars on elite private schooling. They are, in a word, moneyed. So an air of aloofness, or disingenuousness, hangs over these two sentences. Just read these books! You too can be an oligarch!

And that’s what a closer look at the list of books most read at Ivy League schools will tell you: these kids are being bred to rule. It is not a surprise, for example, that the most read book at Ivy League schools is The Republic by Plato. A fine book, to be sure, and indispensable to the ruling class’s sense of worthy political and philosophical debate, it fittingly concerns the subjects of justice, educational curricula, and the social contracts required to arrange a city into castes of intellectual overlords (Ivy League students) and dumb, corruptible underlaborers.

Of course, one can tell from the horizontal bar graph that The Republic is also the second most taught book in non-Ivy League schools. The perceptive, Ivy League educated reader will now cry foul. But it’s just as important to teach public school kids that, in order to count in society, they must play their part.

It’s a matter of why or how you’re being taught the books — not just the books themselves. We call an elite school elite because it is filled with students who will be elected, who will rule, who will write policy that allows a few of their classmates to become billionaires. Or spurred by resentment of their cohort, these students are then free to become editors or wonks (or a combination of the two), jobs that allow them to spend their days chronicling or modeling the lives of their former friends.

This the way of education in a liberal democracy: it is designed to perpetuate the legitimacy of liberal democracy (the illusion of a fair, well-ordered society). Just look at the other most frequently assigned books at Ivy League schools. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, a copy of a copy of a copy of a post-historical political philosophy that gets more staticky with each iteration, a work of Enlightenment-core superiority jabbed into maturing minds. Then three classic works of liberal philosophy: Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which convinces the students that their role in an oligarchic scheme is fair; Mill’s colonialist and market fundamentalist On Liberty; and, of course, Democracy in America. Beyond that, more “how to rule” guides in the form of The Prince and Leviathan, a bit of guilt relief in the form of Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And to make sure that students are ready to organize society according to complex computer models and game theoretical gibberish, The Evolution of Cooperation.

The reader may point out, again, that non-Ivy League students are assigned many of the same books, but part of the point is that non-Ivy League students are also (disproportionately) reading biology textbooks and writing guides. (Elite or sub-sub, everyone should stop reading The Elements of Style). And the book assignments given to non-Ivy League students don’t form as readily around an ideological unit.

So the answer to the piece’s title — “What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t” — is “books that teach them to rule over their non-Ivy League peers.” The idea is simply that the prevailing arrangement of society is fair and preferable to alternatives (which are not considered), that a select group is required to preserve this arrangement. Otherwise, most of the books we read are the same, which should tell us that there is no difference between Ivy League students and non-Ivy League students in their capacity to read, translate, and learn.