And with that question you’ve struck to the heart of the whole meritocratic game, which depends on a reproduction of privilege that pretends to be something else, something fair and open and all about hard work and just deserts. In this game the people whose privilege is particularly obvious, the boarding schoolers and New York toffs and Bethesda country clubbers, play a crucially important role. It’s not just that their parents pay full freight and keep the economics of tuition viable for everyone. It’s that the eliter-than-elite kids themselves help create a provisional inside-the-Ivy hierarchy that lets all the other privileged kids, the ones who are merely upper-upper middle class, feel the spur of resentment and ambition that keeps us running, keeps us competing, keeps us sharp and awful in all the ways that meritocracy requires.
It’s basically the dynamic depicted in David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” which was somewhat factually iffy in its portrait of Facebook’s founding but totally true to the culture in which the social-media giant was incubated — a culture in which echt-preppies like the Winklevii, Mark Zuckerberg’s rivals, exist so other slightly-less-privileged kids can hate them, and work twice as hard to beat them, and then tell themselves that they were underdogs all along.