Thursday, March 23, 2006

What is elitism?

The image I hoped to provide to accompany this post featured a young African-American man, wearing a jacket and tie, carrying books to school. This image, and probably the film from which it is taken, is found offensive by racists. I hope that you will see it for that reason alone. Despite the difficulties in posting my essay this morning, I feel that it is important to say this today. We must make it possible for young African-Americans, especially, to acquire the education that will allow them to create the lives they deserve. It is in our interest, as a society, to do so. Please see my essays on Cornel West's philosophy. The image that some people do not want you to see is at this link:

Finding Forrester (Columbia/Tristar 2000), PG-13, $12.95 (Tower/Borders).

The worst accusation that can be made against students or any of us these days is the charge of "elitism," which may come from the Left ("those conservative fundamentalists who insist on the study of Great Books are elitists!") or the Right ("the glitterati with their trendy values and anti-family attitudes are elitists!"). Like most people, I see the merits in each criticism. My tendency is to say that they are both right to some degree. Much depends on which specific examples are emphasized.

What is elitism? And is it a good or bad thing?

According to the Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Oxford: 1994), at p. 117: "Elitism" is the "view that the formation of elites in some sphere is desirable, and the status and privileges of existing elites are worth protecting." This is an ambiguous definition for an ambiguous concept, the first part of which should be detached from the second.

Is elitism ever desirable?

In the arts, sciences and sports, it may be inevitable. Yet certainly in terms of political rights or access to important institutions or economic opportunity, I am against elitism, as defined above. I am against the idea of "inherited" privilege, so-called "status" or social elites, based on birth-right. My populism is very American: there should be no landed aristocracy conferring special rights on some people from birth. No European-like aristocracies please. In fact, of course, some people are always better off than others, in every society and in countless ways. Some division into entrenched classes may be unavoidable in all human societies or even in social groupings. Compare two recent New York Times articles dealing with this issue: David Brooks, "Karl's New Manifesto," in The New York Times, Sunday, May 29, 2005, at p. 11 with Brent Staples, "A Short History of Class Antagonism In the Black Community," in The New York Times, Sunday, May 29, 2005, at p. 9.

As an ordinary person, I recognize unique talent or genius in others and celebrate it. If the term "elite" is used to describe Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Jane Austen, Ludwig Beethoven, and so on, then it seems to me that there clearly are people who are pretty "elite," that is, natural "aristocrats" in terms of merit or talent. This is not an attack on the values of democracy or equality. It is just common sense. Every society has some stratification, as I said, probably based on unfairness at some point, and the United States is no exception.

It is better, from the point of view of material comforts and opportunities, tragically in some cases, to be born into the affluent "class" in America -- or anywhere for that matter -- than it is to be poor. I say "tragically" because poverty often results in the loss of scores of individual talents that might serve the community's interests. One feature of contemporary societies that is almost unbearably sad is the loss of human potential and the waste of millions of lives resulting from such evil stupidities as racism and illegitimate social hierarchies, not to mention the rigid applications of pet theories by social scientists, who are often blinded by those very theories to the human realities before them.

This does not make it right or good that there is social injustice, I hasten to add, nor does it mean that I approve of economic or other disparities in society. These things exist; I simply recognize them. I recognize also the obligation to struggle against such human tendencies in any way that we can. No matter what social class one is born into or the circumstances of one's early life, there will be trade-offs involved in one's development, that is, advantages and disadvantages will result wherever one happens to find oneself in the social hierarchy.

No one can be described as "elite" in every sense or in all ways, in terms of all talents and aptitudes. "No one is as stupid as an intellectual can be," said Talleyrand. If this is true -- and in politics it may be true -- then I suppose it is also the case that few poor people can be as careless with money as some rich people are, though not all. J. Paul Getty's remark that "a billion dollars is not what it used to be" springs to mind as the very definition of a miser. All the more so since the statement was made, allegedly, when the industrialist was having second thoughts about paying several hundred thousand dollars to ransom his son from kidnappers.

Whether it is called "elitist" or not, I think that young people should study "the best that has been thought and said," to the extent that experts can arrive at some general consensus on the list of works to which such a label may refer. And I am pretty sure that they can. Such a list will include persons of both genders, and of several racial, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. It will be "diverse," these days -- and it should be -- but it will also be made up of works that we all recognize to be great. The first author to be included on any such list, anywhere, must be Shakespeare.

Yes, some of these masterpieces will appeal more to one group of readers than another, but if books are truly great, then they will address universal human concerns and appeal to all intelligent or sensitive readers -- regardless of the accidents of race, class and gender -- provided that prospective readers have been given the education necessary to appreciate such works. The issue that should trouble us most is not whether there will be an elite in any society, since you can be pretty sure that there will be. What must concern us is to recognize the potential for achievement in persons excluded from power and social status by birth and do our best to equalize the opportunities available to such persons.

In a complex society, such as the United States, where so many competing "factions" (to use Madison's term) and communities jostle and prod each other in reaching for the proverbial "brass ring" of "success," the questions will be: 1) How is elitism to be defined? 2) Who is to be admitted to the ranks of the elite? and 3) How is admission to the institutions that provide the means by which to enter the elite class to be determined? And if we say by "merit," then we have merely moved the task of definition one step back: For then, how do we define "merit"?

Maybe the only way to get the training that leads to admission to America's "power" political or intellectual, economic or cultural elite (the 5% or so of the population that owns most of the real corporate wealth in the economy), is to wrestle with those great books in good schools and later on in life. It is at this point that the issue becomes especially thorny.

If education has a lot to do with access to the elite class in a society, and certainly this is true in the U.S., in the age of information, then the training that makes such admission possible may become a matter of right, but if everyone has a right to become an "elite" achiever, then what does the word really mean anymore? After all, somebody has to be average.

Equal rights to achievement -- by which I do not mean money earned -- may result in differential results of efforts for any number of reasons, most having little to do with talent. Equalizing opportunity should not preclude efforts to compensate for gross injustices in outcome, such as vast and absurd disparities in wealth. For this reason, I am a socialist.

There are obstacles and social injustices regarding access to elite universities that provide the poorest citizens and racial minorities with opportunities to enter the ranks of power and privilege. You cannot get into the great social world without a degree from a top-tier school, but you can not usually get into one of those schools -- even if you would normally deserve to be there -- unless you have had a solid and equally elite "prep" school education, which is simply out of reach for most poor and minority children's families. A small number of scholarship students will not be enough. Donating a million dollars to the alumni fund is also not an option, usually, for the families of minority students.

So in deciding who is an "elite" thinker and how you get to be one, societal economic and political factors have to be taken into consideration. This is not simply to grant Karl Marx his due, but to admit (once again) to what is common sense. For instance, it has been pointed out by one journalist:

"The information age elite exercises artful dominion of the means of production, the education system. The median family income of a Harvard student is $150, 000.00. According to the educational Testing Service, only 3 percent of freshmen [freshpersons?] at the top 146 colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. The educated class ostentatiously offers financial aid to poor students who attend these colleges and then rigs the admission criteria to ensure that only a small, co-optable portion of them can get in. [And again:] The information society is the only society in which false consciousness is at the top. For it is an iron rule of any university that the higher the tuition and more exclusive the admission, the more loudly the denizens profess their solidarity with the oppressed. The more they objectively serve [the ruling class,] the more they articulate the views of the Left."

"Karl's New Manifesto," at p. 11.

We can either sit around bemoaning the fact that "life is unfair" (which it is) and complaining that too many "White European Males" form a part of the curriculum at elite schools, which may also be true; or we can work to make sure that more people from the bottom of the social hierarchy (including poor whites) and more minority group members get to top schools, so they can complain about the "White European Males" on their way to Wall Street and a life of affluence. Ideally, through greater access to education, we may even come to live in a society where there is less disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest of us.

True, at this time, greater social equity seems like a remote possibility. Nevertheless, we can work to make sure that the number of persons burdened with spiritual as well as material poverty through inadequate or non-existent education, a condition depriving them also of the chance for meaningful participation in the cultural and intellectual life of their communities -- thus, effectively, silencing them, which is a powerful form of oppression in itself -- that this number is diminished as much as possible. In his now classic work (which is new to me) The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruse ...

"... urged black intellectuals and artists to establish their own institutions and reclaim black American culture from those who sought to appropriate it. 'The special function of the Negro intellectual is a cultural one. He should take to the rostrum and assail the stultifying blight of the commercially depraved white middle class who has poisoned the structural roots of the American ethos and transformed the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts.' "

Rachel Donato, "The Cultural Revolutionary," in The New York Times, Book Review, Sunday, May 29, 2005, at p. 19.

Even those of us whom Mr. Cruse might well classify as "intellectual dolts" can see his point. "The best that has been thought and said" is the birth-right of each human being born into this world and must be made available to people, to the greatest possible extent, so that we can then discover all of those potential "elites" that, like diamonds in the rough, are only in need of a little polishing in order to sparkle.

In American society, the obligation to make these great educational institutions available -- especially to African-American students before all others, in my opinion -- is simply a moral imperative, given our tragic history of African slavery and its aftermath. We should all be happy about a societal decision to provide extra or supplemental educational opportunities to African-Americans at elite universities, as a matter of moral obligation and at society's expense.

If African-Americans cannot expect reparations for slavery any time soon, then at least they should expect a concern from those with knowledge of history and moral sense to repair the injuries that are STILL inflicted on these people (and, therefore, on all of US) -- since these are our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters -- by the hideous legacy of slavery and pervasive (if increasingly subtle) forms of racism, which continues to exist and to destroy lives. For selfish reasons this makes sense too. Our next Albert Einstein or Paul Robeson, Cesar Chavez or Susan Sontag may be wasting away in a barrio or poor neighborhood, unable to read or solve simple mathematical equations because of skin color.

We always need a few more diamonds to sparkle in the light.



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