In Praise of Elitism

From a great post by Jonathan Mayhew:

On a face-book page for the Chronicle there were people ranting about an article that suggested that every college professor should be a researcher, that the teaching-only jobs were few and far between. The community college community exploded with accusations of elitism. Well, if you think elitism is bad, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near higher education.  .  .
Everyone admires elite athletes and musicians, elite surgeons. In every area of life, being better is better than being worse. The race is in fact to the swift, and admiration does flow to the pinnacles of human achievement. Education is the major pathway to this excellence. We lie when we decry elitism, because we want it for our children.

I’ve always found very annoying the tendency of many to go “But it’s elitist!” and make scary eyes as a way to silence opponents. I happen to be extremely elitist and very proud of being that way. If I weren’t elitist, I would be posting images of kittens on Facebook instead of discussing the nation-state, politics and foreign affairs with a small elite of very exceptional readers.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Elitism

  1. I really hate the idea that Higher Education is not elitist. The trouble is, ‘elitist’ in Britain at least is often understood as meaning ‘for the elite’, a common synonym for ‘the ruling classes’ or the ‘new aristocracy’. Membership of this elite is understood as nepotistic, hereditary, often highly biased to white/straight/male or those who think like them despite superficial difference, rather than meritocratic and obtainable to anyone with talent. Elite sportsmen are seen as aspirational, as a status which anyone from any situation in society could obtain by having the right mix of talent, dedication and luck – they are envied but not really resented. Elites characterised by intellectual activities, however, whether that’s ‘establishment’ elites such as high court judges or ‘leftie academic’ elites such as people with DPhils from Oxford (Oxford does not award PhDs like everyone else…), are viewed with suspicion.

    I don’t know how much this applies in a US context, but my reading in the UK context is that the word changes its associations and therefore its merits in different settings. When I say that I favour elitism in HE I understand myself to say that intellectual excellence is by its very nature only open to a few people (those with talent, dedication and luck…) and that this should be seen as something positive and valuable, something aspirational, that students should be encouraged to strive to be part of that elite whatever they do and wherever they study. However, what I am heard to say by some academics and many non-academics is that I think that higher learning should be kept for a select few chosen on grounds other than merit…


  2. The mention of the issue of meritocracy reminds us that there are multiple definitions of elites. An elite based on skill and effort is one thing. An elite based on bloodlines is quite something else. (Should we have a discussion of the British Army between 1850 and 1930?)

    Within academia, many resent the “elite” status accorded the Ivy schools. Thus you have professors who are elitist toward non-academics, but resent elitism within their profession. Of course, consistency isn’t of concern to great minds, is it? And yes, I’ve known some of these people.


  3. By the way, I take my self-regeneration project as an expression of elitism. I know from dipping into the realm of current notions about health or unhealth that there’s basically a middle-school approach being offered, whereby “emotions” are seen as having to do with issues of egoistic contention from experiences not worked out in adolescence. This is where contemporary Western culture and my own experiences diverge sharply. Those issues of contemporary adolescence formed in the context where everybody basically has most of what they need could not be more different than the ones I had to contend with. So much so that only recently did I get the fundamental insight I needed regarding myself. I’d been listening too much to theories and suggestions that come out of contemporary Western culture — which of course apply to those who have been brought up in it. Western cultural pathologies are Western cultural pathologies, which is why it always confused me almost to the point of insanity to be accused of having a Western pathology.

    Actually this was my key insight after working on it since 1997. People will accuse me of having the Western cultural pathology of narcissism if I congratulate myself at this point, as it can be virtually impossible for people to understand my wry humor. Perhaps they do not think that such a “working out” can take effort? It waas certainly not delivered to me through a KFC drive through service hole.

    I do view my efforts and capacity to break through in a cultural context almost the opposite to my own (where the traumatic structure was made) to be the sign of my elite status.


  4. I for one am glad that you have more interest in the decline of the nation state than in kittens on Facebook. You might like this recent post by Iza Kaminska:

    The great global imbalances of the last few decades have been caused by an unequal distribution of energy. So, those countries which had control of large easy-to-tap energy resources — whether they were fossil fuels, as per the surpluses of the oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia, or sweat fuel, as per the surpluses of the under privileged human capital countries like China — held those countries which demanded those resources or had the know-how to employ those resources under a type of bondage.

    But technology has and will continue to disrupt that power imbalance, and in the process it will transfer the power and leverage that comes with ownership of a resource that everyone wants to the technology companies themselves.

    On that basis, I predict, as the global imbalances that have plagued the global economic system for decades inevitably begin to unwind, they will inadvertently be transferred from sovereign balance sheets to corporate ones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.