by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance."... ...James Bryant Conant.
Commentary of the Day - November 16, 2008: Some Straight Talk About Elitism. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker."Elitism" is one of those words that people quarrel about, particularly in an election year. Having said that, however, let me hasten to point out that what follows, despite the allusion in my title, is less about presidential campaigns than it is an effort to shed a bit of common sense on what has, alas, become a tricky word. There are those who would like nothing better than to tar "elitism" -- and all elites -- with a single brush. Such folks are, we are told, out-of-touch and usually un-American.
Currently, those on the Right make much of how precious and pampered "elites" on the Left are; but elitism, as a sneer word, has also been employed by those on the Left. Consider, for example, what happened when, during the late l960s, student radicals at Temple University got wind of what a new scholarly publication was going to cost. Maurice Beebe, formerly the editor of Purdue University's prestigious Modern Fiction Studies, had been lured away to Temple with the promise that his new academic home would pony up the funding necessary to produce a scholarly investigation of Modernist literature that Beebe planned to call The Journal of Modern Literature.
Unlike the critical readings that were a staple of Modern Fiction Studies (titles such as "Flower Imagery in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway" were typical), articles accepted for the pages of The Journal of Modern Literature would be fashioned from archival research and old-fashioned scholarship.
Temple's student newspaper did not know -- and certainly did not care -- about the sea changes that Beebe had in mind; what they objected to was the high price tag of the journal and the fact that it was, according to the editorial staff, "elitist." Beebe responded with a letter savvy enough to merit a spot in more of my first-year composition courses than I care to mention. He started by thanking the paper's editorial staff for their confidence in his new journal but then went on to explain that it would take consistently high standards, and lots of years, before The Journal of Modern Literature could earn the mantle of "elitist." Beebe, in short, considered the word a badge of honor rather than an occasion for shame.
I used the student editorial and Beebe's reply as an example of what dangers lurk when one writes anything in a white heat and why Beebe, by contrast, carried the day by being "cool," by which I meant thoughtful, distanced, and in complete control of his paragraphs.
At roughly the same period, academia was swept up in the fervor to be as egalitarian as could be on as many fronts as possible. And this time, it was the hard Left that tried to use "elitist" as a clincher for their arguments. The first towers to fall was the old-fashioned notion of "great books." As one of my colleagues liked to put it, these were. at best, "some pretty good books," and anybody with a kind word to say about the works of "dead, white, male writers" was probably racist, sexist, and homophobic. Their elitism, so the argument went, crowded out voices that badly needed to be heard, regardless of aesthetic merit.
During the l970s much mischief was caused in the name of egalitarianism, but even its staunchest supporter had trouble with my suggestion, raised at a particularly contentious faculty meeting, that the person kicking off at the annual homecoming game be chosen by lot. "Why not?" in the same spirit that Beebe wrote his now-famous letter. As things stand now, I reminded the faculty, people try out for the chance to kick the ball -- and the person who kicks it the farthest and with most consistency is given the spot. Nobody is excluded from trying out (including females), but there is always an assistant coach on hand to measure each kicked ball.
What I've been describing is called meritocracy, and it had much to do with the composition of the faculty and the curriculum. Egalitarian, by contrast, doesn't work well on college campuses, if it is taken to mean (as one faculty member proposed) that we hire people, and tenure them, by picking names from a hat.
In the current moment, elitism is code for people who read books and drink merlot at snooty parties. Real Americans are another breed altogether. They discount intellectual achievement in the same spirit that Malcolm X, during his visit to Harvard, posed the following question: "What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? His answer -- the n-word -- made it clear just what he, and America, thought of black elites. I mention this because Malcolm X was a Leftist with an armful of bone fides, and because many on the Far Right share the same distrust of education. Granted, those with a visceral distrust of "book larnin" have always been with us -- on both sides of the aisle and in the crowds that wave banners sand cheer for their candidate.
Meanwhile, elitism gets a bad rap and that's unfortunate because those who graduate from our best schools -- elitists if you will -- have important roles to play in America. Consider, for example the students who join "Teach for America" and take on the enormous challenge of educating those who are stuck in poorly funded schools and what can only be called bad environments. Because many involved in "Teach for America" programs are products of Ivy League colleges, one could disparage them as "elitists," but even the most hardened member of the Joe Six Pack fraternity probably wouldn't do that. Why so? Because the well-educated students who choose to teach for America are idealists who have been inspired by their liberal-arts educations.
Nobody, including me, has a good word to say for those who look down their [elitist] noses at those they consider inferiors. Snobbery is not the same thing as genuine elitism because snobbery is not earned; it is merely announced. Real elitism is fashioned from quieter stuff. Which means that most of the talk about elitism comes from those who surround the word with sneer quotes and who hope that they can divide the landscape between those with intellectual pretentions and those with real American values. But this is a phony distinction, one that we once heard from the Left and that we now identify with the Right. No matter, elitism is what it is, and those who wish to edit elitist journals or do anything else of intellectual consequence know how high the bar is and how hard they will have to work to achieve it.
My title suggests that what follows will be "straight talk," but I am sure that some who will characterize my remarks as preaching to the choir. They might be right -- indeed, a part of me hopes that they are right -- but my experience at faculty meetings suggests that there will always be those who are suspicious of elitism -- if not this year, then somewhere down the road. My advice? Challenge them, and if you want to use my example of the kicker at the Homecoming game, feel free,
© 2008, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.
The Irascible Professor comments: Unfortunately, too many politicians of questionable merit over the years have tried to paint their opponents as elitists if they come from a certain part of the country, or if they have significant educational achievements, or even if they can speak in complete sentences. That sends the message to our youth that ignorance is to be preferred over knowledge, and that intelligence and insight are traits to be denigrated rather than revered. One might ask what that says about our country? Fortunately, the voters were not taken in by appeals to such nonsense this time around.