Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The elitism follies

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Elite, elitism, elitist. Once complimentary words, now a snarl. Hurled back and forth between left and right to where they are almost as common a bit of invective as "racism," and almost equally meaningless.

However, Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post thinks we have a new elite — an "ordinary" elite — of, you guessed it, women and minorities. But, says Applebaum, they are resented by people who are even more ordinary than the ordinary elite.
The result of that expansion is now with us: Barack Obama, brought up by a single mother, graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, is president. Michelle Obama, daughter of a black municipal employee, graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, is first lady. They brought with them to Washington dozens more people, also from modest backgrounds, mostly not with inherited wealth, who have entered high government office thanks in part to their education. Not that Washington wasn't stuffed with such people already: Think of Clarence Thomas, son of a domestic servant and a farm worker, graduate of Yale Law School, Supreme Court justice. 
You are not to imagine racial politics had anything to do with all these ordinary elite folks in the corridors of power. Don't imagine for a second we have an affirmative action government. All those minorities and ethnics in every motor vehicles department, with the odd token white, that's because they're nature's own elite. And it's not surprising they have been promoted to running the federal government.
The backlash against graduates of "elite" universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have in the past two decades made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies.

Because they can offer full scholarships, the wealthier Ivy League schools in particular are far more diverse, racially and economically, than they were a few decades ago. Once upon a time, you got into Harvard or Yale solely because of your alumnus grandfather. Nowadays, your alumnus grandfather still helps, but only as long as you did well on the SAT, captained your ice hockey team and, in your senior year, raised a million dollars for charity (the last was not a requirement when I got into Yale, but it seems to be now). If you did all that and come from a broken home in Nevada, so much the better. 
Yes, and if you did all that and come from a broken home in Nevada and belong to a Certified Victim Group, better still. It could just be that the "backlash" against "ordinary elite" students majoring in victimology and being selected for prestigious positions after graduation to advertise an organization's diversity rubs ordinary "ordinary" people the wrong way.


Applebaum says that "in 1972, the American sociologist Daniel Bell … predicted, with amazing prescience, the rise of an anti-elite-education populism. Bell got one thing wrong, however: He thought the coming attack on universities would take the form of enforced quotas and lowered standards. In fact, American universities staved off that particular populist wave in the 1970s by expanding their admissions to include women and minorities, while keeping standards high."

Anne, you surely must be joking — no, you're writing for the Washington Post, so you mean us to take you seriously. But you are dead wrong, and all those "populists" or elitists without portfolio or whatever — the unwomen and unminorities — are right. Enforced quotas and lowered standards are exactly the state of play in our universities, and have been since diversity enforcement began in the 1970s. Academic standards in most fields have never been lower.

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The debasement of higher education isn't only among the minority and womyn students universities have so actively hoovered up to enhance their standing in the diversity league. When affirmative action admissions rule, standards must be lowered for everyone, lest too many minority students flunk out.

So today we have institutions of higher "learning" full of both students and faculty members who have been educated beyond their brainpower. Particularly in the corrupted humanities and social sciences, they have little actual knowledge and no reasoning ability; their time in academia has served only to give them a sense of the currently fashionable buzzwords and the approved jargon for writing about their field.

The culture of important-sounding, childish nonsense infects practically everything associated with academe. Here's one more or less random example, from a brochure of events taking place this season at ... [pause for deep breath] ... the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Rensselaer [New York] Polytechnic Institute. It's about an exhibition called Uncertain Spectator (Nov. 18–Jan. 29):
An exhibition confronting anxiety in contemporary art, Uncertain Spectator asks individuals to cross a threshold — place themselves in situations riddled with tension, confront deeply charged emotional content, and grapple with feelings of apprehension.
Shoot, I do that every time I open my credit card statements.
The works presented deal with a general mood of uneasiness arising from recent political and economic events that seems to frame a future rife with imminent threats. Uncertain Spectator not only responds to these unsettling situations, but also creates them by challenging individuals to step outside a place of comfort both physically and emotionally.
Uncertain, uneasy, unsettling. The un-examined life.

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I understand the idea of stepping outside a "place of comfort" emotionally … but physically? Does this mean someone visiting the exhibition could be mugged? Kidnapped?

The description continues. As we read, let's note the academic-babble clichés:
The exhibition incorporates media works in the broader context of the contemporary art landscape, through the work of ten artists spanning the genres of video, installation, sculpture, and interactive media. Uncertain Spectator will be contextualized by a catalog and series of events that will consider the role anxiety has played in philosophical discussions of existentialism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and ethics.
 "In conjunction with Uncertain Spectator opening," there will be a screening of Dancer in the Dark, "Lars Von Trier's only work in musical theater … an assault against escapism in film." (No place of comfort here either!) "The film stars Björk as a single immigrant mother working in a factory in rural America who begins to lose her eyesight due to a degenerative disease. The film's narrative is punctuated with sequences of song and dance, which were filmed simultaneously using one hundred separate cameras."

Von Trier, we are told, "became the figurehead of the Dogme 95 collective, which called for a return to plausible stories in filmmaking and a move away from artifice."

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The critic John Simon observed that there have been ages of intellectualism, and ages of anti-intellectualism, but we live today in a climate that is something new: of pseudo-intellectualism. An encapsulated world created by and for ordinary, but not ordinary enough, elitists.

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4 comments:

Marcus Marcellus said...

The idea that colleges have not lowered standards is rank propaganda. The liberal arts as I learned them (University of Chicago, class of 1995) are dead. A short fifteen years ago, Allan Bloom was still in the air at Chicago and a whole host of us learned ancient Greek while also trying to study physics. Today, even the the putative defenders of Western Civilization, the young writers at Alt Right, for example, are essentially materialists, albeit of an non-PC variety. Grade inflation is the norm; jargon has replaced rhetoric; and the iphone has replaced books. Not only women and minorities, but preppy whites - everyone - has been infected. "Education" is now a joke, which explains why homeschooling and disdain for the "elite" schools are growing. A liberal like Applebaum sees gifted children where I see politicized automatons.

Great post on your part.

Rick Darby said...

Marcus,

It looks like the only hope for preserving classical education — meaning not only the classics, but "the best that's been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold?) plus the tools for analytical thinking — will be some kind of alternative educational system.

As long ago as the early '60s, Paul Goodman advocated a "community of scholars" outside the state-mis-run system. Organizing that would present all kinds of organizational and funding problems, but with the will would come a way. Part of the mission of such an alternative circle of higher education institutions would be a commitment to facts before theories.

Certainly, ideas should be part of the curriculum, but without propagandizing.

Sheila said...

A number of Christian schools teach a classical curriculum. My oldest thrived on it, and readily admits that most of what he knows he learned prior to his four years of public high school. He didn't start Latin until the 6th grade but learned enough to go to the national competition by the time he was in high school. After two more years of Latin, the public school dropped it in favor of Chinese (taken by all the Chinese students only). As someone at Mangan's commented, "Hey hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go." They'll get what they want, and they won't like the ultimate (and unavoidable)consequences.

David said...

Peter Drucker, back in 1969, wrote that the next major rebellion in America would be against "the arrogance of the learned." He was a little early, and the rebellion today is against the arrogance of the pseudo-learned rather than the truly learned, but still remarkably prescient.