10 September 2008

Call Me an Elitist. No, Really, I Want You To.

The campaigns are spending a lot of time talking about "small town values" and people who are "real." The Republicans jump at any chance to call Obama an elitist, even as Bill O'Reilly took him to task in a recent interview for "stealing from the rich to give to the poor" when he talked about giving tax cuts to 95% of people. Doesn't sound all that "elitist" to me, but apparently there's something about arugala that I missed...

The whole draw to Palin is that she's "just like me." She "understands what I'm going through," because she's just a regular person. One pundit (I'm put the link up when I find it again) took Obama's camp to task for critiquing the fact that she went to 5 different colleges before finally graduating from one. See-- a regular person, just like you and me... oh, wait. Not like me at all.

Anti-intellectualism has been a cultural truth in our country for at least 100 years. They were already writing books about it back in the 1930s. Intellectuals were regarded with suspicion-- they couldn't be "real men" because they didn't make their living doing "real" work. Reading and writing and thinking didn't constitute the type of work that allowed someone to fashion himself as a self-made man--the epitome of American Manhood.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and not much has changed in terms of the American imaginary. But a lot has changed in practice. Since the end of WWII, an unprecedented number of people have attended and graduated from American Universities, but in many ways the degrees they've attained are not the same degrees given out 80 years ago. Rather than this new population rising to meet the challenges of a rigorous Liberal Arts education, University's changed to meet the needs of their new graduates.

Take English as an example--at one time, students were expected to know the classics, in their original languages, and understand how those classics informed literature. With the 1950s came a push for the "New Criticism." Suddenly, all you needed to know was in the text itself. It wasn't a straight causal relationship, but there was a relationship between that transformation. Don't get me wrong--I'm fairly happy that I don't need to know Greek and Latin to do what I do, but the overall effect of the influx of new students wasn't to make a more intellectual population. Instead, it made college into job training.

I see it in my own students every semester. They're not taught to see college as a learning experience for the good of their intellects or characters. Students most often pick majors that will make them money-- that's why business colleges are so huge in Universities. They give out practical, real-world information. (Except that they don't.)

This is a very personal issue for me. My family seems to be proud of the fact that I'm getting a Ph.D., but really only in an abstract way. For them, being a college professor will never really be any different than being a High School teacher. Actually, some of them think it makes me less qualified to be a HS teacher--less important than they are. They won't see a distinction between them, especially since I probably won't be getting paid that much more than one--at least at first. They won't understand that getting a Ph.D. in English doesn't prepare me to read a textbook--it prepares me to write them. They already don't like it when I talk about things that I know, because a HS english teacher shouldn't know any more about politics or history or culture than they do. It makes me into a know-it-all who doesn't know anything. Except that now, I really actually do know quite a lot.

But the ambivalent reaction of my family to my chosen profession is mirrored in the entire country's reaction to the Obama campaign and Palin draw. They forget that it should mean something to have gone to Harvard, to have been a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. That Palin's stupid quip about not knowing what a VP does should make her look ridiculous--especially since she has a polisci minor.

Instead, we live in a country where we strive to get our children into colleges--4 year, of course, because nothing less will do--but where we don't place any actual importance on those degrees. We live in a country so obsessed with the appearance of equality that we food ourselves into thinking that one type of education and knowledge can't be more important than another. How dare Democrats say that Palin's education isn't good enough?!? Obama must be an elitist. Except that the President is supposed to defend and uphold the constitution, wouldn't it be nice if they understood the history of Constitutional Law??

So call me an elitist. Because we've already had 8 years of a "just like me" president who barely passed his way through business school. Because that didn't work out so well. Because I don't want the average Joe-shmoe to lead our country. Because I want a president who has an extensive education that has trained him or her to think well and deeply about the complications of the world we live in, rather than relying on us v. them arguments. Because I believe there is value in intellect and silly chants like "drill, baby, drill, leave me cold and disgusted. Because I want my leaders to be better than me, smarter than me, more intellectual than me--not less.

Our founding fathers weren't everyday Joes. They were brilliant, learned men who had a specific distrust of the masses. It's why we have the electoral college; they just didn't trust that the average mass of people could really be trusted to make the best decisions for the country. I used to think that was fairly narrow-mined of them, but more and more I'm starting to think they were right.

In the end, though, wanting a candidate to be educated and intellectual isn't wrong. Sure, education doesn't make someone a better person than someone else, but it can and should prepare them for things in ways that "average folk" just aren't prepared to deal with.


Anonymous said...

Elitist! There. Feel better?

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone you see running for national office is the elite of the elite in America. George W. Bush, in spite of the created image, is a product of expensive schools and overflowing opportunity. It was a joke for Bush to say Kerry was too elite just the same as it's a joke for McCain to portray Obama as such. Anyone that is nominated by one of the two major parties has seen the best our society has to offer.

As to who should lead in a society, it can get pretty tricky. The problem with people who are members of the elite class is that they, too, tend to be elitists. Government by the rich and powerful, for the rich and powerful just doesn't have the same ring to it, though the concept feels vaguely familiar.

I'd like to suggest an alternative, though. What if the government were run by non-elites? Granted, you'd need better education in our society, but it seems like the elite just keep that to themselves. Put the average American in office and (SURPRISE!) the educational system might start to serve the average person. Next thing you know, everyone is better informed and able to govern themselves. It's a really wild concept, but I think I read about it in the "Democracy 101" book we sent to Iraq.

Very true, indeed, on the electoral college point. However, don't forget that there were insanely radical founding fathers who put great faith the people's ability to govern themselves. I tend to think they may have been on to something. We got lucky 200 years ago with elites who were benevolent enough to liberate us from tyranny, even from the tyranny of their own opulence. In the end, maybe average people are just the victim of blatant manipulation by the insanely powerful and affluent. Given the chance, ordinary citizens may make the best decisions under conditions of freedom and empowerment.

All that said, I, like you, haven't quite recovered from 2004 and the consequential sense that maybe people are not able to act in their own interest. Bit of an internal conflict for me, really.

The Scott Family said...

Thank you for this. As a fellow educator and member of the "elitist" group, I too am growing tired of the criticism of well-educated people. When did this ever become something to mock? I always thought to be a learned, well educated knowledgeable person was a virtue.
Somehow ignorance is now the quality we seek most in our policy-makers and leaders.

It makes me very sad.

Anonymous said...

While unfortunate, I think mocking the learned is nothing new. Plato told us that if we left the cave, we might have trouble communicating with those who remained behind. It's all a matter of perception.

I agree with you that wisdom and learning are virtuous things. However, if every educated person you met spoke unintelligible gibberish (known in our society as having an expansive vocabulary), you might doubt the virtue of education, as well.

The Scott Family said...

I feel I now must clarify.
I am a teacher, I am well-educated. I was also raised in severe poverty by a fork-lift operator and a teacher's aid; I had five other brother's and sisters.

I went to a very prestigious private university on an academic scholarship as well as with the assistance of a Pell grant and student loans of which I will be paying off for many years to come.

So while I feel I am a member of the "elitist" class due to my education, I am most certainly not due to my upbringing or my pedigree.

I will never doubt the value or virtue of education. As Jefferson, I believe education can be the force of equalization in any culture.

LD said...

absolutely! But there are different types of education-- and they higher you go, the less--in many ways--education is "useful" in any "ordinary folks" practical sense. I guess my only point is that we shouldn't denigrate a candidate because s/he is intellectual and educated.

The Scott Family said...

I agree, wholeheartedly.

Mrs. Chicken said...

Since when did "smart" become "elitist"?

My husband has two and three-quarters degrees under his belt, and one of those is from Harvard. He is the first person in his family to get a college degree.

It is elitist to do better than your parents? To pull yourself up by your bootstraps?

My dad slept on porches in rented two-room shack houses while his teenage single mother worked at the donut shop.

He died a millionaire with three US patents in his name.

I'm an elitist, too, and proud of it.