How do you define Elitism?

How do you define Elitism? I suspect it pretty much depends on how you personally relate to it. If you work in a media dependent field, it may be that your definition of elitism rests on the silken cord that ring-fences the VIP area in a night club, and of course, which side of the cord you are on. It may be that you were born in poverty with next to nothing, in which case, pretty much everyone else will be seen by you as belonging to some kind of elite. If you live in Russia, the elite is an ever changing hierarchy of banditry and lawlessness, headed by someone who maintains the reins of power by making sure he keeps his enemies under control and his critics, ten feet under.

There are false elites; check the outer reaches of the blogosphere and you will be regaled with conspiracy stories about Bilderbergers, Protocols of Zion and the reason why you never get invited to parties. I knew a Grand Wizard in the Masons quite well. The idea that this person was a member of a highly secretive elite who were responsible for the real decisions being made on our behalf was laughable. I met many masons over a period of years and you can bet they were harmless old duffers who loved to get away from their wives and play secret clubs.

There has recently been a "campaign" against the Tory Party; cries of elitism, centering around their supposed dependence upon a public school education, together with all the perks that involves, and the consequent shutting out of the plebs from running our country - a leadership of public school boys, all educated at private expense, later attending Oxbridge, all destined for the highest office; an inevitable scenario that borders on heredity.

Of course, Gordon Brown, in his "playing fields of Eton" attack on Cameron, conveniently forgets to mention that the New Labour front bench is just as resplendent with toffery and those who went to "a good school". This article in the FT does a round-up of the educational mores of both sides:

My favourite debunking of this issue is that fact that Ed Balls (Labour) was independently educated at the same school as Ken Clarke (Conservative). The only difference is that Ken Clarke was a poor kid on a scholarship and Balls was from a wealthy family. The chief irony is that Labour abolished most of the systems whereby a bright kid from a poor home could attend a good school. In fact, it was during Tony Blair's first year in office that the "assisted places" scheme was abolished. Labour are an elite alright, and have made sure you cannot become part of it unless you have a lot of money.

But it is education I really want to talk about.  Education is intrinsically elitist. Marxists know this, and of course, as people say, knowledge is power. My contention is that the right kind of education produces the right kind of elitism, that is, an elite who are clever enough to see clearly when pellucid thinking is needed, and to rise above the borrowed wisdom of the ochlocracy. The type of education I mean is the kind that is centred on broad disciplines and imparting the trick of synthesising knowledge to produce new ideas.

So it is with disbelief that we have a government who apart from their other sins has set about removing the much needed stratum of the intellectual elite. They believe if they fill the best universities with mediocre students, somehow these students will acquire reasoning faculties and intelligence they were not born with, as if by osmosis. I accept there is a sort of process of this kind that goes on at Oxford and Cambridge, but it is more of what is known as "a temper" and is more social than heuristic in its nature.

There is a need for the best minds to be together in one place. Apart from being very convenient they can achieve the highest results by exchanging ideas in what is after all a very human and holistic environment. Being in physical proximity is still something that cannot fully be replicated via email. When we were last at war with Germany, the best minds from the best universities played a very significant role in winning that war. Take a look at the names of all the operations they were involved in; it is no coincidence they adopted the lingua-franca of the classical world. The computing machine that broke the Enigma codes was named Colossus.

Over 150 years ago, John Henry, Cardinal Newman, a distinguished academic as well as a theologian, wrote a paper called The Idea of a University. In it, he promulgates the idea of what was called a "Liberal Education", what we would see today as the antithesis of a vocational one, which may be partially summed up in Newman's own words:

the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence. Thus is that form of Universal Knowledge, of which I have on a former occasion spoken, set up in the individual intellect, and constitutes its perfection. Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection. 

I often rant on about political correctness and some of the crass "initiatives" that have come out of ten years of New Labour. I wish to point out to you that these dogmas have not been the product of the finest minds but the second-raters, the tutus, those who could be defined as part of the educational elite, but certainly those whose thinking places them firmly back with the mob. There are thinkers in the Labour Party, as there are in the Tory party, but they are largely relegated to the back benches, because by nature they are equivocators and skeptics. Even worse, these glib dogmas are absorbed by the proletariat uncritically, and thereby you have a climate of witchcraft and hysteria, based upon false premises and impossible logic.

We need an Elite. We need an intellectual elite. We need an elite to erect signposts and tear down the weathervanes. We do not have to follow the signposts, indeed we need to learn how to paint our own.

[Edited for spelling and punctuation - B minus - Mrs Weasel. There is no harm that can be done by a state comprehensive education that a PhD will not knock out of you.]


Michael said...

Truths are often paradoxical - as Chesterton well knew. I mean, isn't it strange that in a society that claims to be more thoroughly meritocratic than any before it, such a triumph of mediocrity has come to pass.

'They believe, if they fill the best universities with mediocre students, somehow, these students will acquire reasoning faculties and intelligence they were not born with, as if by osmosis.'

I must say, however, that the whole nature/nurture debate needn't necessarily become an either/or paradigm - if the socialists fully embrace nurture (and it is this that makes them level education into a one-size-fits-all industrial process), then it is at least partially a reaction to a society that came before it that fully embraced nature, and fixed social hierarchies, occasionally even along genetic lines (the characterisation of the Irish, for example, as a negroid race and therefore necessarily inferior etc. etc.).

I guess the answer is to aim somewhere in the middle - and question whether the self-serving meritocratic system is really capable of delivering, rather than stifling, those 'open markets' of talent and ability that tend to deliver excellence.

I blogged, just last night, on something tangentially related to this:

Jim Baxter said...

Universities work best as places where academically talented people come together to sharpen their talents. At their worst they are places wherein the academically medicocre, while equating themselves with the best - they have the name, 'university' after all and so must be as good as any -guard their mediocrity, insist on multiple committees, prtect above all their charges 'self-esteem' make it difficult for their charges to fail are and ensure that talent is suppressed. An academic friend told me of one 'university' department in which one of the few research active members of staff was prohibited from displaying offprints of their journal articles because this would 'demotivate' the great majority who had fewer or none.

'Mediocrity never recognises anything above itself. It takes talent to recognise genius.' (Shaw, wasn't it?).

Michael said...

Well, whilst we're on the quoting vibe;

'Nothing is more ingenious, more obstinate, nastier - indeed, in a sense, more clear sighted, than mediocrity harrying every form of superiority that offends it.' - Henri de Lubac

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Of course, the word "elitism" is political, and it seems to bring out a rather neanderthal response; it must be bad because it turns people into winners and losers. But of course it does not. The best kind of meritocracy encourages everyone to do better.

What we have now, this intellectual midget, Ed Balls, is somebody with a visceral hatred of superlatives. Someone whose moral and intellectual faculties barely register on any kind of graph.

Well, at least he will be gone in the next few months. And perhaps the re-building can begin. Perhaps, the Tories will at least just not interfere with the way higher education likes to run itself. But I fear it is too late. The universities are full of idiots. All the interesting people have been sidelined due to political correctness.

There have been a number of upsets in higher academia in the last decade, many to do with politics, not pedagogy.

Hamish said...

Congratulations to Mrs Weasel.
I looked at your article an hour ago, and thought is that how you spell chord in this context.
Checking back, it's now cord.