education philosopher

What’s Bad About Elitism?: An Articulated Response

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on March 11, 2010

This question was put to our PhD level Curriculum Theory class last night. We were discussing E.D. Hirsch, an education theorist who is often depicted and criticized as an ‘elitist.’ So, the professor asked us: what is wrong with elitism?

And what a question it is! Too often, we use words like ‘elitist’ as synonyms for ‘bad’ without thinking about what is bad about them. What argument is there that elitism – the view which glorifies elites over those ‘below’ them – a bad thing?

Here is my attempt at an answer. In so many words, the thing I find most objectionable about elitism is not (as many would say) its seeming endorsement of meritocracy, but its myopia. Elitism, in glorifying the way of the ‘elite,’ often makes assumptions that everyone should behave the way elites behave and value the things that elites value. To put it a bit differently if bluntly, the problem with elitists is that they assume that their lives are the way lives should be, rather than one way that lives could be.

As well meaning as E.D. Hirsch is, he falls into this error with his program for Cultural Literacy, which suggests that there are certain facts all students should come out of school knowing in order to be culturally literate.  In other words, there are ideas or facts that are either necessary conditions to having ‘cultural literacy’ and not having these will be deemed sufficient to make one ‘culturally illiterate.’

What’s wrong with this? First, it assumes a very static view of culture. Culture, of course, is a very fluid and changing thing, and the knowledge one must have to be a part of a culture wholly depends on the people one is conversing with in that culture. (All of this assumes for the sake of argument that there is even a coherent definition of what is a culture.) In other words, the things I would need to know to get in with a group of twenty-somethings in rural Nebraska may be wholly different than what I would need to know to get in with PhDed professors at Princeton University. And the problem with the Hirsch approach is that it seems to assume that my knowledge about Jay Z which may help me get in with the twenty-something crowd simply isn’t as important culturally as my knowledge of Wolfgang Mozart that helps me get in with the professors.

Let’s look at an example from E.D. Hirsch’s own mouth, from a roundtable discussion he participated in on NewsHour, where he gives his rationale for including, as part of cultural literacy,  knowledge about Don Quixote and its author, Miguel Cervantes.

MacNEIL: Let me ask you one final question about content. What isn’t clear to me in your argument is how much
content — for instance, Don Quixote is on your list. Now, what need a person know about that to be culturally literate — to know that it’s a character in a novel? Or to know something about him? To have read the book?
Mr. HIRSCH: No. I think there are too many educated people around who have not read Don Quixote to say you have to have read the book. But those same people know a couple of things about Don Quixote, that he tilted at windmills, for example. That he was by somebody named Cervantes. And most of us don’t know that Cervantes’ first name was Miguel. But — so actually, the way we’ve put Cervantes’ name down is as Cervantes, because that’s the way most people know it. But even though it may seem that that information is superficial, it’s all important, because it orients you to what you’re reading, and not only what you’re reading, but to a program like this one that assumes, I think, a great deal of information on the part of its viewers, as any serious newspaper does, any serious magazine article does.

So, here is a question: why in the world does knowledge about Cervantes and Don Quixote help one to be culturally literate in any way that is not highly Dependant on who you are trying to get in with? If I were trying to get in with the group of twenty-somethings in the above example, I am quite certain that knowledge of Cervantes or Don Quixote would not help me a single bit (unless they were literature students, proving again that the knowledge one needs depends on what groups one is conversing with).

To bring us back to our main question of elitism’s myopia, the very idea that knowledge of Cervantes is more important than knowledge of Jay Z makes a very implicit assumption about which of the above groups is more important to join. And I think that this assumption stems from a tendency amongst the intellectually inclined to see their own group as more worthy than others (in a general sense) and also to assume that folks who are not like them are not like them by chance, not by choice. (“If only we educated everyone with knowledge of Cervantes, Mozart, and John Locke, their lives would surely be enriched! After all, how can you NOT love these three?!”)

To put it broadly, any idea that there are certain things that someone has to learn in order to be culturally literate, successful human beings, good citizens, etc, seem invariably to be accompanied by value judgments about what the ideal human being/citizen/culturally-informed-person is. And that means that one is privileging one way of being above above others. While it is not always wrong to do this (we can all recognize, say, that those endowed with the knowledge that murder is wrong are better citizens than those who aren’t), these value judgments can get dicey and run the risk of being myopic. In the case of ‘cultural literacy’ and the elitist assumptions that accompany it, this myopia is very evident. It assumes what information is and is not part of the ‘culture,’ what vision of ‘culture’ is better (at least for the moment) than others, and, ultimately, what way of life is better than others.


4 Responses

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  1. Paddy said, on March 20, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Thank you for writing such an informed and insightful blog. I found it today and have read through a few articles. I think that your writings are going to prove useful as I develop a homeschool curriculum for my children over the next few years.

  2. Olivia said, on November 13, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Hello! I’m so glad I came across your blog. I’m writing an essay arguing against de Tocqueville’s assertion that democracy diminishes the value of literature (and fine arts and apparently everything else in general) and I was a bit lost coming up with coherent arguments specifically against his elitist viewpoint (my other two arguments are the subjectivity of his views and cultural ignorance). But your post here definitely helped me along – so thanks a bunch!


  3. Stephen Smith said, on April 19, 2016 at 6:03 am

    The notion that all cultural aspects of our society, past and present, are of equal value is completely absurd and in this current politically correct environment is a controversial statement to say. The fact that someone does not study the greats ranging from Homer to Joyce, Mozart to Phillip Glass, Adam Smith to Maynard Keynes is absurd. Elitism at its core is great, imagine the Roman Empire and the accomplishments of that society, let alone the completely logical language of Latin. Any attempt to diminish elitism is a statement of self-loathing, and being ashamed at being great. Students should study a core competency, Don Quixote has value and so does Madame Bovary. There is a reason the educational standards in America have been declining, it is because of people accepting mediocrity. Doctorates should not be issued by non top twenty schools since they are a dilution of the labor market. My assertion carries forward for undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees as well. This is the problem with our society, everyone gets a trophy, not all are deserving. Biography of myself: 3 Undergraduate Degrees in Mathematics, Chemistry, Economics, Masters Top 10 in Data Analytics, PhD in top 5 in Economics.

    • Jacob said, on June 9, 2017 at 6:55 am

      This is an interesting take, but it is clear to anyone (hopefully you as well, being so intelligent) that elitism can be a negative too (think Jim Crowe laws). Sometimes education is not a choice, sometimes it is a roll of the genetic dice. I’m honestly not sure every single human being has the intelligence or stamina to accomplish everything you have. And why should they. In a society with all scholars, you dilute the pool and you lose jobs that no one else wants to do (plumber, fast food worker, septic cleaner, trash collector, etc). There’s also the consideration that these are human beings which have been born, and if they can’t somehow become “great” even by the means you’ve proposed, are they to be left to starve? There are a lot of implications with what you’re asking for. Oh, and one last thing, Massachusetts, California, and Washington all rank in the top 5 for education globally, it’s when you add the rest of the country in (I’m looking at you south/west states) we drop to number 9. Still, 9 “ain’t” so bad, as they say nowadays. Considering there are nearly 300 sovereign nations, more than 2/3 of which had an education system. Unfortunately, the conservative states are dragging us all down. And it’s unfortunate but they’re also the ones wanting and praising elitism. It’s interesting because studies have shown that large groups of diverse people produce better ideas and “aha!” moments than small groups of very intelligent people.

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