What’s Bad About Elitism?: An Articulated Response
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 muchcontent — 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.