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. (more…)
An Extended Essay on the Value of Cultural Education (3 of 5 stars)
Roger Scruton’s book, I think, is slightly mistitled. The subtitle should probably read something like: “on the importance of education as a furtherance of cultural knowledge.” (Not as pretty and less likely to sell bools than “faith and feeling in a world besieged.”)
This extended essay is an argument for the importance of educating students not just in academics or technical skills, but cultural education. And anyone involved in education knows that this is the minority position right now. Music and art programs have been long under attack, and literature courses focus as much on technical writing skills as they do on examining classic works. Even the mention of “great works” or “the canon” is likely to rouse the ire of many. We prefer John Grisham and JK Rowling.
Scruton further makes things interesting by pointing out that while schools today focuses on “knowledge that” (facts) and “knowledge how” (technical skills). But what also needs to be remembered – what Scruton believes is the chief value of education in culture – is “knowledge what,” which means “knowledge of what to do, how to apply what I’ve learned, and what to feel in given situations.” (As a special educator dealing with students with social/emotional issues, I focused a lot on instruction on how to act and how to feel appropriately, but this was always a “special ed thing.”)
The big criticism I have of Scruton is that he fails to make any compelling case as to why cultural education (education in classic works of literature, art, music) is the only way to achieve this “knowledge what” Yes, the great works of literature are often great because they express characters and dilemmas deeply and thoughtfully, giving the student a wonderful way to view these people and issues objectively. But just as George Eliot produced works that do this, so do contemporary authors like Wally Lamb, Jodi Picoult, and – yes – John Grisham. Scruton prefers the former authors, but doesn’t explain why the latter can not achieve the same things. (And Scruton’s case against pop music is even more ridiculous, reminding me of the used-to-be-hippie who, while listening to classic rock stations, wonders why they don’t make music like they used to. Scruton, like this poor hippie, doesn’t realize that classic rock stations play the hits that survived the test of time, rather than all the top 40 songs that didn’t.) (more…)