Is Being Called an "Elitist" a Slur or a Compliment?

Indignation and gut-feelings aren't synonymous with informed perspectives.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Do you agree that those in positions of authority, shaping our nations' history, destiny, and character, should be able to prove they can read and write above a sixth-grade level?

Should elected officials be able to form and understand complex sentences? In a perfect world, should they even be able to pass the test given to those who are currently applying for U.S. citizenship?

The test for citizenship includes questions about the history of our nation, on the implications of the separation of branches of the government, and on the rights that individuals have and do not have under the law. 

Would you agree—to choose a random example—that a president of these United States should be able to construct, articulate, and comprehend a document of more than three pages, and be able to read that document aloud while demonstrating, through appropriate intonation, emphasis and facial expressions that he grasps the implication of what the document says?  

I do.

Apparently, this marks me as an “elitist” when it comes to education. But, to those who accuse me of elitism, I want to borrow the words of Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

If I’m an elitist when it comes to education, then so were my parents, neither of whom graduated from high school. They both left school after the eighth-grade to help support their large families.

But they were self-educated people who understood the value and significance of learning.

They wanted always to know everything about the world around them, meaning there were always books in the house and that they each read two newspapers a day. As a family, we went to museums, we all used the library, we watched the evening news together, and—this is the important part—we talked about it.

Because English was not their first language, they taught themselves mastery over two worlds of words and two cultures.

Believing in the significance of education does not mean you have to get a piece of paper saying you’ve graduated from anywhere—instead, it means showing evidence, in conversation, of why you should be allowed to sit at the grown-up’s table.

The grown-up’s table is where people who are widely informed can express their opinions and be treated with respect.

Emotional reactions, passionate indignation, and gut-feelings are not synonymous with widely informed opinions.

Nor should it be based on the company they keep or how much money they make. Money and wisdom do not always keep company.

Surrounding yourself with people who know what you don’t know can be helpful, but it’s only useful if you want to learn from them. Just having them stand next to you doesn’t necessarily make you smart, just as standing next to people who are rich won’t suddenly make you rich.

Think of it this way: people who are informed and intelligent can make the buffoons in their midst even seem more limited. Do you really want to be the most ignorant person in the Jeopardy line-up, standing next to somebody who answers all the questions when you know nothing?

You can’t subcontract out erudition. Yes, you can surround yourself with those who are more competent than you, but competency is not catching.   

And why are the only people discussing our need for “populism” the same people that so-called populists would refer to as “elites”? Have I missed the aisle where colorful “Populism Rules!” t-shirts are available at Walmart? Why haven’t I seen bumper-stickers saying “You’ll have to pry my populism out of my cold, dead hands”?  

Here’s my other question: Why has “elite” become a sneer in some contexts when it is still used as high praise in others?

As author Jim Carpenter puts it, “Populists speak almost reverently of ‘elite” military units, respectfully of ‘elite’ athletes, but disparagingly of ‘elite’ political, financial, cultural, and academic figures.”

America was founded on the concept of a nation with citizens sufficiently informed enough to want to sit at the grown-up’s table. There’s room enough for everybody. But you should read something about it before you find your seat.