When the Elite Aren’t

I think that Anne Applebaum misses the point in her recent column on what she terms “anti-elite-educationism”:

In America, the end of the meritocracy will probably come about slowly: If working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won’t go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country — and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.

Is the problem that “working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium” or that doing so appears to be good enough for government work? Being an Ivy Leaguer is no guarantee that you’re smart and hard-working nor is having graduated from a school other than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton let alone not having gone to college at all a guarantee that you’re an anti-intellectual oaf, incapable of looking after your own affairs. Our culture is simply too brand name oriented. That’s not meritocracy; it’s the illusion of meritocracy.

Despite their many virtues neither the present Harvard Law graduate incumbent nor his Yale Law graduate Secretary of State nor his Harvard Business graduate predecessor nor his Yale Law graduate predecessor gives me, at least, the impression of being a scintillating intellect who has a right to rule by virtue of his or her mighty brain.

They won elections. Elections are not IQ tests or measures of the ability to do anything other than win elections.

6 comments… add one
  • Maxwell James Link

    I’d go further & point out that while Americans may be anti-academy in their politics, graduates of elite schools (and indeed, most college graduates) continue to enjoy enormous advantages in the labor market. So it’s not as if those prejudices are shifting down to the realm of ordinary hiring and firing.

  • In The Golden Bough (I think) Frasier recounts a story of a village in India (I think) in which once a year a young man was selected as god. During the year he was feasted, pampered, adulated, adored. At the end of the year he was killed.

    The self-styled elites want the feasting, pampering, adulation, and adoration without the sacrificial part.

  • TastyBits Link

    I think the last sentence of the sixth paragraph is thesis of the column:

    But after listening to O’Donnell’s latest campaign ads — in which the Senate candidate declares proudly, “I didn’t go to Yale . . . I am YOU” — I think something deeper must be going on as well.

    Ms. Applebaum cannot understand why going to Yale is an issue, and the entire column is an explanation & refutation of the Tea Party and “anti-elitism-educationism”. But, she misses the Tea Party meaning of “elite”.

    The Tea Party and others use “elite” as shorthand for several concepts. The “elite” are those who do not need to “play by the rules”, but these “elites” also are able to affect ordinary folks lives. The “elite” are so out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary folks that they do not even fathom there is a difference or why.

    Why shop at WalMart instead of Whole Foods? Why use Iceberg lettuce instead of Arugula? Why go to NASCAR instead of Broadway? Why own or handle a gun instead of fearing them? Why revolt against the “elite” instead of embracing them?

    Once you break into the elite club, you will not be thrown out unless you commit an egregious act that cannot be explained, excused, or spun away. If Christine O’Donnell or Sarah Palin get into this club, they will need to be treated seriously.

    Of course, the fact that Ms. Applebaum does not understand any of this is evidence that she is probably part of the “elite”. The use of “anti-elitism-educationism” in a newspaper column does not help.

  • steve Link

    This is mostly a manufactured issue. Rather than deal with the issues, it is turned into a large scale ad hominem attack. Those who supposedly most oppose elitism support policies which guarantee it will occur, like opposing the death tax and tax breaks aimed at just the wealthy.


  • It certainly seems to sting the Yalies, though, doesn’t it?

    I don’t think it’s a manufactured issue but I agree with you that it’s being trivialized.

    Arnold Kling has a good post this morning on status and employment that I think begins to get at the root of a societal problem. There are some complicated issues of status, wealth, employment, and the general welfare that really need sorting out.

    Once upon a time graduating from certain alma maters were good signals or surrogates for status. High status people went to Harvard.

    Then, starting in the 1920s or 1930s, the Ivies started to try moving to a meritocracy. The SATs grew from that movement. It’s been a flop. The problem is that so many of the riff-raff have been admitted to the top Ivies and there are so many smart people who didn’t attend the Ivies that a diploma from one of them doesn’t signal nearly as much as it used to. Additionally, there’s some disagreement as to what merit really is.

    Those, apparently including Ms. Applebaum, who thought that their Yale diplomas were the ticket to high society are bound to be disappointed. High society is a pretty tight club.

  • PD Shaw Link

    But Mom, Andrew Jackson started it.

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