Saturday, August 8, 2009

Elitism for the Masses

Maybe this is a good place to begin, with a little piece I wrote for the university newspaper in the fall of 1996. It connects to some more current things I've been wanting to write about, so it's still topical.
Elitism is a funny thing. According to opinion polls, about 75% of Americans rate themselves above average. At least a third of those people must be wrong - but which third?

The Autumn 1996 issue of the Salisbury Review, a conservative British quarterly, contains a routine exercise in PC-Crying called "The Abolition of Thought" by philosopher Roger Scruton, adapted from a lecture to the British Housewives League. Scruton rebukes universities for abandoning excellence in favor of feminism and animal rights, Rastafarianism and comic strips, thereby producing a "wholly uneducated ruling class."

Scruton decries "branches of the curriculum devoted purely to the reading of feminist writers", though not those branches devoted purely to the reading of English or philosophical writers. He sneers at the very word "feminist studies – the assumption being that you have to be a feminist in order even to sit in the classroom."

This is what Scruton considers thought? On his, erm, logic Oriental Studies would require you to be an Oriental, Germanic Studies a German, and you would have to be a pagan suckl'd in a creed outworn to study "the intricate details of Greek and Roman mythology" which Scruton considers essential to an educated ruling class. A. E. Housman, who is more famous now for his sentimental verse than for his distinguished classical scholarship, once wrote: "Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome, and three minutes is a long time."

"Nietzsche," quoth Scruton, "... perceived that in the epoch of the democratic man there will be a vast conspiracy of the underclass to prevent any kind of human distinction." I suspect Scruton's the kind of fatuous mediocrity Nietzsche enjoyed shredding, but there's the rub. When someone modestly puts himself forward as a sample of the educated elite, how are we ignorant masses supposed to evaluate his claim? What's to stop some mass-oid from posing as one of the elite, and leading the Housewives League astray?

American discourse on this subject is often no better. From one side of their mouths liberals and conservatives mourn the death of high academic standards and the invasion of Academe by "barbarians"; from the other side they jeer at pointy-headed intellectuals who insist on studying arcane subjects too complex for regular folks. Much of their case has been made by clowns like Dinesh D'Souza, who is so dumb that he once supplied a magazine with documents which confirmed the accusations it had made against him. D'Souza is not a scholar but a propagandist and ideologue, so he can both lament declining standards and embody them.

Here at IU we have political science majors who believe U.S. economic policy is set by the voters, and I once had an interesting argument with a graduate student who wanted a graduate Gay Studies program but not an undergraduate gay studies class. He gave two reasons: it would lower academic standards, and anyway, most people have figured out their sexuality by the time they get to college. If that sounds like a non sequitur, it's because it is.

Ironically, those guardians of academic standards would themselves be denounced as postmodern enemies of excellence by Roger Scruton and Dinesh D'Souza. The "underclass" now conspiring vastly to prevent human distinction is composed of liberal and conservative pundits and politicos, often schooled in the Ivy League, who are so enamored of their prejudices that they want to canonize them. I'm all for the promotion of thought in education and public life. So when do we start?