Friday, July 17, 2009

Mining Parnassus

A word I've been pondering recently is "elite" and its cognate "elitist".

According to Diane Ravitch, "elite" was a word that came in around the turn of the century to describe the new tendency to evaluate and track people according to their potential.

"Elitist" was soon used as a charge against the proponents of the older liberal education. Classics and literary education were "elitist", it was said (particularly in our USA, where practicality and outcome is so important), because they didn't acknowledge that real people needed real jobs and that many millionaires or great human beings didn't have an excellent education. Education ought to be directed to what people naturally do and what their future role was to be. So "child-centered" came in to imply focusing on the child's own immediate concerns, or what the educators thought those were or ought to be.

Curious about this I went and looked up the etymology of elite.

1823, from Fr. élite "selection, choice," from O.Fr. fem. pp. of elire, elisre "pick out, choose," from L. eligere "choose". Borrowed in M.E. as "chosen person," esp. a bishop-elect, died out c.1450, re-introduced by Byron's "Don Juan." As a typeface, first recorded 1920. Elitist, elitism are first attested 1950 (the original examples were Freud, Nietzsche, and Carlyle).
So "elite" means something similar to "elect". And as used nowadays, it's a relatively recent word. I looked up "Don Juan" and Byron was referring to the aristocratic "elite" chosen by birth. I don't know enough about Nietzsche to know how he used the word except that I remember reading that he thought that things like morality -- justice, compassion and so on -- were handles the weak tried to get over the strong, sort of like Thrasymachus said. So he probably thought that the cream of the intellectual and physical crop should be in charge and that education should facilitate that (just guessing though).

According to Ravitch, up until the late 1890's in America at least, it was generally thought that education was formative. It inculcated wisdom, the object of intellectual education, and virtue, the object of moral education. Not all people could scale the heights of Parnassus, as Tracey Lee Simmons puts it, but everyone was on the slope somewhere. There wasn't a Mt Sisyphus for the less able, whether that is 90% of the population or 10%, where the children were put to work learning the habits and skills that would prepare them to roll rocks endlessly up hills or place auto parts in factories, however the case might be. Education was liberal, for humans qua human, as much as possible, according to his or her capacities and limitations. The curriculum was set up so that mastery of one stage was a prerequisite for the next stage -- so a gifted or motivated or older but previously uneducated student could zip through quickly, while others could move through the same material and ascend the slope more slowly. Specialization was avoided until the last stages because it was directed to function, not to human capacity per se.

Therefore, the charge against excellent liberal education as "elitist" seems wrong to me. It's rather ironic that something meant to form the human AS human would be thought of as a disservice or an insult to that human. Perhaps the discomfort with saying that one kind of education promotes excellence is that it implies ranking. If there is a Parnassus and some people get higher than others on that heady slope, doesn't it imply they are somehow "better" than those who are lower on the path?

Our modern IQ-testing system seems to make this dilemma even sharper. The logic seems to go:
  • IQ is innate and can be discovered through tests.
  • Society's leaders tend to have higher-than-average IQs.
  • Society's leaders shape our country's future in various areas -- politics, business, science.
  • Therefore, all this being the case, oughtn't we to throw our best educational efforts at these "cognitively elite?"

This is how it came about, it seems, that the turn of the century social Darwinists the ones who disliked a general liberal education for every child. They thought that an intellectually rigorous education should be allocated to the elite, the select group who were to be society's leaders, and this was called "democratic".

James Earl Russell of Teacher's College put it this way:

"How can a nation endure that deliberately seeks to rouse ambitions and aspirations in the incoming generations which in the nature of events cannot possibly be fulfilled? If the chief object of government be to promote civic order and social stability, how can we justify our practice in schooling the masses in precisely the same manner as we do those who are to be our leaders?"

Quintilian said that every father is correct when he thinks his child is excellent and of great potential. Every child is a new creation; as Charlotte Mason and St Francis de Sales say, each little human being makes the stars and galaxies pale in worth by comparison. Education can't reach its proper end without starting from that premise. Or so I would say. It's obvious in real life that some people are "leaders of society" and generally no one has a problem with that. The tricky part seems to be if society and pedagogy presume to decide potential ahead of time and tailor accordingly. For one thing, no one has been able to do that well in spite of lots of attempts. Children considered unpromising by their pedagogues often grow up to be distinguished members of society. For another thing, even if it could be done well, the process of sorting ahead of time seems to be inherently unjust. It is contrary to science as well, since things that are prejudged are often affected by that prejudgment.

There is a logical difference between what St Therese said in regard to spiritual capacities -- that cups are different sizes but even the littlest ones can be filled to the brim -- and what someone would say who came in and measured all the cups and chose the big, glittery ones to be filled with ambrosia and saved the little or plain ones for chamber pots.

Reserving the best education for the elite will inevitably degrade the quality of even that "best" education. I can't see a way that it wouldn't become a form of specialization based on utilitarian aims. Parnassus itself would be mined and quarried for diamonds.

Plus, dismissing the need for liberal education of the "non-leader" class -- who after all comprise a crucial part of any population and in total form a more important component of a community than its most visible members -- leads to the grave problem of giving the sophists and tyrants free rein, whether they be our modern "experts" or politicians or corporate executives. The sensus populum, a kind of ordinary right judgment, it seems to me, needs to be educated and formed in order to fill its proper corrective role.

I should add that this doesn't imply that everyone should go to college or get a doctorate! Really, who would want to? As Tracy Lee Simmons says well:

"Fine classical scholars, like fine nuclear physicists, are rare birds. Would that they were a little rarer."

He goes on to say

"As with nuclear physicists, few are needed in a healthy, intelligent society. Classical education, on the other hand, comes as the result of a classical course of study, usually lasting several years, often, though not necessarily, through one's undergraduate years..... the world could do with fewer scholars and more cultivated people."
All things considered I think "excellent" is a better word than "elite" in regard to education because it's an imperative for every person according to his gifts and does not imply a winnowing and sorting process that seems especially inappropriate considered at the dawn of a child's life. The word "elite" seems to have been put into use specifically to formulate a question that seems to me to be improperly formed. But these have been confused, rambling thoughts -- consider me in the process of thinking this through still.

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