The Best Teachers Are Elitists

The Best Teachers Are Elitists

I bet that title got your attention. At first look, did it make you angry? Because “elitist” is a bad word, isn’t it? Doesn’t the concept of “elitism” fly in the face of the magic words “all men are created equal”? No, it does not. Jefferson meant that all men — we’ve updated that to all people, haven’t we? or at least we should have — he meant that all people must be equal under the law in a true democracy. His words should not imply that everyone is equal in talent, intelligence, and ambition — which, by the way, would make for a very dull world. With all the shouting about diversity on college campuses these days, it’s puzzling that differences in abilities are not embraced and showcased with the same vigor as other more obvious variances.

In another article here on PostScholastica, I mentioned that I stopped adopting a certain anthology as a textbook because, in a revised edition, the editors had removed a worthy and compelling essay called “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” Well, those same editors also removed an intriguing piece called “In Defense of Elitism” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William A. Henry III.

In the days before “elite” became a bad word and before we accepted the notion that everyone is entitled to a college education, college graduates used to be part of an elite group. As Henry pointed out, “College graduates are winners in part because colleges attract people who are already winners — people with enough brains and drive that they would do well in almost any generation and under almost any circumstances, with or without formal credentialing.”  Now, when getting into college (especially the two-year community college) is more or less the norm, not the admirable accomplishment it was in the past, a large percentage of those who enter college under this myth of entitlement do not take full advantage of the intellectual challenges afforded them, nor do they eventually graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Henry said, “No longer a mark of distinction or proof of achievement, a college education is these days a mere rite of passage, a capstone to adolescent party time.” He also pointed out that on a level playing field where every idea is equal in merit with every other idea, we license “the tendency to treat science and reason as optional and to give a respectful place . . . to creationists, faith healers, herbalists and homeopaths, new age crystal worshipers, and other practitioners of magic and mumbo-jumbo.” He was saying loudly and clearly that not all ideas are created equal. It is no wonder that his essay was removed from the textbook, given today’s collegiate atmosphere.

We teachers should be elitists in the sense that we should demand excellence, not mediocrity, from our students. We should assign them the best books, not the most accessible ones. We should demand that they do their best, not just well enough to get by, so that a college education will once again mean something beyond a mere rite of passage.