Elite

 

The standard definition of elite is “the best of a group.” But when I say that word to a friend, the usual response is negative. Asked why the negative response, I am told that “elite” suggests “elitism” which has the connotations of snobbery and an imposed authority. As a culture, we seem to be opposed to an elite, except in areas such as athletics and entertainment, or in being a celebrity. Training to be the best at throwing, shooting, hitting, or dribbling a ball is deemed time well spent. Rehearsing notes over and over or writing lyrics to chant is considered worthy of youthful energy. Our culture rewards beauty, natural or man-made, when the beauty is shared on magazine covers or television or in other popular veins of consumers.  Any person who rises to the level of elite in one of these areas is  rewarded by being revered in our culture.    All that needs to be done to support these statements is to look at any popular magazine, newspaper, or Internet source. Elites will pop up in their areas and they will be worshiped by devoted fans of all ages. We no longer have heroes, but drool over athletes, entertainers and such people we only “know” from a distance. A list of names could be printed, but I think that unnecessary. However, the  need to examine our acceptance of elites in some areas but not others is needed.

In 1995 William A. Henry III wrote In Defense of Elitism, a brief examination of “the poles of elitism and egalitarianism”.  Henry bravely wades into the waters of affirmative action, gender equality, and more in order to examine why we have, since World War II, worked to make our culture an egalitarian one. Sadly, I encountered Henry’s book only last week in our local Goodwill store and almost did not purchase it because of the title, but I did, overcoming my prejudice concerning the title.

In today’s (12-11-‘18) New York Times, David Leonhardt writes of an experiment in Michigan examining why many high performing, but poor high school students, do not graduate from college. He writes, “Unfortunately, most working-class and poor teenagers, including many who excel in high school, still don’t graduate from college. They often enroll in colleges that have a high dropout rate and never finish.” Leonhardt concludes his article by these words,   “It [the experiment]shows that many, many more students from modest backgrounds should be attending universities from which they’re likely to graduate — and that getting them to enroll isn’t very difficult. It is a matter of encouraging them to do so and making sure the financial aid remains available. Bottom line: we can help close income gaps in college attendance, Katharine Strunk of Michigan State tweeted yesterday in response to the new study. ‘Resulting question: why aren’t we doing this more?’”

It is an established fact that a college graduate, as Leonhardt notes, will generally fare better than members of society without a degree. As a product of a cotton mill town during the 1950s and who just happened to graduate in 1968 from a third-tier, public college, I know, appreciate, and value my B.A. while sharing many life experiences with the students in the Michigan experience.  I enrolled in college because my mother and Coaches Mauldin and Daniels encouraged me. Mother wanted me to have a “better life” than she had had as a hemmer of wash clothes in Plant 1, and the coaches wanted me to continue wrestling. Also, like the students in the Michigan experiment, I received aid in scholarships and loans.  My experience, fifty years ago, I offer, is not unique when compared to others in my era, and even similar in ways to the experiences of the Michigan students. But it is also different in one major way.

A retired educator with over forty years’ experience, I question the standards of high schools today. Our culture has burdened our schools with so many non-educational duties: providing breakfast, childcare, condoms, and other programs that should be furnished by families. We use our schools to overcome, or try to overcome, the issue of housing by busing students across cities and districts to have “racially balanced” classrooms. In order to determine if a school is effective or not, we have installed misleading “standards” such as graduation rates,  scores on multi-guess tests, and even have GPAs past 4.0, along with multi valedictorians for one graduating class. How and when, in such an environment can real learning that challenges thoughts rather than re-enforcing them, take place?

Teaching today seems to have become something besides the opening of minds to encourage a lust for learning. As the old boy said in the Shenandoah Valley, “The bottom rail is on  top.” Reading Leonhardt and others leads me to believe, in his words, any good high school student “should be attending universities”. From my teaching experience of forty years, I have some questions concerning that “should.” One, does that mean that college is the only avenue open for a life of quality? Two, are the high achieving students truly high achievers or do they benefit from a massive grade inflation? Three, do the high achievers have the emotional and academic mettle needed for the demands of a college degree?

In a file drawer of my library are essays I wrote for English 700, a college composition class taught by Mrs. Farmer, a well-known and demanding teacher. An English major, I was so frightened by her that I  took the required class in summer school, hoping that the class would be easier than during the regular term. Each weekly essay was graded on creativity and technical use. My C/ grades were always A or B. My technical T/grades were dismal. Next to one T grade was a red O and in her fine hand, Mrs. Farmer wrote, “Lament on that.” She demanded, I worked.  I wonder if the graduates in Michigan or elsewhere could emotionally handle taking a course from a Mrs. Farmer and her red ink? I think many of them would go to  Dean Ebert (my dean then) and complain that the red marks made them feel inferior or wounded or some other self-serving emotion. I managed those red marks, even if in a summer session,  because I honestly knew where I ranked with other students. Some ranked elite. Some ranked good. I barely ranked and barely graduated, but I never forgot the words of Mr. Lamb, whose high school Mechanical Drawing class I enjoyed.  Standing in the line for my high school graduation, I remarked to Mr. Lamb that I wished my academic record for high school was as  good as my wrestling one. He said, “If you had spent as much time on your academics as your wrestling, it would be.” Ouch. Cut by a truth that I have carried since that June night of 1964.

I, too, am concerned with income gaps, racial inequality, and other ills of our culture. But I fervently believe that education is the only way to cure many of these cancers. However, it must be true education that is not superficially evaluated by weak standards. As Henry writes, “ As a society we consider it cruel not to give them [disadvantaged youth] every chance at success. It may be more cruel to let them go on fooling themselves.” We do not have to allow our youth to fool themselves; I  offer that we insist on principles for educating our children: Principles such as the ones we insist on for the basketball court, wrestling mat, performing stage, band, and more. I offer that we insist our students work like our athletes do. We require athletes to learn to run in many directions without thinking about it. Think of the defensive back or field hockey players who can move quickly while going backward. Think of the wrestlers and gymnasts who execute a move by “muscle memory.” Think of the deft dribbling by either hand on the court, or the grace used to quicken the pace in a hard-fought race.

If we honestly educate our children, the future of our country, we will “create” elites. Some will, just as on the playing field or court or mat, be better than others. We applaud  Simone Biles. Tom Brady, David Taylor, and so forth. It is time we realize that we should applaud elites in academics and life. We have spent much time and energy and money attempting to “level the playing field.” The days of a Mr. Lindner from Clybourne Park are gone, and the glass ceiling, while maybe still present, is  at least cracked. But to “level the playing field” is only the field on which we try out for a team. That field needs to be level for all, and we must continue to work to grant everyone equal opportunities on the level field.  After that, if one has what it takes to make the team, he or she must then battle for a position, realizing that some members of the  team will  be better than others. Not all of us have the intelligence or skills or both to be a Matthew Centrowitz, Chief Justice Roberts, or Serena Williams.  Some people are better at some things than others, and no culture should or could remove that fact. An egalitarian society can’t exist. It is a lie to even attempt to create one. We have stars like Biles. Let’s celebrate them while we insist that our children arrive to school warm, fed, ready to learn. If poverty prevents them being warm and fed, every parent can send a child to school full of eagerness and respect for the learning process. School will provide warmth and a breakfast before opening doors for a life of quality through disciplined work to gain wisdom.

Being a lover of knowledge, no matter where it lies, is  good. As Mrs. Farmer once said in that 1967 summer school class, “It doesn’t matter if you dig ditches, as long as you dig them well.”

I believe she was aiming that at me.

 

 

 

 

 

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