There seems to be fairly universal agreement that our elites are a pretty sorry lot. Yet we all continue to refer to them as “elites.” This is a strangely prevalent misuse of terminology. After all, the word “elite,” like any other word, has a certain determinate meaning; it refers to a small class of persons possessing greater virtue, talent, or intelligence than other members of their respective peer category. An “elite” is simply someone who is better at doing the sorts of things his type of people do. The word has an indispensable moral connotation to it; someone who is “elite” is not just prominent, but deservedly prominent. When we refer to a Navy SEAL, for instance, as an “elite soldier,” we do not simply mean he is the soldier who gets sent on all the dangerous missions; we mean he is the soldier who gets sent on all the dangerous missions because he possesses greater training, fitness, and perhaps courage than the average soldier. So to attribute the label of “elites” to a class of persons known by everyone to be gravely deficient in virtue, talent, and intelligence simply makes no sense.
The same could be said about the term “meritocracy.” To possess merit is to possess a virtue or an excellence that is not common among one’s peers. Merit is a subject for praise. Again, the word has a clear moral connotation to it. A “meritocracy,” then, must simply be a form of social organization in which those who are most excellent, in whatever field or endeavor, typically rise to positions of power, in exclusion of those who are less so. But almost nobody believes that is the case with the organization of our society. The distressing fact about our society is how many fools and charlatans tend to rise to prominence in our cultural, economic, and political institutions. But to speak of a “meritocracy” comprised of fools and charlatans makes as much sense as to speak of a “plutocracy” comprised of paupers. Yet we do still refer to our society as a “meritocracy,” in the same way we continue to label the unimpressive kinds of people who rise to prominence in our society as “elites.” What is going on here?
I do not believe our habitual misuse of these terms to be a simple quirk of language, a mere shift in nomenclature occurring in recent years which points towards nothing of significance. I think these words are being used to tell a story – a story about the causes of the massive failure of civilizational leadership we are witnessing, and what can be done to redress it. That story is distinctively populist; the “elites” and the “meritocrats” (or even the “meritocratic elites,” as I have seen them called) are that small discrete clique who, by their presumption and myopia, have alienated themselves from the body of their countrymen, and have proceeded to rule with a disregard, and even hostility, for the opinions and welfare of a population they disdain. Their conceit and insular stupidity are the vices at the root of their gross shortcomings as leaders. The proper way to address this situation, then, is to appeal to the people at large, to assert their native virtue against the decadence of this arrogant coterie, and try to re-infuse into our institutions some of that egalitarian spirit which has been such a cherished value in our nation’s history. This is the tale I sense lurking in the background whenever I hear complaints of “elites” and “meritocracy.”
Our egalitarian instinct
There is no dearer story to the American people than a populist story. There is no tale we tell ourselves with such zest as the legend of the virtuous common man resisting the dominance of a corrupt and powerful few. There is no political instinct more basic to us than the egalitarian instinct. These inclinations have been instilled in us since our founding. It is hardly surprising then that they have surfaced at this difficult juncture in our nation’s history, or that we have reverted to our most familiar explanatory patterns to make sense of what is turning out to be a time of unique crisis for us as a people. This, I think, is the cause for the stories we keep telling ourselves of our decadents elites or unconscionable meritocrats, all pointing inexorably to our salvation by a populist movement that will return the common man to his rightful authority.
Unfortunately, those stories are wholly inapposite to the circumstances presently confronting us, and our inability to conceive of our situation outside of their contours inhibits us from apprehending both the true nature of our problems, and their authentic remedies. The hard truth for us to digest is that populism is no cure for this generation of failed leadership. Populism is what gave us these failed leaders in the first place.
To appreciate why this is the case, we need to turn to one of the most insightful works of political philosophy written in the last century, Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Recognizing that the distinctive political characteristic of modern liberal states was the increased share of influence wielded by the common man, Ortega attempted to delineate the intellectual and spiritual dynamic underlying this shift in power – what were it causes, and what were likely to be its effects on the character of the people, on their laws and on their culture. It is not a triumphal story he tells. According to Ortega, the “characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The “mass men,” as Ortega calls them, are “those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection.” In the past, such men never made any pretension to leadership, recognizing perfectly well that they lacked the necessary virtues and taste to occupy any such position.
Instead, society was led by “the excellent man, urged by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts…Life has no savor for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental.” Such a man was the true noble, since “nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling oneself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation.” But now, after the “triumphs of a hyperdemocracy,” the mass man rules everywhere, and leaves traces of his self-satisfaction and general indifference to excellence on every single social institution. An implacable enemy to all standards, the mass man is nonetheless brazen in his confidence that he deserves to stand in the first ranks of his peers. A society comprised of such persons will necessarily be one incapable of upholding serious standards, for to do so means to prefer some and exclude others, and this process the mass man will not allow.
I doubt there are many modern Americans who can encounter an argument like this, with its explicit distinction between self-satisfied “mass men” and morally striving “excellent men,” and not feel at least a pang of discomfort (this is obviously why Ortega has never caught on in America, on either the left or the right). Our egalitarian instinct, as I noted, is rooted in the deepest part of our national character. But let me suggest that Ortega has placed his finger on the central intellectual and spiritual dynamic of our age, the tectonic cultural motion relentlessly grinding away below the surface of our political debates, directing and shaping them all.
We have, for several generations in America, “proclaimed the rights of the commonplace,” and imposed the commonplace standard upon all of our institutions, slowly – and sometimes not so slowly – eroding the standards of excellence which in past ages defined the missions of these institutions, in order to expand the scope of participation in their work. The people who rise to prominence in these institutions – our purported “elites” – wind up being the sort of people who can only measure up against such deracinated standards. They are the commonplace spirits who rise in a society defined by commonplace values. We ask less and less of Americans who wish to lay claim to leadership, and find that our leaders have less and less character and integrity with every passing year.
Most of us can recognize the extraordinary drop in what we might call our “civilizational standards” over the last fifty to sixty years, a steady decline in what we would consider excellence in the making of art, or in academic achievement, or in the qualifications for statesmanship . Far fewer of us discern the populist mentality behind this decline, the egalitarian fervor bubbling up in slogans like “everyone an artist” or “no child left behind” or “power to the people.” Far from being a “man (or woman) apart” from the general population, the modern “elite” is the person who is exalted when the “mass men’s” mediocre standards become a civilization’s highest standards, the kind of person whose pretensions to leadership can only impose upon the poor taste and uninformed judgment displayed by the greater portion of the general populace. Our alleged “meritocracy” does not work like the tide of a mighty river, raising a few ships to magnificent heights; it works like a great tide going out, leaving exposed a bunch of undistinguished rocks and debris.
The best place to look for an example of this leveling dynamic is in our universities. For one, the dynamic is unmistakable to anyone familiar with academia’s present state or with its history over the last several generations, and thus will serve as an excellent illustration of what Ortega is getting at. But equally important, the university has now become the chief source of legitimation for today’s “elites,” so that an understanding of the character of these institutions provides us with considerable insight into the character of the kind of person advanced by them.
Few conservatives will need convincing about the disastrous legacy of the student protests of the sixties. What is not commonly acknowledged, though, is that these protests were obviously part of a populist movement – indeed, the quintessential populist movement in our history. Mythology still hangs very thickly over this period. Many still imagine the protests as the revolt of high-minded idealists, ranged against the staid conformity and insularity of the traditional university, rather than a rampage carried out by a horde of unkempt, unlearned, unprincipled ignoramuses, intent to trample over every viable standard of scholastic integrity. Allan Bloom, who experienced their aggression first-hand, left us with some very blunt descriptions of the protestors’ thuggish inclinations in The Closing of the American Mind:
You don’t have to intimidate us,” said the famous professor of philosophy in April 1969, to ten thousand triumphant students supporting a group of black students who had just persuaded “us,” the faculty of Cornell University, to do their will by threatening the use of firearms as well as threatening the lives of individual professors.
The crucial point to gather about the protests is that they had nothing at all to do with concerns of scholarship, nor were they carried out by those with the slightest pretention to academic distinction. They were not about improving the universities at all, or about raising their standards. They were simply mobilizations for power on the part of a mob with no appreciation for what a university is supposed to represent. If the movement resembled anything at all, it was that scene in Henry VI, when Jack Cade and his riff-raff condemn the clerk to execution, for being a literate man.
What is striking is how closely the initial program of the protestors reflected Ortega’s account of the “mass man’s” character. Chanting “Hey Ho, Western Civ has Got to Go,” they abolished the canon, which had always represented the “standard beyond ourselves, superior to ourselves” by which young minds were challenged and nurtured. There is simply no such thing as academic standards in the absence of a canon. As Bloom notes, this abolition was “an exercise in egalitarian self-satisfaction that wiped out the elements of the university curriculum that did not flatter our peculiar passions or tastes of the moment.” In the place of the old canon were established the various departments of “Me Studies” – Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Queer Studies, all the forms of institutionalized self-absorption fit to occupy those “for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are.” A “life of effort…in service to a standard beyond (oneself) became increasingly dissociated from a university education. As a primary consequence of the protests, says Bloom, “the university was incorporated much more firmly into the system of democratic public opinion,” which incorporation, of course, is the goal of any populist movement.
This first generation, the “founding fathers” as it were of the contemporary academy, imposed the habits of their commonplace mentality upon our universities with such ruthless efficiency that the stamp of their radical egalitarianism has not faded to this day. In the years and decades following their initial revolt, the leveling impulse they let loose came to shape more and more of academic life. The desire to bestow a college education on anyone and everyone became the dominant imperative of academic policy. Affirmative action and the dumbing down of college admissions tests like the SAT steadily eroded the standards applied to those who would gain entrance into college, while the accelerating momentum of grade inflation at the most “prestigious” of those colleges destroyed the standards formerly held up for graduation.
Alongside these ideological directives, market forces (take note, conservatives!) worked equally baneful ruin upon academic standards. A college education became transformed into a form of vocational training, and schools began discarding the ideals of liberal learning and replacing them with the crassest utilitarianism, evincing the same vulgar disdain for intellectual cultivation which prevailed throughout the majority of the public. Since a degree was now seen as a prerequisite for employment, greater numbers of young people sought enrollment in college, and the schools themselves, recognizing the profits to be gleaned from this expanded pool of applicants, did all they could to accommodate their matriculation – ie, dumbing down their curriculum even more.
The upshot of all these forces stands before us in our contemporary universities – insular, directionless, superficial parodies of higher learning; institutions with zero relevance to the moral and intellectual development of their students; the kind of places where – to no one’s surprise any more – they study Beyonce or conduct live pornography in class. Because they still do function fairly well as centers of vocational training; because the departments of hard and applied sciences still fulfill their missions with tolerable regularity, the American public has entirely failed to notice that these institutions no longer even pretend to cultivate the wisdom and habits of reflection which alone can justify the existence of a university. I believe most Americans still conceive of Yale or Harvard as places where tweed-jacketed young savants stroll amid the arcades debating important questions, rather than as places where students rush out of their Harry Potter seminar in pajamas in order to make it on time to grab the free condoms at Sex Week. None of this is to say there are not still very many wonderful professors in our colleges teaching very many bright young people, in line with the highest standards of scholarship; it is just to say these people are mostly engulfed in institutions actively hostile to those standards. Some brilliant people still receive Phd’s, but there is no longer any reason to suppose someone with a Phd is an educated person, as once we could. Our colleges no longer educate; they credential.
At no point in the history of our country have our “prestigious” colleges operated according to such low standards, and yet at no point in our history have their professors and graduates conducted themselves towards the public with such arrogance and sense of entitlement. Our “elites” are the kind of students who can pull straight A’s taking courses like “Arguing with Judge Judy” (UC-Berkeley) and “Getting Dressed” (Princeton), aided by decades of grade inflation, and probably paying to have half of their papers written for them. They are the professors who marched in the protests in their youth, who now teach courses like “GaGa for Gaga” (UVa) and “Cyberfeminism” (Cornell) and have never once cracked a page of Aristotle or Milton. They are the extremely unimpressive people – faculty and student body alike – who make the modern university the joke it is. Bloom saw the advent of such people rising out of the wastage of the student protests: “The elite should really be elite, but these elitists were given the distinction they craved without having earned it. The university provided a kind of affirmative-action elitism.” The point is that our “elites” are validated in that status by institutions which do absolutely nothing to leave them meriting that status. And this, because for generations, those institutions have seen their standards all but obliterated by a variety of egalitarian pressures. The modern “elite” is just the mass man carrying around a meaningless sheep-skin and tassel.
The history and present condition of the contemporary university, then, cannot be understood apart from the dynamic Ortega brings to light: the dissolution of standards by an abundance of aggressive leveling influences, paving the way for the rise of a class of leadership distinguished by their complacency and lack of qualifications. I have focused, for reasons I’ve stated, on the university, but one could easily spot this dynamic at work in the ascension of our “elites” in other walks of life. Conservatives like to complain, for instance about “Hollywood elites” – the actresses and comedians and studio executives who wield such enormous influence over our culture – but it is impossible to imagine them possessing that influence absent what is quite frankly the atrocious taste of huge swathes of the American public, who dutifully consume the mounds of garbage those arrogant people produce. The media, on the left and the right, who do so much to distort the news they are supposed to report, are likewise inconceivable apart from the frivolous and uncritical mentality prevalent throughout the audiences they reach. Or what about the ongoing debt crisis, which causes such consternation – and rightly so – among those on the right? Why is this problem so intractable, except that the electorate – the vaunted “common man” – cannot face the reality of our desperate fiscal state, and refuses to vote in the kind of responsible leadership necessary to address the issue? Much more would need to be said about all of these examples, but I think the basic insight of Ortega, and its relevance to our crisis of leadership, is plain to see by now.
“Those who level never equalize,” wrote Edmund Burke, adding, “In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things.” The levelers who have been at work in America over the last several generations have not brought an end to society’s need for a ruling class; to the contrary, they have abetted the rise of the of most presumptuous, narrow, domineering ruling class in the history of our country. But it is a ruling class whose character is marked by everything that is most vulgar and stupid in our culture, a plebian elite, whose rise to power represents that “perversion of the natural order of things” Burke warned about.
What America needs, then, is a healthy dose of elitism – not the phony elitism which brings us “The Vagina Monologues” and the Common Core and Barack Obama, but a genuine elitism, a cultural-wide striving after greatness like the kind that once brought us Moby Dick, and John Witherspoon, and George Washington. We need a generation of magnanimous young people, “urged by interior necessity to appeal…to some standard beyond (themselves),” intent to live lives “in service to something transcendental.” And we need a whole system of institutions, serving as the basis of a rival culture, to harness, direct, and preserve their intellectual and spiritual aspirations – schools grounded in classical curricula and methodology; arts created by artists weaned on the masterpieces; local political organization committed to prudent, honest governance; churches committed to properly teaching their flocks about the inestimable spiritual riches stored up in their traditions. We need a return to standards of excellence, and the only sort of efforts worth our while now are the ones aiming at such a renewal.
Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.