In Defense of Elitism

This being political season and all, I hear a lot these days about “elites” and “elitism”. Apparently, to the media and to the majority of the American public, being “elite” is a bad thing.

That’s not how I was brought up to think.

My whole life, to be “elite” was something to strive for. On both sides of my family, every single person wanted to be a member of the elite. My father is one of five children, all born in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Every one of those five children went to college. 3 of them served as officers in the military. All of them learned to speak at least one additional language. And they were raised by a single mother in a very small house, who lived only on social security and what she made baby sitting.

On my mother’s side, both of her parents were college educated – in fact, my grandparents dated in college. My grandfather was a teacher, and later, the superintendent of the local high school. My mother is one of 4 children – all of whom also went to college. 3 of the 4 majored in music (my mother, a nursing major, was the only exception).

I grew up as a military brat. But as you can probably guess from the background outlined in the previous two paragraphs, the value of learning was instilled into me at an early age. I watched only a little television as a child; instead, I was read to. I didn’t get to watch TV on my own until long after I learned how to read.

In my family, the pursuit of education and knowledge in general was considered a prime pursuit of life. My parents valued academics above sports (this was made easy since, with the exception of my brother for a few years, we all sucked at sports). Grades were important. Knowledge was important. Reading was important. My parents were members of several book clubs, and we passed books around all the time. By the time I was twelve years old, I was reading the same books my parents did.

My sister and I have had a gentle rivalry over the years: who can get the most degrees? I have a bachelor’s and an MBA. She has a bachelor’s and a M.S. But she keeps threatening to go back and get a doctorate. My mother returned to college at the age of 50, to finish two years later with another bachelors’ degree. My father got an MBA and a Masters in Petroleum Engineering at the same time, while I was in the second and third grade.

And we were not – and are not – “rich”. In my direct family, I’ve probably gotten the closest to that status, but even my double-income-no-kids household is only upper middle class at best. At times during my childhood, living on my parent’s Army income… well, we were never poor…. but when we got our first color television in 1972? That was quite an event. The entire family went down to Sears to pick it up.

When I got into Northwestern, my parents were proud – but very concerned about how in the world they were going to pay for it. So, I worked three jobs throughout college and maxed out on my student loans. All of which I paid back in full, by the way. I never gave a thought to not going; that was simply not an option.

Look up at the quote in the header of this web site. Consider that I am writing this post on a chair in the middle of my personal 3,000 volume library. You can see where all of this led. To a lifetime of pursuing knowledge, a fascination with the written word, an avid interest in history and science.

In short: Elitism.

My parents left the small town they grew up in and swore they would never return to it. And except for visits, they never did. I lived in two small towns for periods while I was growing up: four months in Giddings, Texas, and 3 years in Hodgenville, Kentucky. I swore I would never live in a small town ever again. And I never have.

Elitism. Yet again.

So let me state for the record: I do not have “small town” values. In fact, I reject them. Heartily. And enthusiastically. I can’t stand “small town values”. In my experience, most people in small towns are provincial know-nothings who would like nothing better than to drag everyone else down to their level.

Who do I respect? Who do I look up to? People who are smarter than me. People who are more educated than I am. People who know more than I do. People who are experts. People who have a burning passion to learn everything they can about whatever subject it is that drives them.

Elites.

I try as hard as I can, to this very day, to expand my vocabulary, my knowledge, my experience. And I know that as long as I live, I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. I’ll never have enough time to absorb and learn all the things I want to learn. I’ll never be able to go back to college enough times to earn as many degrees as I want.

I want to be a scientist, an author, and a teacher. I want to become a fan of the opera. I want to hear classical music live at least once a week. I want to travel the world and visit art museums and historical places.

I want to be elite. I want to be better than I am. I want to be the best that I possibly can be, and then try to be better still.

Every time I hear some talking head on TV say “elitist” with disdain, my stomach churns with anger (and by the way, doesn’t anyone who is a talking head on TV qualify as “elite” themselves?). Why are we teaching the public and the next generations that to be “elite” is a bad thing? I want some politician to stand up and say, “You’re damn right I’m elite. Isn’t that what you want in a leader?”

Elites! Stand up and be counted. Let the whole world know you’re better than you were, and you want everyone else to be better than you are. Because that, after all, is what “elitism” should really mean.

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