I was fortunate enough to go to Stanford Taiko’s spring show at the Bing Concert Hall this past Saturday. First off, major props to Stanford Taiko for an amazing performance; it was really fun to watch. And second, thank God for elites like the Bing family for making world-class concert venues possible!
My fellow-columnist Adam Johnson recently wrote a piece based loosely off William Dereseiwicz’s “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” which, if my reading is correct, was a condemnation of Stanford’s perpetuation of an elite class. As with all of Mr. Johnson’s columns, it’s worth the read. However, I must take exception to some of his points.
To reiterate, thank God Almighty we’re creating elites! In the past 150 years, medical elites have doubled human life expectancy all over the world. Elite Western medical establishments have given mankind the ability to literally eradicate diseases like smallpox and rinderpest. And, no matter how much you loathe pharmaceutical companies, the elite executives who runs these businesses have created platforms for sustained research while making medications available.
Hell, I’m typing on a device that gives me access to the entire corpus of human knowledge. Who developed these things? Elite engineers and programmers. Who made them available to me? Elite entrepreneurs and businessmen. It’s hard to look around my room and find something that wasn’t the product of a dynamic, innovative, talented, free man who was either elite in his field or was funded by elites.
Now, for the sake of not talking straight past each other, I’ll offer a caveat. I probably take a much more expansive view of the phrase elite than most people. Most people envision a fictitious group of old white guys in a room, smoking cigars, rubbing their hands together while examining gold doubloons through their monocles.
I, however, take the more expansive view of elites: that they’re people valued by society, and considered the best of that society, because of things like talent, charisma and wealth. That probably doesn’t sound too appealing either, but think about it: Without wealthy, powerful people, there would be no Stanford University. There would be no patrons of the arts. There would be no masterpieces to read. My Classics professors would never have been able to become classicists without a wealthy university willing to support them.
That’s the long way of saying that there is nothing wrong with the existence of, or being, a member of the elite. So what’s the problem? Well, to oversimplify the argument for the sake of a column, there are two potential dangers with the concept of elites. The first is being an asshole. Unfortunately, articles like Mr. Johnson’s make it easy to conflate being an elite with being a shitty human being. Suffice it to say, there is something wrong with being an asshole. Not cleaning up after yourself in the lounge is something very few of us do. The few that are messy are assholes. It’s a titanic step in logic to say that the handful of people who mess up a lounge are indicative of culture of entitlement, or that eating in a dining hall for four years somehow hampers my ability to interact with other people. Heck, loads of university students will be cared for during their tenure, but that doesn’t equate to a life of being out of touch.
And as for Dereseiwicz’s piece, the idea that easy extensions or lax grading creates leaders who’ll be irresponsible enough to tank the US economy is absurd. These guys aren’t the inevitable product of a university system gone haywire; they’re just assholes. Hard truth time: Assholes can be found throughout society. A greedy car mechanic may only screw individuals while a greedy corporate executive screws countries, but, guess what, they’re both greedy.
So, yes, there are elites who are assholes and tank the US economy. To make the leap and say Stanford’s education made this particular bad executive, keeping in mind that bad CEOs are a minority of CEOs, is ridiculous. There are also elites who fund trusts that are combating the HIV epidemic and creating microfinance opportunities in the third world. And, yes, there are companies, for-profit companies, that provide invaluable services. If we’re going to criticize institutions like Stanford for bad elites, our next breath better laud the elites it produces who champion and lead humanity. As I pointed out in a previous, albeit verbose, column, we here, with our wealth of resources, are practically obliged to become those good elites and continue to serve humanity.
For brevity, I’ll keep my second point about elites short. An elite class is only bad in the absence of fluidity. I’d love to live in a world where the elite class is accessible to anyone who is hardworking, talented and charismatic enough to break in. The upper echelons of our society could certainly use some more diversity – and Stanford helps do just that. We draw on the most talented individuals from vastly different backgrounds, and give generous financial aid to those who can’t afford to come here. The Ivy League, and other elite universities worth their salt, do the same. This increased diversity will be a boon to society down the road.
Is that all to say that non-elites are somehow worthless? Of course not. Everyone is deserving of love and respect. With that in mind, we need to be the kind of elites that cure cancer, build cheap, earthquake-proof structures in Pakistan, end wars and generate famine-resistant crops for East Africa. I think Stanford provides the opportunities for us to do these great things and attempts to produce these types of elites.
So get out in the world, start helping people and be the best our civilization has to offer.
Share your thoughts on the elite class with Chris at [email protected]