Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Elitism in Politics

One of the criticisms that has been levelled against Sen. Obama in this election cycle is that he is an "elite" (whatever that may mean). The charge (and it is a charge, rather than a compliment) seems to have something to do with the fact that he attended Columbia and Harvard and is thus better educated than much of the electorate. This, apparently, is to be contrasted with the background of Sen. McCain (and Gov. Palin, too, I guess) who is (so the argument seems to go) "more like the rest of us".

Before discussing the notion of elitism, I want to share this:

That graphic seems to sum up much about the comparison between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. And now back to the discussion of elitism. (Click here for a full size version of the image.)

For some reason that I don't understand, Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with education and intellectualism. We want our kids to get the best education possible (except for home-schoolers who I just don't get...) and we admire the best institutions of higher education. Many of us dream that our children will be able to go to one of the top colleges and get a superior education. Yet too many Americans seem to hold academics and intellectuals in disdain. I'm sorry, but what is wrong with someone who thinks deeply about certain subjects?

Almost unbelievably, the fact that Sen. Obama attended Columbia and Harvard (he started at Occidental College, a top liberal arts school) is, to some, a strike against him. Sen. McCain graduated from the US Naval Academy (an excellent college in its own right); however, the fact that he graduated near the bottom of his class and didn't go to graduate school is also seemingly used as evidence that he is not an "elite". It is worth noting that many career soldiers have excellent and distinguished academic credentials. For example, General David Patraeus, architect of the surge that Sen. McCain talks about so fondly, graduated from West Point and later earned a Masters in Public Administration and a doctorate from Princeton! I understand why Sen. McCain did not attend graduate school and I certainly don't hold his time in the military against him. But, by the same token, I do think highly of people who, like Sen. Obama, work hard to get the opportunity for an excellent education. He was named an editor of the Harvard Law Review because of his grades and ability as a writer. Shouldn't that be applauded?

While some people point to Sen. Obama and call him an elite, they seem to take an almost perverse pride in Gov. Palin's education, as if having attended 5 colleges in 6 years is viewed as a good thing. Huh? Gov. Palin attended Hawaii Pacific University for 1 semester, North Idaho College for 2 semesters, University of Idaho for 2 semesters, Matanuska-Susitna College for 1 semester, and then back to University of Idaho for 3 more semesters. Look, I don't mean to demean or belittle Hawaii Pacific, North Idaho, Matanuska-Susitna College , or even the University of Idaho (frankly, I know nothing about those schools), but I don't think that any of them offer the same educational experience or opportunities as either Columbia or Harvard (or the US Naval Academy, Occidental College, or the University of Delaware or Syracuse University [Sen. Biden's Alma maters], for that matter).

And, just for the record, why wasn't George W. Bush's attendance at Yale a strike against him? Is it only Democrats who are not "allowed" to be well-educated?

Writer Sam Harris asks "how has 'elitism' become a bad word in American politics"?

There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

Why is that? And doesn't it scare you? It certainly scares me. Maybe it's that I'm smart enough to know what I don't know; I'm smart enough to know that others are smarter than I am (though only a few...); I'm smart enough to know how to ask for help; and I like to think that I'm smart enough to know how to listen to the advice that experts give me. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe too many people feel as if they already know everything anyway or feel that asking for help or listening to advice would be a sign of weakness or simply don't want to learn anything new. I don't know. As Harris notes, "[w]hen it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country". But I do know that I want the best and brightest making decisions that will affect the future of our planet.

It is time to stop denigrating academic success; it is time to start applauding those who work hard, attend good schools, get good educations, and then put those educations to work. And, it is time that we recognized the value of someone who is capable of "deep thought" on complex issues and who exercises that capacity. Someone who revels in their own ignorance or who brags about the ability to make a decision without pondering all of the possible outcomes is not someone who should lead our nation.

(Take a few minutes and read the rest of Harris' essay "When Atheists Attack". He makes a number of other interesting points, especially with regard to Gov. Palin's religious views and how those could impact her decision-making process.)

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