In Defense of Elitism

William A. Henry III
New York: Doubleday, 1994
212 pp., $26.95 hc

George M Dennison

Published prior to the crescendo of criticism against afflnnative action and related programs, William Henry's new book suggests an interesting interpretive framework. Put off by the excesses that result from extending good causes to the extreme, Henry focuses attention upon the dialectic between elitism and egalitarianism since World War II. In his view, egalitarianism has triumphed, thereby eliminating the creative tension between the two that fuels progress in American society and culture. To quote him, "the positive side of egalitarianism, the will to tolerance, [must be] coupled with the positive side of elitism, the intellectual suppleness to tolerate and accept diverse elements in society while holding firmly to one's own values'" to sustain the balance (194). With no check on its egalitarian tendencies, American culture loses the capacity to distinguish or to judge among alternatives.

Reviewing developments in the media, arts, private sector, education, and politics, he argues that programs designed to remediate social ills have become ends in themselves. For example, the defenders of affirmative action argue that any change will foster raccoon, seen, and other forms of abuse. Thus, affirmative action has become a seemingly permanent guarantee of benefits to members of selected groups, whatever their qualifications or achievements, rather than a temporary means to eliminate the artificial barriers to an open society. This insistence upon entitlements weakens all incentive for individuals to excel.

Henry perceives similar social consequences from the new emphasis upon multiculturalism As a means to recognize the contributions of all groups to America culture, multiculturalism has merit. But when it justifies elaborate rationales for the failure of some cultures to make contributions equal to those of other cultures, multiculturalism mutates into dangerous gibberish damaging to millions of people (67). As the "anti-Semitic ravings" of Professor Leonard Jeffries aptly reveal, multiculturalism loses its original meaning and value when it degenerates into ethnic or racial puffery (87-8).

Henry contends that American democracy has its roots in elitism. For two centuries, Americans ignored the siren call of populist candidates promising to settle every issue according to the whims of the electorate. Elected representatives in the American "democratic republic have been "By and large unrepresentative of the norm by virtue of superior talerd, intellect, and drive"(20-1). Even the current incumbent of the White House "may presume to speak for the common man, but he knows he is an uncommon man," the "living symbol of meritocracy"(l96-7). Today's surge toward government by initiative and townhall meeting imperils this elitist tradition. The predilection to vote for the "man" rather than the party, to elevate personal relationships above ideology, will ultimately undermine individual responsibility, just as the increasing reliance on surveys to decide difficult issues transforms the means of participation into an end in itself. When everyone decides, no one decides, and we can hold no one responsible.

Henry reserves his most acid comments for American mass higher education, "a mistake--one based on a giant lie"(l54). Established to assure an educated citizenry and to enable individuals to realize their potential, colleges and universities today assure employment to favored groups and credential people merely to make more money. "No longer a mark of distinction or proof of achievement, a college education is these days a mere rite of passage, a capstone to adolescent party time"(l51). He rejects the common argument that higher education helps graduates to succeed in society: "College graduates are winners in part because colleges attract people who are already winners--people with enough brains and drive that they would do well in almost any generation and under almost any cicumstances, with or without formal credentialing"(l55). With a politically correct curriculum taught by tenured zealots and dilettantes, crammed with students rewarded "merely for having completed high school; that in turn may be a reward simply for having shown up, or for having grown too tall to be kept back"(l53), colleges and universities waste much if not most of more than $150 billion invested annually.

Henry contends that the media and the arts show the effects of rampant egalitarianism. The newspapers, magazines, and television feature fawning reports about the excesses of celebrities, or gushing tributes to the most undistinguished people. The media have lost all respect "for fact, for knowledge, for citizen awareness"(l88) in "the tendency to treat science and reason as optional and to give a respectful place . . . to creationists, faith healers, herbalists and homeopaths, new age crystal worshippers, and other practitioners of magic and mumbo-jumbo"(l89). What sells counts, not what may improve or educate the mass mind (186-7).

He cites the activities of state arts and humanities councils and committees to prove his contention about the state of American culture. "By honoring quilt weavers and opera companies, folk festivals and Shakespeare festivals out of the same pot, the Endowment for the Arts effectively implied that these are comparable activities, of equivalent merit, and that the only choice to be made between them is one of personal taste and preference"(175). The programs of the state humanities committees resound with the politically correct themes emanating from colleges and universities and committees selecting national award winning works (171-3). As a result, "The dominant mood of contemporary American culture is the self-celebration of the peasantry"(l77). No longer inspirational and uplifting, art and culture entertain, encouraging people to indulge themselves.

Henry reveals his overarching goal to his readers at the close of this extended diatribe: "To speak in defense of elitism is not to tilt the balance of national life, but to seek to restore it"(212). He urges renewed attention to equality of opportunity, with its emphasis upon effort and achievement, instead of an insistence upon equality of outcomes, a result impossible without accelerating the descent into mediocrity. In Henry's view, reversal depends upon reaffirmation of the critical importance of individual responsibility, the "missing element in every phase of American life, from education to culture to the thicket of identity politics"(209). American society and culture achieved greatness because of the historic emphasis upon individual responsibility and achievement. Henry calls for a defense of that heritage "when the world is rushing toward us and our ways" (210-11).

How one responds to this argument depends in large measure on one's assessment of the state of American society. To some, the current criticism seems merely the effluvium of a resurgent insistence upon class privilege, urging a counter-revolution to reverse the changes of the modem era. Such a reading fails to deal with the stubborn fact of the seeming impossibility of correcting persistent social problems using the old approaches. Some critics certainly want to turn back the clock, as always happens. However, the vast majority of Americans have accepted the new dispensation and want to declare victory and have done with temporary expedients that become ends in themselves. Therein lies the challenge and the danger.

Roughly a century ago--in the first Reconstruction--American society confronted a similar challenge and failed it miserably. During the years since World War II this society has made significant progress. Nonetheless, much remains to be done. To back away now because of some of the unintended consequences of programs initiated for the best social reasons amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath. In his "extended diatribe," Henry offers up once again the well known examples of extremism and unintelligent implementation of policies and programs that, for the most part, have worked well. While claiming to accord credit for the successes of the post-War period, he persists in unrelieved and often unsubstantiated attacks on all the programs. We need revision to correct the problems, not an abandonment of the effort because of the foolishness of the people responsible for the excesses. We need a new focus upon providing assistance to real people, rather than retreating from the field because of unintended consequences. In his own words, he "who displaces language for reverie has every likelihood of finding both sense and sensation widely at variance from what...the creators intend"(l83).

Put simply, we need a new emphasis upon productivity, defined in terms of intended outcomes, whether in the economy, schools, arts, or any sector of society. Until we focus upon that goal, we will not address the problems that continue to plague American society. In the end, Henry has part of it right. A society that fails to recognize the importance of individual talent, effort, and achievement will never achieve greatness. Equally clear, a society that fails to provide support and assistance to those who cannot help themselves or to recognize and encourage the participation of all citizens will not long endure. Without conceding anything other than the need to invoke basic premises as we judge our culture and social programs, we have ample evidence today of the need to address and restore the proper balance between egalitarianism and elitism in our society.

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