Confessions of an Elitist

William Plank

The confrontation between an "elitist" education and careerism has its roots in a world view and even a cosmology which the proponents of careerism largely ignore. In Barbarie à visage humain, Bernard-Henri Lévy offers the term homo operans, i.e., "man constituted as worker," a subspecies of homo sapiens. Since the Protestant Reformation and the advent of industrialization, homo operans has even become an ideal confounded with fighting the good fight and keeping the faith, disculpation from original sin and proving one's theological worth, patriotism, self-sacrifice to nation, family, and the sacred economy. The sacrifice of the wage-slave is sanctified as the divine punishment in Eden, as he earns his bread in the sweat of his brow. Marx made an ideology of "man constituted as worker" and in his attempt to free the human worker by elevating him into a dictator, drove him even deeper into slavery and meanness. Marx was thus the ultimate careerist--which is why Nietzsche expressed his contempt for socialism and communism. It was that grandfather of careerism, utilitarianism, the ideology of "a nation of shopkeepers," for which Nietzsche thumbed his nose at England. Extending the goofy Hegelian dialectic into the work-place, Marx, along with Hegel, effectively whipped a Christian teleology and a metaphysic onto society, i.e., a teleologically guaranteed work-sacrifice-reward model, a demeaning idea and a carrot-stick morality which lie at the basis of much of retirement planning, careerist and vocational education, and the production oriented society today. This is the mindless ideology which destroyed initiative and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, not Ronald Reagan. Spending a lifetime at a repetitive and uninspiring job is justified by the glory of retirement to the creek bank or Sun City. Jacques Ellul (La Technique ou l'enjeu du siècle) emphasized the idea by calling the eight hours of work the "dead" time of the day. A whole tribe of "industrial psychologists" was then produced to convince people that they should indeed spend their day doing something that put death in their souls.

Lévy further posits power as the basic relation among human beings: "Before power there is nothing" from which man is constituted. And Nietzsche's will to power extends the concept into a cosmology of energy discharges and rehierarchization which describe the evolution of even the inorganic universe, subsuming the idea of political power. Power thus lies at the root of the controversy between an elitist education and careerism. Elitism is the educational posture of the haves; careerism is the educational posture of the have-nots, whose greatest ambition for the care and upkeep of the human spirit is getting a job and surviving. In academia the latter are represented by those of us who went out and got Ph.D.s because we thought that would make us financially solvent and socially honored and are a little embarrassed to find that such is not necessarily the case. American culture is so permeated by this careerist attitude that Jacques Lacan accused American ego psychology of promoting the shop-model of the psyche with the ego as straw-boss.

The class-structure of American education has been well documented: the rich, the smart, and the lucky go to the Ivy Leagues and the poor, the underachievers, and the unlucky go to the state university. Bill Clinton, George Bush, a whole roster of those who run the nation are Ivy Leaguers. The Montana legislature has not figured this out yet and probably never will find out why the big-money grants and prestigious profs go to institutions where they don't teach 12 hours a semester; why Montana students with 1300-1400 and up on the SAT don't go to university in Montana; why distance-learning is a cheap way to deliver an inferior education to the unlucky and isolated and profits mostly the hardware and software merchants; and why technology is a conservative social force, preserving class inequities, as it will do in the distance-learning aberration. Distance-learning, with its promise to deliver satisfaction in the absence of a body, is academic phone-sex.

Elitist institutions don't make much difference between an elite education and careerism. Elitism for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, etc. is the career and with this elitist education their graduates set up their networks, run the country, enjoy its wealth and contribute to their alma mater. Institutions which specialize in preparing students for a career send their graduates out to work as checkers in supermarkets, elementary and secondary school teachers, professors in public universities where they teach overloads, etc. Then they jump up and down in holy indignation proclaiming that all work is honorable while they make less then $30,000 a year, supplementing their husband's or wife's income (Nietzsche believed that indignation, based on impotence, was the basest of the emotions). The lower income groups, conditioned by the depression-era mentality of their fathers and grandfathers to yearn for the dignity of an honest job, exhibit the academic philosophy of the wage-slave turned professor. This is nothing new: the graduates of the French Grandes Écoles, to which they gain entrance by competitive examination, have the best jobs in France, whereas those doomed to careerism choose the technical lycée at about age fourteen and never thereafter escape their class. The so-called non-traditional student is a rare animal in Europe.

The careerist education, like vocational education, is a cynical materialism worthy of Marx and leads to the same slavery of the mind. It cannot nourish the spirit--but then homo operans is not expected to have one nor much ambition for the human race. It is a shame to think that our society of production is based on the humanistic ignorance of its members. Great numbers of our population go to their graves without being able to play a musical instrument and think nothing of it. As for me, I prefer an elite education in music, philosophy, art history, foreign languages, literature, linguistics, archaeology, geology, biology, physics, mathematics, and history. Thus, if I am forced to retire, my identity will not be bound up with a rigidly technical or commercial education and I will have something to think about in my golden years besides fishing, gardening, building shelves in the garage, or my prostate.

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