Helen Andrews casts a jaundiced look at The New Ruling Class in Hedgehog Review.
Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. …
Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music. All manner of low-class fareâ€”rap, telenovelas, Waffle Houseâ€”is embraced by what Shamus Rahman Khan calls the â€œomnivorous pluralismâ€ of our elite. â€œIt is as if the new elite are saying, â€˜Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.â€™â€
Khanâ€™s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paulâ€™s School is a fascinating document, because he seems to have been genuinely surprised by what he found when he returned to his old boarding school to teach for a year. Khan, the grandson of Irish and Pakistani peasants, worked his way to a Columbia University professorship in sociology via St. Paulâ€™s and Haverford College. So he thought he knew meritocratsâ€”but todayâ€™s breed gave him a bit of a fright. For one thing, they proved to be excellent haters. Consider how they talk about a legacy student whose background can be inferred from the pseudonym Khan gives him, â€œChase Abbottâ€:
After seeing me chatting with Chase, a boy I was close with, Peter, expressed what many others would time and again: â€œthat guy would never be here if it werenâ€™t for his family.â€¦ I donâ€™t get why the school still does that. He doesnâ€™t bring anything to this place.â€ Peter seemed annoyed with me for even talking with Chase. Knowing that I was at St. Paulâ€™s to make sense of the school, Peter made sure to point out to me that Chase didnâ€™t really belong there.â€¦ Faculty, too, openly lamented the presence of students like Chase.
â€œOpenly lamentedâ€! Poor Chase. This hatred is out of all proportion to the power still held by the Chases of the school, which is almost nil. Khan discovers that the few legacy WASPs live together in a sequestered dorm, just like the â€œminority dormâ€ of his own schooldays, and even the alumni â€œpoint to students like Chase as examples of what is wrong about St. Paulâ€™s.â€ No, the hatred of students like Chase feels more like the resentment born of having noticed an unwelcome resemblance. It is somehow unsurprising to learn that Peterâ€™s parents met at Harvard.
Of course, Peter is not at St. Paulâ€™s because his parents went to Harvard; as he makes clear to Khan, he is there because of his hard work and academic achievement. Here we have the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing: the notion that the people who make up our elite are especially smart. They are notâ€”and I do not mean that in the feel-good democratic sense that we are all smart in our own ways, the homely-wise farmer no less than the scholar. I mean that the majority of meritocrats are, on their own chosen scale of intelligence, pretty dumb. Grade inflation first hit the Ivies in the late 1960s for a reason. Yale professor David Gelernter has noticed it in his students: â€œMy students today areâ€¦so ignorant that itâ€™s hard to accept how ignorant they are.â€¦ [I]tâ€™s very hard to grasp that the person youâ€™re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesnâ€™t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the twentieth centuryâ€”just sees a fog. A blank.â€ Camille Paglia once assigned the spiritual â€œGo Down, Mosesâ€ to an English seminar, only to discover to her horror that â€œof a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name â€˜Mosesâ€™.â€¦ They did not know who he was.â€
Hat tip to The Barrister.