Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The true meaning of elitism

Once in a while something comes along that transcends the conservative/liberal divide in a radical way. Radical is the right word. It's so difficult nowadays to go beyond the entrenched positions on right and left. I am thinking more of the church here than anything else at the moment, which is odd, since my comments are inspired by the writings of a completely secular person.

Tony Judt, who suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and died a few weeks ago, was one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. The important writer Timothy Garton Ash, in his obituary in The New York Review of Books, placed Judt in "the great tradition of the spectateur engagé, the politically engaged but independent and critical intellectual." Judt was always controversial, especially in his criticisms of modern Israel, but if ever there was redemptive suffering, his was it. During the last stages of his illness when he was unable to move a single muscle, he dictated a series of essays for The New York Review. The first one, a detailed description of what it's like to have a fully functioning brain in a totally immobilized body, was so riveting that many readers like me must have been permanently affected by it. After that, he did not speak of his affliction at all, but continued to publish a series of reflections. The August 19 issue featured his musings about his education at Kings College, Cambridge,]. He was a member of the first lower-middle-class generation to be admitted to the previously upper-class "Oxbridge" as a result of the 1944 Butler Education Act. Judt, of Russian Jewish extraction, found himself entirely, and surprisingly, at home in the environs of elite Kings. His reminiscences about his education there are found in the August 19 issue of The New York Review at

Judt's brief but probing essay about his education at Kings is deeply conservative in the most valuable and, indeed, radical sense. He is not afraid to use the term "elitist." Here is his conclusion:

Liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances: these are manageable contradictions, but only in an institution unafraid to assert its particular form of elitism. Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

In my generation we thought of ourselves as both radical and members of an elite. If this sounds incoherent, it is the incoherence of a certain liberal descent that we intuitively imbibed over the course of our college years. It is the incoherence of the patrician [John Maynard] Keynes establishing the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council for the greater good of everyone, but ensuring that they were run by the cognoscenti. It is the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented. It was the incoherence of my King's and I was fortunate to have experienced it.