Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why You Should Be an Elitist Prick

There is an old Tamil film released back when I was only about a year old, titled Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu.  Literally, that translates to "Red is the Color of Poverty."  At the very end of the movie (after the story formally really resolves, so to speak), the main character -- played by fellow Desi atheist, Kamal Hassan -- is working in a barber shop and he receives a customer.  Well, that scene is also the film's cameo for legendary Tamil comedy actor, "Thengai" (yes, as in coconut) Srinivasan, so viewers know ahead of time that the film would be closed off with a comedy scene.  During the shave, there is idle chatter between the barber and the client, and our hero barber character reveals that he actually went to graduate school and earned a Master's Degree in philosophy.  The comedy that ensues is that the client runs in fear presuming that the fact that his barber is an educated man means he's out to murder him.  Because...  that's what educated people do?

Well, Bruce Lee also had a Master's Degree in philosophy, so maybe he was making some assumption about Kamal Hassan being a fearsome martial arts master.  Sure.  That makes perfect sense.

It's an odd sentiment, though...  that educated people...  the intelligentsia of the world... are somehow the problem individuals.  What exactly do they think will happen?  Last I recall, it's those who are uneducated who tend to be dangerous.  I've never heard of a scientist who killed church officials for spreading lies about science.  Sure, there was that one mathematician who engaged in a 17-year long bombing campaign, but you can't trust those darn mathematicians, anyway ;-).  But nonetheless, there's a common cultural sentiment here.  There's a common response I get from fundies whenever I write about knowledge, education, being scientifically literate, etc.  It is the admonishment that I'm some evil elitist.  By subscribing to this sort of meritocratic philosophy centered around knowledge and the advancement thereof, I and other literati like myself therefore profess a sort of cold-blooded elitism, and that makes them a threat to the "average" person.

Call me crazy...  but I would rather have the average of tomorrow be roughly equal to the borderline genius of today, and if that makes me a threat to the "average" person today, then that's a good thing.

Thomas Jefferson once said that among his ideal images of education involves picking among the cream of the crop of poor/middle class students who can't afford higher education to have free passage at advanced schools.  His idea was to have a certain number of "the best geniuses to be raked from the rubbish."  Yes, he gave the rather arbitrary number of 20 geniuses per region that seem out of place given the much higher population of the U.S. today, but indeed having the top performers "raked from the rubbish" were his actual words.  If that sounds elitist, you're right.  It is.

The thing, though, is that this plan isn't so much about putting down the commoner, since it was actually part of a larger picture that included free education for all to at least a basic functional level that would qualify people for almost anything (with practical experience filling in the gaps thereafter), and advanced education would be for those who could either afford it, or "deserved" it because they're just more "gifted."  The thing that people get hung up on is the "deserve" part.

To be fair, though, I really don't think Jefferson's concept really works at all in the context of education.  Especially not in this day and age, where unskilled labor is a concept of shrinking value.  It's more of a government scholarship program.  Today, the minimum bar for "necessary" education is light years beyond anything Jefferson could have imagined in his day.  Someone who is considered educated enough to get a decent job today might have been a post-doc in Jefferson's day, and that's a good thing.  However, that means the "basics" amount to a hell of a lot more work and a hell of a lot more cost.  Moreover, the school system as we have it today defines the "best students" not as those who make the biggest strides in learning or development in a field, but rather as being the "best fit to become university professors."  That makes sense, seeing as how it is in the best interests of schools to see themselves perpetuated, and not really to produce smarter people per se.  Trying to determine who "deserves" higher education more than others is really a fool's game, because you can't really assess such merits before the fact.  It's really at a point where we would need to consider making higher education accessible to all and seeing what fruit that bears.  There will be rubbish, and there will be those who need be raked from that rubbish...  but you need to go pretty far to determine that nowadays.

But all said, it is after all that where elitism has its place.  A common sentiment that comes up during presidential campaigns is about the education level of the candidates.  Santorum had his fun with calling Obama a 'snob' for wanting to make college affordable to everyone.  If that's what snobbery is, then snobbery is the correct attitude.  You don't just have to look at presidential candidates to see this sort of thing, though.  Look at Don McLeroy -- creationist dentist and idiot extraordinaire, who wants revisionist history and science to be taught in school.  This is someone who believes that evolution should be refuted because experts in the biological sciences aren't to be trusted on matters of biology.  "Somebody has to stand up to these experts!"  He's totally right.  How dare the people who have studied a topic for decades and published volumes of academic research in the field speak as if they know more about it than you?  It's totally fair for climate change deniers put more stock in the snow on the driveway in their town than the work of actual scientists who collect world-wide data.  How can their opinion possibly be worth any less than the evidence-based assessment of thousands of climatologists?  The populace voted in George W. Bush not because of his Ivy League education, but because he seemed like an amicable ordinary guy.  Why should it ever be any different?  The anti-vaxxers believe only the stories of common individuals and never the published works of actual top medical scientists and researchers enaging in large-scale longitudinal studies.  Sigh~~~~.

Why on earth shouldn't we be elitist about these sorts of subjects?  I think, barring extreme hypochondriacs who think wikipedia makes for a good diagnostic tool, and people who are in everlasting denial, we tend to trust our doctors' advice.  Many of us will be quite happy to take our tax forms to an accountant expecting that they may find a few extra dollars in there that we might have missed.  We accept that these people know what they're doing better than we do in that particular field.  And yet, people can't apply the same thinking for things like science...  voting...  outsourcing of jobs.  How is it that we can be elitist about our own health to the extent of wanting the best doctors available for a particular specialization, and yet we find it wrong when choosing the leader of a nation?  Explain to me why how "nice" a candidate is should be a factor in how I vote.  I'm not out to have a few beers with the president.  I'm interested in how competent the guy is.  So as far as that's concerned, elitism is not only a good thing -- it's the best possible thing.  The leader of a country isn't something that is within the capacity of a Joe Sixpack, so trying to vote for that guy seems more than a little bit silly.  Is it not sensible to have a top-notch person who hires the best of the best advisors be the leader of the nation?  It's idiotic to just put a regular old guy simply because he seems likable.

On the other end, you have the liberal camp who attacks someone like Mitt Romney because he's rich, and has never lived knowing poverty at any point in his life...  and therefore doesn't have the capacity to identify with the difficulties faced even by middle-class Americans.  The attack itself may be accurate, but by itself is pretty irrelevant.  A person doesn't have to empathize with the struggles you or I face in order to do the analysis and study the problems well enough to formulate an idea that actually helps.  If anything, we'd need someone more dedicated a thorough survey of the facts and understanding the large-scale ramifications of various policies.  That does not require that you personally experienced it all or can somehow perform a Vulcan mind-meld with a homeless veteran.  You just need to show that you know what to do about it.  Of course, conservatives almost universally fail pretty miserably on that front, so they're worth attacking on that level, but you can see how that's a different point entirely from whether or not he feels your pain.

There's a strong tinge of xenophobia here, where people put more stock in the "folks like us," over the ones who are different.  Elite, after all, is a relative term referring to those who stand out above others in a particular field.  That makes them different from most people and therefore, "icky."  We don't like the idea of using thought to understand things, and look instead for what "feels" right.  And that's why humanity is pretty well screwed.  People who complain about outsourcing seem to think that companies are run by people who hate America and want commie terrorists to win.  No...  The problem is not America itself.  The problem is the people in it.  It's not just that the workers in India and China are able to work for less money -- it's that they're at least as good as you are if not better for the same amount.  If they were incompetent, no amount of money saving would make outsourcing a reasonable investment.  Any employer wants the best talent he can get for the dollar.  The reason why other countries can offer that is because they are elitist cultures.  These are cultures where education is considered a lot more crucial, and achievements in such pursuits are pretty much your sole measure as a human being.  You got a B- in one of your major classes?  Well, then, you're doomed to earn an M.A. in Rickshaw-wallah Arts.  I'll admit that both India and China take this to unreasonable extremes, but the U.S. doesn't really have any such facet to its culture, at least not in any really pervasive way.   We recognize the geniuses and the child prodigies but go not much further than ooh-ing and ahh-ing at it.

At the same time, the opportunity to reach high levels of achievement is not available to just anyone in the U.S.  The cost of the top-notch schools in India, for instance, are about the same for 1 full year of tuition as we pay here in the U.S. to have a diploma mill print a phony doctorate. So that's a definite problem.  As much as people seem to delude themselves into believing that this is the "land of opportunity", it really can't be anymore unless education is affordable.  The other thing is that education needs to be built around educating, and not around making new educators.  However, the problem with even getting there is that people don't value education that much in this country.  People think about achievement here in terms of fanciful rags-to-riches tales, and forget completely that these are the exceptions.  It is difficult to get away from the draw of money, I'll admit.  The flipside of it is that because there's no money in simply being good at something, it's not valued.  The reality of capitalism is that writing the best mobile app doesn't earn you anything -- it's writing the right mobile app at the right time that earns you something.  That too, the knowledge and study and dedication it takes to have to become good at something is not really easy.  People generally don't want to learn things.  People generally only learn the things they have to.  That is a pretty universal aspect of human nature -- seeking the path of least resistance.  It is the select few who actually subscribe to the position that there is seldom reward without risk; that there is seldom something worth doing that is easy; that there is no gain without pain; that knowledge is power.

In that spirit, I have to admit that I'm not a major subscriber to the concept of "talent" as a hugely significant factor.  1) because an apparent gift is still useless if left uncultivated; and 2) because hard work is necessary no matter who the person is, and that is something that benefits anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they've had the semblance of a head start or not.  I'm not good at my job because I'm smarter or have some sort of inborn gift for analytic geometry, statistics, multivariable calculus, and programming.  I'm good at it because I bust my butt on trying to learn this stuff for myself for the past 20 years.  Why did I do that?  Because I friggin' wanted to.  I actually gave a damn.  And because I gave a damn, I can do more to advance my field and move it forward into the future.

Am I curing cancer or feeding the hungry or saving lives or something?  No.  Nothing so lofty as all that.  But nothing changes the fact that I'm serving a far greater value when I solve a problem for some artist on my team who is trying to achieve a particular look, than I ever could be prostrating myself before an expensive statue effectively doing nothing for nobody.  No one should have to tell you to think, to advance, to learn, to actually be good at one or multiple things.  It should be a purpose you have for yourself as a member of the human race.  In a sense, we're all curious beings, and we all have a pretty short time on this planet, so that makes us inbuilt to want to get somewhere in life quickly.  Everybody will do so in different arenas, but it is only natural to want to try.  But even for those who try their hardest and still don't reach the top of the tower (which would still be the majority, really), there is a certain mindset in that they actually begin to care about and take notice of those who do.  And that's the really important value in my mind.  Most anyone who takes up the guitar will never play as well as Santana, but the fact is that if you get to a certain level, you'll only begin to appreciate the difference that much more.  It also means that you care enough to be thoughtful in how you choose people.  If you don't want to go through the effort of getting there or simply don't believe in that sort of thing (in a luddite sort of sense), then the best possible thing you can do for humankind is to get the hell out of its way.