Skip to comments.No Wonder We're Failing: Our Power Elites' Sole Expertise Is Being Privileged
Posted on 01/07/2011 1:00:59 PM PST by dennisw
No Wonder We're Failing: Our Power Elites' Sole Expertise Is Being Privileged (January 7, 2011)
The Power Elite which has been raised to occupy the privileged seats of political and financial power in America has a skillset limited to navigating the world of privilege.
The Power Elites are not monolithic: there are three distinct layers, each with its own defining characteristics.
Correspondent Judy T. recently recommended an extraordinary essay on the education and grooming received by the Political and Financial Power Elite: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz.
I have roughly excerpted this long and important essay below.
In essence, Deresiewicz suggests that the Elite youth being groomed at exclusive Ivy league universities--an Elite education--are functionally incompetent in the real world and only skilled at a superficial facsimile of "independent thought" which is merely a higher order of groupthink and its attendent obedience.
Deresiewicz is addressing the privileged-by-birth/class Elite which is being groomed for positions high up in government, law and finance--the working Elites of the American Empire who make the decisions which impact billions of people.
A much thinner layer of Elites have little real power but plenty of wealth. These are the entrepreneural Elites glorified by breathless articles such as The Rise of the New Global Elite (The Atlantic).
This perspective takes the examples of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook)--both children of privilege, we note--and a handful of hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy players as proof that meritocracy is still the great leveler, and that hard work and innovation now pay off more than ever.
This article claims that a "winner take all" economy is rewarding the wealthy because the wealthy are smarter, more innovative and harder working than the average bear, and so income inequality is the outcome of this.
This argument is higher-order propaganda: by establishing a superficially undeniable case that a handful of super-wealthy individuals has earned their great wealth rather than inherit it, then the argument is extended to cover all positions of wealth and power: it's all, ahem, "earned."
But as Deresiewicz scathingly delineates, the vast majority of the Power Elites in government, finance and global corporate leadership are trained to a mediocrity which they have been groomed to accept as excellence.
This highly-touted Innovative Elite only functions in the narrow sphere of technology and financial speculation. Its numbers are miniscule and its direct influence over policy is generally overstated.
The Third Elite is also a meritocracy: this is a group I would term Academic Elites. These are the young people who earn their doctorates from, do post-doc research in, and end up teaching at the creme da la creme science and math universities: MIT, Caltech, Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard, UC Berkeley, et al.
Since I live in Berkeley, I have met many of these budding academic superstars, and I have found them to be uniformly unpretentious about their high-powered talent and knowledge. Just anecdotally, that suggests that carting a great ego around does not play very well in the hard-sciences Academic Elite.
A member of this Elite is occasionally appointed to some high position in government--for example, President Obama appointed physicist Steve Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Though these positions can be bully pulpits for various innovative ideas, they are essentially powerless.
Thus this third Elite also has limited access to the levers of power. (Anecdotally, they are often foreign-born citizens or second-generation immigrants--that is, they don't arise from families of established privilege and wealth.)
I have had a small taste of a privileged Elite education, as I graduated from the same prep school that President Obama attended in Honolulu, Hawaii (the oldest prep school west of the Rockies, mind you). My stepfather taught there, and so I was able to attend tuition-free.
I would say that an Elite education is only one piece in the Power Elites' grooming; ultimately, it's family connections and the mentoring of influential people which raise people to positions of State and financial power. This is not the networking one achieves by attending various meetings; you are born to it. (sorry, meritocracy propagandists.)
I would also be careful to separate the hard sciences Academic Elites from the Ivy League/law school layer that Deresiewicz describes. They are different Elites despite having some occasional crossover.
There are two classes manufactured in Elite education institutions: those destined to be handed the levers of power, and those destined to serve them as well-paid factotums and functionaries. Sadly, many believe the hokem about merit being the key to State and financial wealth and power, and on a superficial level of outliers and frontmen (Bill Clinton et al.), this is true enough to further the con.
But when the real Elites gather, the hard-working Elite functionaries find themselves relegated to the Siberia of inferiors.
Here is my rough excerpt of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. It suggests that the institutions of Elite education are failing at a fundamental level, and that the meritocracy so treasured as part of the American Dream is as threadbare as the "independence and expertise" of the Elites being groomed to power.(Those who attend 2nd and 3rd Tier universities) are being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity--lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, its the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but thats true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once youre in, theres almost nothing you can do to get kicked out.
Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls "entitled mediocrity."
Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in questionthe belief that once youre in the club, youve got a God-given right to stay in the club.
One of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich which is, after all, what were talking aboutbut it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.
Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.
But if youre afraid to fail, youre afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive.
Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.
If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideasand not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade.
Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel.
they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized termsthe junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.
Indeed, that seems to be exactly what those schools want. Theres a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers--holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty.
As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni.
The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.
Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile.
Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so its almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that its even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting As in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.
Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla. The most elite schools have become places of a narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain the kind of appearanceand affectthat go with achievement. (Dress for success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted, which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way. The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives.
"To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?...There is nobody--here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone." (Virginia Woolf)
Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude.
Theres been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldnt always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other.
other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy. What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, So are you saying that were all just, like, really excellent sheep?
But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.
The kid whos loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesnt have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government.
She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that its given us the elite we have, and the elite were going to have. (emphasis added)
Thank you, Judy, for recommending this insightful essay.
No wonder the U.S. is imploding--its State and financial Elites believe their mediocre groupthink is actually brilliant. That self-serving self-deception and hubris has cost us dearly, and will continue to do so.
If they’re the “cream of the crop,” the cream is mighty thin.
I got the following in an email this week, haven’t fact-checked it but is sure sounds about right:
The percentage of each past president’s cabinet who had worked in the private business sector prior to their appointment to the cabinet. You know what the private business sector is... a real-life business, not a government job. Here are the percentages.
T. Roosevelt........ 38%
F. Roosevelt......... 50%
GH Bush................. 51%
Clinton ................. 39%
GW Bush................ 55%
And the winner of the Chicken Dinner is:
Obama................ 8% !!!
Yep! That’s right! Only Eight Percent!!!.. the least by far of the last 19 presidents!! And these people are trying to tell our big corporations how to run their business? They know what’s best for GM...Chrysler... Wall Street... and you and me?
Sweet, Jesus, somebody finally gets it. I have never seen so many young people with no “there” there.
Some of the smartest people I know never had near the education level of some of these people. They did however have real world experience to educate that keen mind.
The elites do well in flush times with lots of minions at their disposal. In tough times, except for the very few that keep their money and power, they don’t do so well. They are not usually that smart or have much of a survival ability. In those situations those that are use that to prey on others to keep the standard of living up. In a unarmed society that is.
I think that’s why we became such a great nation. Till FDR it was a meritocracy for the most part. The greatest minds rose to the top because they had no real upper crust holding them down. Even many of those in the upper crust got there by merit. Now we are starting to go the way of dead former empires.
A great article, and I can’t help but repeating what in my experience with a Fortune 50 company as the “money quote” here:
“the Power Elites in government, finance and global corporate leadership are trained to a mediocrity which they have been groomed to accept as excellence”
We all have seen this same narcissistic self-delusional behavior play out in that 92% of the Obama Administration.
Go down the Democrat “Who’s Who” and look at the dearth of real-world experience these clowns have. I woldn’t hire half of them for anything but an entry-level office job, based on their private-sector resumes.
The Kennedys are a perfect example of a clan of do-nothing, know-nothing, highly connected parasites. Thankfully, we have expunged them. But there’s a guy in the White House who doesn’t have the credentials to park cars, let alone run a country. And I’m not talking about Robert Gibbs or Joe Biden.
Where would we be without our “betters?”
IOW, the cream rises to the top, but so does a lot of the scum.
The top 10% of the middle class are likely to be far sharper than the average child of the current top 1%. The problem of the Elite is how to prevent the top middle-class kids from pushing their own kids aside. Part of the solution is to sabotage the public school system.
I'm not so sure this is true. If you look back at the 18 presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries, only 6 can reasonably be classified as being "born to" an elite: the two Roosevelts, Taft, Kennedy, and the two Bushes.
The 12 others came from middle class to poor backgrounds.
As I’ve read it, neither of the Clintons have ever owned a car or had a drivers’ license. How could anybody possibly understand how ordinary Americans live without that experience?
A well done article on the ruling elites . . .
worthwhile if any concern about why we’re here and where we’re headed.
One problem, with your analysis. The ones who were not “born to it” were all INSTANTLY swarmed with those who were as advisors, veeps, etc.
A classic example is Reagan. He was saddled with a Bush. He was saddled with advisors born to it. Same with the others.
The point is that they wil tolerate an occasional populist departure, as long as they can surround him and direct his policy. Ike was an example of this,, war hero, very popular. The “born to it” crowd knew they werent in danger in the slightest.
You mean like Nancy Pelosi’s Gulfstream V and $10,000-a-night dreamspa vacation(s)???
>>Where would we be without our betters? <<
In a society that is financially solvent where the unemployed are there by choice not by chance, that I’ll bet my right arm on.
Some insights in this essay. The above is simply obvious, hardly counterintuitive.
The antidote is also obvious:
Cut the power (and money) of the authoritarian federal government!
This will form the basis of the cultural and political conflict of this decade. Overproduction of elites and a widening gap between social expectations and real output of a society have typically lead to major political upheaval.
I know Billy had a drivers license and a state owned car, I use to see it parked at Ginnefer (sp) Flowers place often. The tags red ATTGEN, which gave it away.