Elite post-this and that

Nick Carbone (nickc@ENGLISH.UMASS.EDU)
Fri, 11 Oct 1996 19:37:48 -0400

On elite, why is it neat? Who can say with any authority any more, eh,
since our configurations of what it means are based on how we've seen it
used. Jeff's example of the -isms that categories get spun into, and
Mike's example of a snooty and dismissive faculty certainly do cement a

But if we're arguing, at one level, that meaning isn't cemented, why give
up a word? Look I know the word isn't value free. Nor can I simply
state what I mean by it and why I like it and have that hold sway. Heck,
even the American Heritage agrees with Mike and Jeff, implicitly if not

elite n., pl. elite or elites.
1.a. A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class,
enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status. b. The best or most
skilled members of a group.

But let's face it, by training and practice and dedication, we have
achieved some degree of superior intellectual status, and depending on
the circles, maybe even social status. I won't touch on economics and
teachers. We may not feel superiour, or believe that we are
fundamentally better, in theory, than the next person. We would never
argue, for example, that we are better than a factory worker simply
because we are teachers and scholars. That said, I bet we've all had
times and places when we've met others and have felt superior. We've
felt smarter, more morally correct. We've rolled our eyes at others
seeming stupidities. Look at how smug we can get when we consider
critics of education we don't agree with, how disdainful we can let sound
our criticism of critics we disagree with, how impatient with 'arrogant'
colleagues who don't see the value of teaching first year writing.

All of that, is a form of some sense of righteousness, of feeling in some
way, however slight and however momentary, superior, whether in intellect
(our arugment is better), in politic (our cause is moral). Since we do
have our sense of what makes us better or right or just, that is, since
we do have convictions that provide principle for our actions, we should
acknowledge that say as much. For me, saying, 'yes, so I am an elite,
eastern academic liberal (if I made movies as well and was gay, I'd be
the anti-christ, you see). So what if I am? Do you know that means?
Here's what I value, support, stand by. Call me elite if you will, I'm
proud of that. I accept the lable and to hell with euphemisms and
tortured constructs which try to put an old picture in a new frame.
Superior does not mean smug; intellect does not mean derisive of those
who do not know the same things. Where I am and how I got here are
places that are good to be and more people should have the chance, if
they so desire, to do the same. They should have the opportunity to make
that choice in a fully informed way, not out of despairing that it's

The problem isn't that we're elite. The problem is that the priveleges we
have, even though we earned them and few of us were born to them, and the
advantages we had should be extended to all. I don't pretend that this
can happen without a lot of shaking up of the system. For example, I was
struck by the term post-colonial in the cfp. It is like the term
post-modern in some ways. I don't think we live in a post colonial
world; I don't think we live in a post-colonial country. The sensibility
of the country is distinctly colonial, and distinctly modern,
deterministic, despite the culture rise of Pagliatted icons like Madonna
and the MTV sensibilities of much of pop-culture.

Our cities are domestically colonized by the suburbs. They're
plantations where we wharehouse much of the poor; where, on average, more
busses go into cities so suburbanites can get to their offices, but fewer
go out so city residents can get to jobs in manufacturing centers, which
are dying out anyway and moving to places where there's no minimum wage.
Cities, on average, have more tax exempt property--schools, libraries,
hospitals, churches, state office buildings--that they must provide city
services too. So cities generally have higher tax rates, property tax
rates mostly, to fund their schools and other services. So city
residents, often poorer, pay a greater percentage of their income for
schools that are often in the worst conditions: over-crowded,
over-bureacratized, under-staffed, under-equipped. It's the perfect
recipe for a permanent underclass, a permanent exploitable class, a
resource that sustains itself on the margins, and that's convenient for
blaming for the ills of the rest. Budget out of whack, we'll lets save
one half of one percent and maybe starve a million and a half kids. Lord
knows that'll prevent a janitorial drain. Especially since we can't use
those folks that don't speak English anymore because they won't be let
in, or if we find them in we'll kick them out (after the harvest is in
and 3 dollar pants are sewn).

I feel I can do more to fight this colonization by declaring that what I
do is good, that I what I think is better and that I will stand by it. I
believe in my intellectual ability, such as it is; I know I'm priveleged
and that I lead, as much as I grouse on occasion about the low pay, long
hours, a life that's comfortable. I don't go cold or hungary; I can read
and adapt to literacies of all kinds, I can assimilate at will to just
about any power structure if I choose. Not only does that make me elite
in many senses of the word, it makes me responsible, as a teacher and as
a citizen to work against what I think is wrong. Part of that work is
being patient without being patronizing, being compassionate without
being soft-headed, being true to my values without being dogmatic, being
willing to do everything I can to help every student I have succeed
without lowering standards or fooling them about what they will need to
know to survive, and if they choose, to improve the world they will be a
part of. If I'm going to be classed as elite, accused of being elite, I
just as soon embrace the term and make it my own.

We know there're bad teachers out there, but we defend teaching. We know
there's bad scholars, but we value scholarship. We know there are
teachers who abuse their status as scholars, but we I haven't met anyone
on this list who would do that, nor would they shirk from saying they do
scholarship *and* teaching. And it is just so that I know there are
elitist out there in the most perjorative sense of that word, but I still
defend being elite.