Debunking the intellectual elite

(EDIT 2 July 2009: Man, this is one of the most ponderous pieces of omg!seriousness I have ever written. I’m leaving it up because people have already replied to it. But yikes, my writing embarrasses me sometimes.)

In the dictionary, the word elite is impartial. It means those who are at the top of anything for any reason — the fastest racehorses, the highest-ranking military officers, the most popular kids in school. The word does not imply that elite status is objective or subjective, deserved or undeserved, earned or bestowed, important or meaningless.

Elitism — the practice of treating people at the top differently than others — is therefore sometimes justifiable. Do you promote your hardest-working grease monkey to the position of head mechanic? Sure, because it’s good to have a responsible and knowledgeable person in a position of power, rather than someone who is inexperienced and apathetic about the job. Do the President’s kids deserve a Secret Service escort when they go shopping? It’s necessary if it’s thought that they are more likely than other kids to be targets of crime.

In popular usage, the word elitism is usually only trotted out when we want to talk about unfair or undeserved treatment. People can be rewarded in one context for being perceived as elite in a different and irrelevant context. A military officer from a royal family might be given more comfortable quarters than other officers of the same rank who come from less noble bloodlines. A teacher or professor might be more likely to call on well-dressed students than on shabby-looking students.

People paying attention to American politics and news media will have heard a lot of the term ‘intellectual elite’ in the last little while, because certain political parties have thrown it around as an insult against their opponents. The thought process that they’re taking advantage of, in order to influence the voting public, goes something like this:

  1. Elitism is undeserved special treatment.
  2. The elite are the people who benefit from elitism.
  3. Therefore being elite is a bad thing.
  4. Therefore anything that makes people elite must be a bad thing to be.

Are you following the dangerous leaps of illogic? Here’s the counterargument:

  1. Elitism is not always undeserved; that’s just the most common usage of the word, but not a full definition.
  2. Therefore, not everyone who benefits from elitism is unfairly getting something they don’t deserve.
  3. Therefore, a person who is elite is not made good or bad solely because of that elite status.
  4. The things that people can be that make them elite also do not have inherent moral value; it isn’t universally bad or wrong to be strong, rich, of noble blood, popular — or intellectual.

If you’re still with me, I’d like you to consider two things. First, being intellectual does not make someone a snob. It just means they do a lot of thinking, or like to engage in activities that require thought.  Second, given that dictionary definition of the word, anyone can be an intellectual. You don’t have to have money or nobility or powerful friends or even an education in order to enjoy using your brain to observe and analyse the world around you.

I got into university under my own steam; I got out of university without graduating because I didn’t have unlimited money or indestructible mental health. My lack of a complete formal education hasn’t stopped me from being an intellectual, because a university degree is not a license without which I am not allowed to enjoy thinking.

I am going to use this blog to geek out about all kinds of stuff, mostly astronomy, and to expound upon the virtue of critical thinking and the sheer fun of learning about stuff. If you like the sound of that, feel free to join in and play.

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1 Comment

  1. 22 June 2009 at 11:07 am

    Hi,
    I love your blog here. I too am a university drop out, part of the reason is severe dyslexia the other parts are equal measures of lack of funds and a low BS tolerance. One thing that has always got to me is the Mad Scientist as antagonist in fiction. The message almost seems to be that if you intellectually empower yourself you must be evil. In contrast, how many parents want their kids to get a good education. Very strange society we’ve built here.


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