»  National Review Online

March 23, 2001

  What Kind of Elite Do We Want?


Magazines — even (perhaps that should be especially) web magazines — are, for obvious reasons, chary about directing their readers' attention to other magazines. Once in a while, however, a magazine piece is so good, and lets off so many firecrackers in one's head, that one cannot not talk about it — and, if one is a columnist, write about it, or at least around it. I therefore, and with the permission of our noble editor, recommend to your attention David Brooks' piece titled The Organization Kid in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Brooks has been hanging out with students at top colleges, mainly Princeton. He has taken a careful look at their lives, both outer and inner. He paints a picture of what the next generation of American elites will be like, and describes how their upbringing made them the way they are. He compares and contrasts them with the American elite of a hundred years ago, and weighs them in the balance.

This is not a review, and I am not going to précis Brooks' piece, which you can perfectly well read for yourself (and I urge you to do so — it is really very good). I just want to tackle the question of whether the elite we are apparently, according to Brooks, going to get is the one we really want, and whether the effort we are expending to get it is causing unacceptable collateral damage to our society.

"Elite" is, as Brooks himself notes, something of a loaded term nowadays, and the striving young achievers he describes, though obviously destined to be the movers and shakers of A.D. 2030, are diffident about thinking of themselves as an elite. I take the commonsense position (it seems commonsense to me, anyway) that the choice is never between having an elite and not having one, it is always between having an elite that looks like this or one that looks like that.

The elite we are actually going to get is, of course, meritocratic. "Meritocratic" has an ambiguous sound to most of us, I think. It has a good side, in that a meritocracy is open. The elite of a hundred years ago was very heavily — in some key areas, exclusively — male and WASP; the meritocratic elite of tomorrow looks like America. The downside is that to get into the meritocratic elite you have to pass a lot of exams and get good reports from those who teach you, so the meritocratic elite is weighted towards bookish, well-behaved conformists.

This perhaps makes it sound a little too narrow. Skill at passing exams and pleasing teachers is necessary to get you on the elite entry ramp — the best colleges, the best jobs — but it is not sufficient. Some breadth of ability and experience is called for: sports, music, travel, the arts, good works. Also some indication of positive personality traits: president of this club or that society. All savvy parents know this. It explains the fact that every time my wife or I go along to sign up one of our children for some extracurricular activity we find, unless we got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. for the purpose, as more determined parents obviously did, that we have to join the end of a line that snakes all the way round the building and across the parking lot into the street outside.

It accounts for several other allied facts, too — the extreme difficulty of getting a piano teacher, for example. My own boy, five and a half years old, is just finishing up an introductory town program, and we are looking for a private teacher. Yep, we are in this rat-race too. How can we not be? Nellie Derbyshire, aged eight, has been doing violin for nearly three years, and can now play notes that are strung together in sixes and eights with those forbidding-looking double black bars, and even notes that are stacked vertically above each other and share the same stalk! (You may be getting a picture here of my own capabilities in the area of reading music.) She also does dance, ice skating, Girl Scouts, and Chinese school Friday evenings. Her Mandarin is coming along nicely; she can recognize several dozen characters and sing some very pretty songs. Eight years old.

The other families in my street are all on the same treadmill. Piano, karate, step dancing, piano, gymnastics, violin, pony club, piano. (It occurs to me from time to time that we are not being very imaginative about the music. The English writer Fritz Spiegl, who is also a bassoonist, once told me that if you can play the bassoon, you will never be hungry. Every orchestra needs a bassoonist, and there aren't enough to go round. For character-building purposes, the philosopher Roger Scruton recommends the viola, whose repertoire is, he says, "small and bleak".) In a way, of course, all this pressure to achieve and excel is a wonderful thing. How often have I wished, sighing, that these programs had been around when I was a kid, and that my parents had had the time, money and inclination to sign me up for them. Not to fault my parents: nobody thought about such things back then — nobody we knew, anyway.

What, in fact, did I do as a kid, when not at school? Well, I think the commonest phrase addressed to the infant Derb by grown-ups was: "Go out and play." They didn't want us around much. So out we went to play. We played in the street. We roamed the neighboring streets. We played on a nearby stretch of waste ground rich with builder's rubble, steel reinforcing rods sticking up from a bed of broken glass and splintered wood. On summer evenings, or at weekends, we went up to the end of the street, where the countryside began, and played in the woods and fields that rolled away for miles across the gentle hills of the English Midlands, interrupted only by drowsing villages whose names were recorded in the Domesday Book nine hundred years earlier. My childhood bore a close resemblance to the one George Orwell enjoyed fifty years before, as described in the first part of his novel Coming Up for Air. School time apart, there was very little "structure" and, for most of the time, not an adult in sight. We fell out of trees and got chased by bulls. One of my classmates drowned in a canal.

What changes there have been! My own kids are hardly ever out of range of adult supervision. Between dance, piano, soccer practice and homework (I never did a minute's homework till age 11) they have no energy for anything more than watching TV. There is probably a way to opt out of all this, but it doesn't seem fair to the kids to do so. Besides, they don't mind all the activity. They seem happy and well-adjusted, as do the college students in David Brooks' piece, who were brought up this way, and who are so accustomed to living a tightly-scheduled life that they make appointments to sit and chat with their best friends.

Now to the questions. First: Is this any way for free people to live? Is there something I learned, roaming the woods and fields of my childhood in company with other 8-year-old desperadoes, that my kids are not learning? It is, of course, entirely possible that the answer is no, and that I would have been better employed studying Chinese or attending violin lessons. I choose not to believe this. For all their agreeable qualities, for all their intelligence and sociability and often very impressive achievements, the students Brooks describes are — this is my impression, not his — docile, dull and … girlie. Allan Bloom wrote, in The Closing of the American Mind, about many young students of his acquaintance having "flat souls". Reading David Brooks' piece brings this back to mind, and Brooks himself makes some penetrating comments along the same lines.

Second: What about us non-elites? One purpose of an educational system is to produce elites. What are the other purposes, and what should be their weight in relation to elite-production? The decline of high-school shop has been much commented on. Increasingly, the assumption is that kids go to high school in order to advance to college, and that anyone insufficiently bookish to want to take this course is not of much interest to the educational authorities. High school football is in decline, giving way to more "inclusive" (i.e. girlie) sports like soccer. I have spent very little time inside American high schools and may have got a false picture here, but if the stories I hear about the increasing academicization and girlification of the schools are true, they would explain a lot. I don't think it is wanton exaggeration, for example, to say that they would go some way towards explaining the appalling school shootings of recent years.

There is, finally, the matter of quantity. It's not just a question of what kind of elite we want, but also how many of them we need. Along with, I am sure, most readers of NRO, I believe we are outrageously over-governed and over-lawyered. Now, some high proportion of the students at colleges like Princeton will end up running the machinery of government and the law, imposing their flat souls and their smug, annoyingly incontrovertible superiority on the rest of us. For all their outward diffidence, I suspect that these people feel, in their innermost hearts, that they were born to rule, to say to this one "go", and he goeth, to say to this one "come", and he cometh. No doubt they will ensure, once they are in a position to ensure it, that there will always be plenty of powerful places for them and their kind — "enough pasture for all the sheep", as Sir Robert Walpole used to say about his own political patronage.

Still, it could be worse. I wish these upcoming elites had a little more color and dash. I wish they were not so academic. I wish there were some sign of a Churchill among them, or a Roosevelt (Teddy for preference) or an Andy Jackson. I wish they had stronger opinions. I wish they showed more evidence of having courage. I wish, above all, there were fewer of them. But do I have an alternative to meritocracy? Do I think these kids are unspeakably awful, and will drag western civilization down to perdition? Would I prefer my own kids not have a shot at joining them, if they decide they want to? No, and no, and no. Any NRO readers near Huntington, NY that can teach piano?