It’s unfashionable these days to cheer for elitism. It’s more honest to admit however, that in not cheering for elitism (or shaming people who do), one simply joins the ranks of a different elite.
Before I explain, let me tell a story.
Don’t forget to think about college…
It’s only been a few years since I’ve been doing it. My wife and I regularly, but subtly encourage our oldest daughter to think about going to college. We’ll soon begin doing the same with her younger sister. We try not to put too much pressure on the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ve known enough “grown-ups” who still don’t have answers to that question. Nevertheless, we do try to orient her toward a future that includes education on the horizon for quite some time. After that, she’ll likely embark upon some kind of career, whether full or part time, and probably take some time to raise kids of her own.
Long ago now, my own parents started me down this same path. By the time I was in high school, I was on the college-prep track like most of my peers. Going to college seemed to be a no-brainer. It was just assumed in my family that I and each of my siblings would go to college immediately following high school, earning at least a Baccalaureate degree.
Sometimes learning is no fun
While I was in high school however, I hated school and dreaded the prospects of further study. While I was a decent student, I was sick of mathematics, bored with English, disliked reading and abhorred writing. I intended to start college as a music major so I could at least do something I loved. I’m a drummer. I studied percussion. Of course, I still had to slog through gen-ed courses including math and English. But studying something I loved mitigated my full-on desire not to be in school.
Then something happened early on in my college career. I had a transformative experience unrelated to school. It was really something quite spiritual. And in the midst of it all I realized I had stumbled upon something that I found utterly fascinating, something that pretty much changed the trajectory of my entire life.
I suddenly went from being someone who hated reading and writing to very quickly enjoying both. This was especially the case as I began to read in areas like philosophy, psychology, and Christian theology. All these areas were quite new to me, but I devoured almost everything I could find to read that helped me to adjust to the new way I now saw the world.
Before finishing my Baccalaureate degree, graduate school was already on the horizon for me. That was a grueling four more years of rigorous academic and professional training.
Then, as if I were a glutton for punishment, I embarked upon doctoral studies. Seven more years later, I was finally done with formal education. Looking back on my former disposition toward school as a teenager, by the time I was done with post-secondary education, I had been in school for 29 years of my life (Pre-school to PhD). If you would have asked me in high school, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined choosing to further my education for that long. And looking back, I know I wouldn’t have if it were not for that transformative spiritual experience.
What does any of this have to do with elitism?
Well, at least two things.
Let me get at those by means of another story. Hang with me. It’ll all come together. I promise.
Connecting the classroom to the world
While I was in graduate school, my goal was to teach. Toward the end of my studies, I began submitting job applications. My first job was teaching Religion at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest.
Not long after beginning this work, I quickly realized that I was often teaching people who were very much like I was in the earliest days of my college career. Often, my students didn’t want to be in the gen-ed courses I was teaching. Like me, they were sick of math and didn’t like writing.
Toward the end of their four years, however, they began to think about what would come next. At this point, they were well-acclimated to the college experience and knew how to engage well in class. Remembering my own prior experience and disposition toward college motivated me as a teacher to conduct my courses in such a way that every student could take something useful away. I didn’t need them to buy into everything that was on the Syllabus. They didn’t have to believe the religious material we were studying in order to earn an A in my courses. But I wanted them to be able to articulate how the things we studied mattered in the real world.
We often talked about current events, social attitudes, and why people behaved in the ways that they did. Religion, perhaps surprisingly, intersects all these areas in deep and penetrating ways.
During the years I taught, the environment of higher education more and more became one in which a great deal of emphasis was put on concerns like diversity, equity, and other issues related to social justice. These are important matters and as a result, they’d spark important and challenging discussions. One of them had to do with elitism. We talked about it in my classes, what it meant and how we should think of it.
Since leaving the university setting for a different but not completely unrelated career field, I’ve noticed that the concerns of the university for the last half-decade have more and more come to be the concerns of our culture at large. Elitism included.
Often, elitism is denigrated. Considered negatively, elitism is bound up with conceptions related to the abuse of power.We tend to think of those who have power as those who are prone to corruption for the sake of maintaining and bolstering their power, while limiting access to their ranks at the same time. This is the fashionable view I alluded to at the beginning. To the extent you adhere to this and stand against elitism, you rank with those who believe their views are more righteous than others, constituting a new elite.
Elitism and Power
We don’t have to think of it that way, however. Elitism, to be sure, is related to power. Yet, it’s possible to consider elitism and power from a positive perspective too. (Here’s a long-read analysis, assessment, and positive evaluation of elitism).
I’m an elitist. And so are you. We can make that statement simply by taking stock of some of our experiences, our credentials, our skills, our certifications, and more. If you have a high school diploma, that matters in our society. Certain rights and privileges are yours as a result of finishing high school.
The same is true if you have further education, like one or more college degrees.
Perhaps you’ve earned a unique title, like Reverend or Doctor.
Maybe you’ve achieved a certain military rank, like Sgt., or you serve as “Honorable Judge so and so of the 9thAppellate Court.” Or perhaps you hold a public office of some sort, like representing your neighborhood as an Alderperson.
You might be a respected athletic coach, or have any number of a variety of certifications, like in exercise instruction or graphic design.
Perhaps you’re a grandparent and give advice to new parents. Or you’ve retired from 30 years in the same career and consult within your area of expertise.
We could list so much more. In a word, we’re talking about “achievements.” And we live in a world where achievements of this sort have consequences, earnings rights, privileges, authority, power.
The basic idea is that you, whoever you are, whatever your age in life, however much experience you have, whatever your credentials: you know some important things, other people recognize that you know them, and thus you have a certain kind of power. You can influence others, teach them, or speak as an expert or with positional authority.
Not all power is equal of course, but we all have some. And that makes us elitists. Because we expect that people with power have the agency to use that power. And we will all use it. This then, is the basic understanding of what it means to be an elitist. Elitists are simply those who have power—perhaps by means of credentials like a degree, a title that confers positional authority, or a certain amount of years of experience or special training—and we expect others to recognize this power and defer to it in appropriate ways. As agents who can leverage our various kinds of power, we can use that power for good or ill.
As I discussed elitism with my students, helping them to see for example that their college degrees afforded them a kind of power, ranking them within a certain class of elites (i.e., college graduates), I also challenged them with these questions.
- What will you do with your power?
- Is your power for you? Or is it for others?
- Will you use it to advance yourself or advance others?
- Will you lay it down if it becomes necessary?
Thinking of power and elitism in these ways follows in the footsteps of Jesus. People generally have a positive view of Jesus. Perhaps this will prompt us to reconsider thinking of power and elitism from his perspective.
Let me be honest, however. Christians, those who claim to follow Jesus, have not always followed Jesus when it comes to power. History shows in embarrassing and atrocious ways that Christians have often acted only for their own self-interests, while simultaneously claiming to be people for others.
We can explain this by saying that Christians, too, are merely human. But this does not justify it.
Rather than pointing to Christians, it’s better to point to Jesus to think about how to handle the power we have. After all, he claimed to be the Son of God. But it was said of him that he laid down all of his power, taking on the form of a servant instead, and finally giving his very own life for others (Philippians 2.5–11). Rather than using power for selfish gain—and he was presented with many opportunities to do so—he chose a posture of powerlessness. Ironically, his powerlessness became the most powerful force of all, opening a future of hope for everyone who would follow him.
It was that same powerlessness that transformed my life early in my first year of college. It was during that time that I met Jesus. Looking back, it seemed like a complete accident. I mean, I hadn’t been looking to become religious. In fact, while not militantly opposed to religion, I still had some pretty serious objections. I thought of and described myself as an atheist. But in the end, it seems, I was powerless against God’s haunting pursuit of me. And he changed everything about my life.
Meeting Jesus is like encountering the greatest kind of power you can imagine, rendering you in that moment into a powerless mess. It’s then that Jesus uses his power for you, raising you to a new life that can be lived in his power and for others. This is the beginning of understanding what power is for—not for ourselves, but ultimately for others. Hence the questions to my students about how they will live out their elitism, what they will do with their power.
Knowing that the power of God is the power by which we live, all other powers and privileges which we enjoy can be aimed outward, for the benefit of others, always empowered by the work of God through us for them.
So, my elitist friend, how are you going to use your power?