Elitism Versus Populism in Education

In a recent post (now deleted), I discussed what I saw as an anti-intellectual tendency in education. I gave only two examples and didn’t go into the complexities of the matter. (I later became dissatisfied with the piece.) In particular, I didn’t make a clear distinction between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The two overlap and combine but are not identical.

Anti-elitism involves distrust of privilege and its distortions. In education, the elite are those who come with money or make a great deal of money; who hobnob with Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and take part in various wealthy organizations; who have strong media connections and can get op-eds in the big magazines; and who don’t teach day in, day out. They need some knowledge of education, or they lose credibility, like Cathie Black, who briefly served as NYC schools chancellor. Yet they don’t have to do the daily work of planning and conducting lessons, calling parents, correcting papers, setting up rooms, or rushing around to make photocopies and gather supplies. On the other hand, precisely because they don’t have to perform all these tasks or deal with so many youngsters, they have room to write, do research, think ideas through, and deliberate with others.

It’s reasonable to be suspicious of elites, especially when they talk about the need for better teachers. Their degree of material comfort, compared to that of teachers, staggers and addles the mind. Some of them may work hard—I have no doubt that Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada do—but they do not have to grade 200 homework assignments over a weekend. They don’t have to worry about where the chattering is coming from in a room, how to introduce students to Aristotle, or why a certain student isn’t handing in homework. Nor do they have to worry about being judged by students’ test scores—on tests that have little to do with their subjects. Working in the quiet of your office, or even giving talks around the country, carries nothing of this pressure or exhilaration. It has its own pressures and rewards. I am not diminishing the work of good education leaders—but put them in a classroom for a month, with all of the responsibilities, and many would find themselves overwhelmed.

On the other end of things, we have populism, which opposes elitism tooth and nail. Populism is essentially a belief in the virtue, authority, and wisdom of the people. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell characterize it as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Populists say (this is my paraphrase, not that of Albertazzi and McDonnell), “look at those people making all that money and enjoying all that power. What do they know about our concerns? Why should they be telling us what to do? Why aren’t we the ones setting policy?”

If you don’t sympathize at least a little with a populist outlook, then you are missing something. There’s every reason to be wary of the ultra-powerful, and to yearn for more popular influence over public affairs. But populism has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, it presumes to know who the people are and what they want; it assumes that they more or less agree, when in fact there may be deep divisions among them. Second, it values certain ideas because they (presumably) come from the people, not because they are good. Along these lines, it may dismiss good ideas merely because they appear to come from the elite. Third, it places high value on group thinking and majority rule; those who don’t fit in or who hold independent views are regarded with slight suspicion. (Granted, elite groups and policymaking bodies have plenty of their own groupthink; I highly recommend Irving L. Janis’s book on the subject.)

So, anti-populists, or skeptics of populism, champion independent thought and intellect; they remind us of the “tyranny of the majority.” They point out where popular and populist movements have gone wrong, how they have gotten swept up in an illusion of consensus and truth, when in reality they were deluded and divided. The anti-populists have a point, but they, too, can get carried away. They can distrust anything that looks like a popular movement, even if it’s well founded and badly needed.

How could we bring together the best of elitism and populism, so that we could evaluate ideas on their own merit, allow for individual voices and group efforts, and honor those who devote themselves to education, especially teachers? First, we would have to put an end to the education racket. In many circles, education reform has become lucrative, with consultants making more than a thousand dollars a day. This is obnoxious at best, crippling at worst. Second, when the New York Times and other publications have “panels” on education topics, they should not only include teachers in the discussion, but bring them to the forefront. Third, we should take ideas on their merits, instead of judging them by the speaker’s position and connections. Fourth, we should respect independent thought. No one should be spurned for differing from the group. We are more likely to respect and understand independent thought when we discuss something substantial—so let’s have more discussions of subject matter itself.

These are only preliminary thoughts; I intend to think and write more about this topic.


N0te: I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.

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  1. Both elitism and populism are extremely dangerous to education.

  1. When Education Discussion Gets Anti-Intellectual « Diana Senechal
  2. Elitism Versus Populism in Education | Rise Of Populism

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