Cultural Elitism

Michael Moore

Isn’t it interesting how those who rail against elitism are so often the very ones who identify themselves as elite? I think now of university professors at the self-fulfillingly-described ‘elite’ universities — Princeton, e.g., my own alma mater.

I preface my remarks by saying that I have distanced myself from Princeton. I loved the place when I was there, lo those many years ago. It was an innocent time when I arrived in 1959 at the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, with Jack Kennedy’s election looming in the fall of the next year. Eisenhower, the stalwart leader of the D-Day invasion, had gone forward to peacetime stewardship of a booming economy. All was rosy for the future. I was a starry-eyed youth eager to absorb knowledge from the great thinkers at this fine institution. To a man — all men in those days — the professors were humble people, grateful themselves for their opportunities in life.

The years came and went. Upon graduation and further education I participated fully in our so-called Schools Committee. We were the alumni who patrolled the cities, towns, villages, and countryside, to explain to young prospects for a Princeton education, and to their families, the joys and rigors of life in the bosom of the Academy. Those were wonderful times, given the chance to inspire, maybe in a small way, but a real way, the coming generation of scholars.

Fifteen years from graduation things changed. The university’s goal when I matriculated was to compose a class of well rounded persons, excellent in scholarship, but active in other ways, from community involvement, to the playing of a musical instrument, to the quiet contemplation of religious life. The new goal was to compose the well rounded class — a nerd here, a nerd there. You get the point. So out went the commonality of our experiences, and in came the jealous guarding of personal fiefdoms. The concept of, “I’m better than you, because I care,” began to prevail, and with it the stratification of the local society into the “leaders” and the “masses.” Of course, the leaders knew best, and the masses had better realize it.

Fast forward to today. Princeton has faculties in Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Third World Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and all the other Buzz Word Studies of the modern lexicon. Oh, though, it is ever so difficult to get into Princeton. One would think that with such paper thin curricula acceptance would be a walk-in. Well, no. Less than one in twenty applicants now is offered admission, wherein my day the ratio was an easy one in ten. Most of my classmates quip that with today’s standards none of us would get in. They are only half laughing.

The faculty describe themselves at pillars of an elite university. Well, maybe so. I worked hard for my degree in mathematics from what then — and now — is the world’s best department. I’m glad I wasn’t tempted to take something really hard, like Finance for Non-Governmental Organizations. But something is lost, too, the true feeling that we were privileged to receive such an education, absent the ungrateful demanding of our entitlements. Those of my time knew that we could be replaced in an instant by someone more eager, and equally talented. So we worked, and appreciated the opportunity.

Well, suffice it to say that I gave money to Princeton through 25 years, but not after, or ever again. I think now of our esteemed fellow Princetonian of the Class of 1917, F. Scott Fitzgerald. His Dick Diver in Tender is the Night had this to say: ”The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” Prophetic words.

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