In Defense of Elitism

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William A. Henry III, who died in June at age 44, was TIME's theater critic, but he also wrote many stories about American society. In the weeks before his death he completed In Defense of Elitism, which has been published by Doubleday and will be available in stores at the end of this month. Henry decried the assault he perceived on the intellectual attributes he valued most: ``respect and even deference for leadership and position; esteem for accomplishment, especially when achieved through long labor and rigorous education; reverence for heritage, particularly history, philosophy and culture; commitment to rationalism and scientific investigation; upholding of objective standards; most important, the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another.'' Henry argued that in the struggle between elitism and egalitarianism, elitism, as represented by these qualities, was losing. The following excerpt is taken from the chapter of In Defense of Elitism that addressed the ways Henry believed overweening anti-elitism has debased higher education. While all the major social changes in postwar America reflect egalitarianism of some sort, no social evolution has been more willfully egalitarian than opening the academy. Half a century ago, a high school diploma was a significant credential, and college was a privilege for the few. Now high school graduation is virtually automatic for adolescents outside the ghettos and barrios, and college has become a normal way station in the average person's growing up. No longer a mark of distinction or proof of achievement, a college education is these days a mere rite of passage, a capstone to adolescent party time. Some 63% of all American high school graduates now go on to some form of further education, according to the Department of Commerce's Statistical Abstract of the United States, and the bulk of those continuing students attain at least an associate's degree. Nearly 30% of high school graduates ultimately receive a four-year baccalaureate degree. A quarter or so of the population may seem, to egalitarian eyes, a small and hence elitist slice. But by world standards this is inclusiveness at its most extreme -- and its most peculiarly American. For all the socialism of British or French public policy and for all the paternalism of the Japanese, those nations restrict university training to a much smaller percentage of their young, typically 10% to 15%. Moreover, they and other First World nations tend to carry the elitism over into judgments about precisely which institution one attends. They rank their universities, colleges and technical schools along a prestige hierarchy much more rigidly gradated -- and judged by standards much more widely accepted -- than we Americans ever impose on our jumble of public and private institutions. In the sharpest divergence from American values, these other countries tend to separate the college-bound from the quotidian masses in early adolescence, with scant hope for a second chance. For them, higher education is logically confined to those who displayed the most aptitude for lower education. The opening of the academy's doors has imposed great economic costs on the American people while delivering dubious benefits to many of the individuals supposedly being helped. The total bill for higher education is about $150 billion per year, with almost two-thirds of that spent by public institutions run with taxpayer funds. Private colleges and universities also spend the public's money. They get grants for research and the like, and they serve as a conduit for subsidized student loans -- many of which are never fully repaid. President Clinton refers to this sort of spending as an investment in human capital. If that is so, it seems reasonable to ask whether the investment pays a worthwhile rate of return. At its present size, the American style of mass higher education probably ought to be judged a...
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