November 28, 2008

Welcome American Elitists

Did you read Andy Borowitz's jokey little satire of Obama's "elitist" speaking style in The Huffington Post last week? I mean, yes, it was funny, but painfully true.

The economic crisis we're facing has gotten me thinking about Americans views of money and education. We are totally okay with our neighbor--our equal in every respect--making more money than we do. It's the American Dream, right? Given the right set of circumstances any of us can work hard, get lucky and do well for ourselves. That does not cause spiteful fits of jealousy in the populace--it's actually encouraged.

But if that same neighbor--again, our equal in other respects--is smarter than we are, things change. Americans, it seems to me, cannot stand the intellectual. Jealousy ensues. We start calling them uppity, out-of-touch, and elitist.

In high school, the stereotype goes, you can belong to certain pre-defined groups. The jocks and rich kids being the most popular. Creative types are iffy, but if it's popular music you play you might make it. But strive for academic achievement and treat your good grades as anything other than a gosh durn fluke, then you are, of course, a nerd.

Nerds may have gotten a slight bit of rise in social status, I think, due to the rising popularity and financial incentives of computers, but I could be wrong on this.

Yet there is no doubt that while people say they want their kids to get a good education a good job, they mean education as a means to an end--not something to flash around and enjoy for it's own sake. It's exactly the wrong take on things. I don't know what needs to be done to get us over this blinkered thinking, but we need to. I guess the first thing to do is continue educating ourselves and not feel weird about it.

The biologist PZ Myers recently spoke at a university symposium and had this to say: "And really, people, tune in to your local universities — these kinds of events are going on all the time, and they're often open to the public — you can get a marvelous education for free just by watching for the public seminars that university departments put on. We're the opposite of elitist, we welcome everyone who wants to learn."

Welcome! Join the elitist bastards!