(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In a provocative article, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges warns that those people who have elite educations often make the biggest blunders because they have been trained to think highly of themselves, and thus become less reflective and more overconfident.
These institutions [i.e., elite prep schools and universities], no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools — to perpetuate their own.
Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.
These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.
Hedges is perhaps too pessimistic, sweeping, and apocalyptic. At least I hope so, as otherwise we are done for. There are genuinely clever people who go to these elite schools. They are not the problem. The problems are those who suffer from what William Deresiewicz, a professor of English at Yale, called ‘entitled mediocrity’. i.e., people who see themselves as smart merely because of their background and privileged opportunities and not out of any personal achievement. He takes elite universities to task for having lost sight of their mission and becoming instead essentially narrowly focused trade schools, although the trades students are being prepared for are the professions.
When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.
Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.
Among the elites there is also a clannishness, a willingness to shield their own from the barbarians at the gate, i.e. ordinary people. You can see it in the way that the Obama administration is seeking to avoid taking any action against those members of the Bush administration that have been involved in the most outrageous acts of criminality and violations of the constitution, such as torture, war crimes, warrantless wiretapping and the like. The Obama administration is trying to impose even greater secrecy than Bush did and fighting the efforts of those who want openness and investigations of wrongdoers. Such acts (lawlessness and the closing of ranks to cover them up) are the signs of an oligarchy.
It used to be the case that Americans would laugh at the ‘banana republics’ of South America as countries where ruling elites would violate laws with impunity, confident that even their supposed political opponents would protect them because of their common class interests. And yet, on April 7, Peru became the first country to convict a former democratically elected head of state for ordering killings and kidnappings by his security forces. Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
We could learn something from the so-called banana republics.
POST SCRIPT: Why I don’t watch TV news
It looks like TV news is as almost as pathetic in England as it is here.