Sitting in church today, as I wrote a draft of a recommendation letter for a former student, I couldn’t p but think about a simple, sad, and salient fact: “I am elitist.” It’s not a an adjective that I wear proudly. However, it is one that I have grappled with continuously from high school when I really and truly became aware of the issues of being elitist. While I have grown and changed over the course of the six-seven years since then, it is, perhaps, the biggest and longest lasting block to my “WOKE” journey. It is one that I continue to struggle with.
So what is elitism anyway? Well, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, for something or someone to be elitist they must: “believe that some things [usually of great societal importance] should be controlled or owned only by the richest or best educated people.” The same dictionary also extends the definition to include things that are limited only to those with who have “special interests or abilities”. Inherent to these definitions of elitist and elitism are the idea that those “worthy” are better than those who are not. The pure and total “us vs. them” dichotomy.
Currently, I am a pragmatic “elitist”. I do not believe that wealthy people are inherently better or should control the most important resources. I only somewhat believe that the “proven” or “most intelligent” or “educated” should control the most important resources. I do however, believe that until we can totally and fully re-create our society and separate equality and worth from education and employment, there are some people that are more worthy to rule or run things than others. Where I diverge even more from elitist is that I believe this “right to rule” or “right to control” is extremely situational. There are instances where a thirty year veteran of a company should “control” its direction, and there are others where innovative ideas and work ethic should be the determining factor. Even more beneficial would be, logically, that a diversity of talents, skill-sets, and experiences manage and run said company. However, I have not always had these viewpoints.
As a younger man, a boy if you will, I wanted heavily to believe in the power of intelligence and education to transform my realities. I am not, and was not, a “poor” person. Regardless of the fact that my mother teetered between the true middle class, the lower middle class, and the working class during my childhood, the cultural capital in my household was always middle class minded. We owned our home. We financed to own our vehicles. Education was the primary goal and focus. Very little money was spent on entertainment and extremities (this is where middle class mindset meets working class money). I was never a cool kid. I couldn’t dance. I wasn’t very athletic (I little leagued soccer and baseball but never really played or practiced in the offseason). As a result of these facts, I was often out of the social loop in school and in church. Especially in church. I modeled an elitist mindset where the less educationally focused youth at my church were less worthy than I because I cared about school AND I was good at it. These bitter feelings of being left out might’ve fully hardened if not for my ironically elite college education at PENN, which showed me that humanity and worth had nothing to do with academic and life success.
Now why do I still say that I am elitist when at best, I only accept elitism as a short-term stop gap? Simply because old habits die hard. Simply because when I consider the environment that so many people create for our students, I can’t help but believe that I, or someone with a similar mindset or focus, could make long-term change. Simply because as a defense mechanism I push students with “potential” much harder and much farther than I push those that seem more resigned to their fate. Is it because I feel like there is no helping them? There are definitely some who may think that is true. However, I feel that it is because I am pragmatic. Possibly to a fault.
As a teacher I have roughly 145 hours of instruction with my students in a 10 month school year. There are many philosophies about pushing and teaching to your students, but the one that has seemed to resonate the most in my short time at my school site is teaching to the upper middle. This has worked better because the “struggling” students still get an idea of what comes next, the “upper middle” students are sufficiently challenged, and the highest students aren’t totally disengaged; everyone has room to wiggle and maneuver. The downside of this is that there will be students that won’t wiggle for a number of reasons, and as an inexperienced teacher, differentiation is something that I am still learning and acquiring. I admit to being elitist because to a certain extent I am allowing new status quos to work. I am rewarding students that push and make the attempt and setting them up as those “worthy of my time and of my consideration”. I wish I didn’t, but because of where I am, I am stuck in this mire.
I’ll stop here. Though many of my soliloquys have been a little more focused than this one, I hope that it is clear that I am very conflicted about this. Expect this topic to come back up in the next few months and years as I continue to grow and learn and adjust. Have a great week and remember that the phrase ‘stay WOKE” is alluding to a process. It is a continuous journey and not a destination.