I Sit And Look Out: Elitists do not have an exclusive hold on U.S. higher education

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Of all the things I have been called in a long and happy life, I never thought I might be numbered among the elite in this country. But, thanks to those folks making noise about the terrible people who live on the East and West coasts, I guess I may be on their list for disdain.

Now, let’s be clear: To those who believe in nullification — the doctrine which allows a state to flaunt the laws of the nation, and which was a foundation of those defending secession and slavery, which led to the Civil War — not everyone on at least one of the coasts is a horrible elitist. Of course, anything north of Washington, D.C., applies, especially if the elitist attended Harvard, Yale (like the two Bush presidents), Dartmouth, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, etc. And, just to be gender-neutral, the Seven Sisters fall into that category.

Poor me! I got my bachelor’s at City College and my law degree at Fordham, but I guess I qualify because I got a master’s at Columbia. But since Jesuits are regarded as bright, I suppose the Fordham connection makes me doubly elite.

Note, however, that south of Washington distinguished institutions such as William & Mary, the University of Virginia, Duke and Emory, among others, do not make the elitist list, perhaps because they are in areas which were part of the Confederacy. On the West Coast, all are doomed without exception.

Where did this war on education come from? It is not new, but it is certainly being voiced and reported on more and more.

Sarah Palin helped show the way to overcome a lack of education when she managed to get a bachelor’s degree after attending five colleges. Not exactly Phi Beta Kappa material, but give her credit. This Queen of the Mama Grizzlies and Princess of Banality sure knows how to pull in the bucks, given her sub-meritocracy intellect.

Glenn Beck, who I understand cries as easily as he lies, did not attend college but at some point signed up for a theology course at Yale, but dropped out. Comment is superfluous.

William Safire’s classic phrase about “the nattering nabobs of negativity” suits Palin, Beck, etc., to a tea. Pun intended.

Digression: Six of our current U.S. Supreme Court justices went to Harvard Law School; the other three are Yale Law School graduates. Three graduated from Princeton, two from Stanford and one each from Harvard, Cornell, Georgetown and Holy Cross. Liberal, conservative or in-between, they are all elitists.

At JHS 73 in Maspeth, I remember an art teacher drawing a large red arrow on a piece of paper and writing along side it, “Aim High!” That seemed to be the idea behind the education I received in the public schools and higher education. It was not considered elitist but the way education was meant to be: valued for what it could teach students about how to live in a democracy.

A living example of this kind of educator would be Deborah Kenny, who has created three successful charter schools in the city and is planning more. Children entering these schools had fallen behind in their studies elsewhere, but in the charter schools they have excelled. Kenny believes excellence is a goal for all students, as well as her own three children.

She said: “I had five core things in mind for my kids, and that’s what I want for our students. I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

Many of Kenny’s Harlem students will be going to some of the elite schools mentioned above. This Elmhurst kid says, “Hooray for them!” If that makes them elites, then they are blessed with that appellation.

It is depressing to note that the College Board put our nation in 12th place among 36 developed nations in college graduation rates. We are just above average in science, a bit above average in reading and way below average in math. If this is “American exceptiona­lism,” it is a sad commentary on America’s intellectual status in the world.

So, East and West coast elites, continue to aim high and maybe the know-nothings who demean us will get the word, too.

Updated 11:59 am, October 12, 2011
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